How a local news site does community engagement

communities / Article


Charlottesville Tomorrow, a local news website in Virginia, is a Knight Community Information Challenge winner. Its project, supported by the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation, helped add a community engagement editor to its established news site. Here the editor, Jennifer Marley (pictured above), writes about the site's progress.

As a Community Engagement Coordinator for hyperlocal news platform Charlottesville Tomorrow, my job is to take the content that my team is producing and deliver it to our community in ways designed to encourage, well…engagement:  engagement with the content and, ultimately, engagement with each other.

To accomplish this, I use a variety of tactics:  I’m very active on social media; I work with leaders in the community to share our content with their groups when appropriate; we hold a range of in-person events; I occasionally even print teasers to our stories on door hangers and paper a neighborhood if we’re writing about a backyard issue.

And, I use surveys.

One of the first things I did when I began working at Charlottesville Tomorrow was to put together a survey to take the general temperature of our readers. As I was new to the position (and city!), I wanted to know:  who is reading us? How are they reading us? What is important to them? Are we sharing our content effectively? I used Survey Gizmo to put together an eleven-question survey and sent it out to our mailing list (which at the time was around 2,700 subscribers) and over our social media channels. I had about 475 responses, mostly from our mailing list, and I think that was due largely to the fact that I sent out a personal email introducing myself to our readers and asking them to take the survey as a favor. Never underestimate the power of the personal touch.

That first survey was in October of 2011, and in May of 2012, we did another. All the methods were the same (Survey Gizmo, email list, social media channels), but parts of this survey were designed to measure my progress. Some key takeaways:

·         The number of people reading our news on social media has increased an average of 4% across all channels since the last time we asked;

·         Our most effective method of reaching people with in-person events has been to send our executive director around as a speaker;

·         One of the goals with this survey was to quantify our impact. We learned that our readers feel we’ve impacted their news consumption (78%), conversations (51%), and civic engagement (31%) the most. We also sought reader testimonials, which we plan on using throughout our new website.

One aspect of these surveys that’s been very successful and interesting for us is asking softer questions. Because we are an organization interested in helping our readers identify what’s important to them about this community, and giving them the tools they need to protect whatever that is for them, we were very interested in their answers to questions like, “What makes the Charlottesville-Albemarle area unique & distinctive to you?” Not only do those responses help us when we are trying to decide what to cover, they also give us material to share over our social media channels. Sharing those messages gave our community some “feel good” content over which to bond, and gave us a way to thank and reward them for taking the survey.

Because of the surveys, we’ve changed the format of our newsletter, are upgrading our website to the Armstrong CMS to make content easier for our readers to find and we’re sharing more about the people behind Charlottesville Tomorrow over our social media channels. Our readers have rewarded us with increased engagement across all platforms. We plan to make surveys a regular part of our engagement strategy.

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