Three years ago I moved to New Orleans because of a question. I was sitting having a beer with a local news director who had just been tasked with creating a new news department, but didn’t have funding for any staff. “How do you cover a city without any reporters?” she asked. It was an interesting question to say the least, so I moved south from New York to find out what the answer might be.
I’ve spent the last three years developing the Listening Post, a project that creates an expansive conversation around New Orleans about what’s happening in the city, and how that news impacts citizens. The project focuses on marginalized communities that are often spoken for by the media, without an opportunity to represent themselves. I began building participation in the project by sharing an information needs assessment, a survey that asks people how they get and pass information, what they’d like to know more about, and how best to reach them on a regular basis.
The core tenant of the Listening Post is planting questions in communities and encouraging citizens to share their experiences with a variety of issues, such as health, education, jobs, safety, policy, culture, environment, women, children. The roots of this idea are in something called international media development. I spent a few years working with an International NGO, Internews, going to places like Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Tunisia and helping community media better reach populations impacted by war and natural disaster, and share basic information about how to stay safe and rebuild lives.
With my international work in mind, I began experimenting with a variety of methods to build participation here in my own country, in New Orleans. Partnering with a public radio station, my initial thought was to capture voices, so I set up stand-alone recording devices in places where people naturally congregate: libraries, grocery stores, community centers. And people were definitely willing to record. But I also wanted to catch the lightning in a bottle that is—at least for now—a cell phone, and see if I could get people to use that ubiquitous device to share what’s happening everyday in this city. That’s where the signs came in.
About a year ago I put up 100 signs around the city, actually planting questions on street corners and main thoroughfares, embedded deep in neighborhoods. Some were more pointed than others, but the idea was to get people to participate in a conversation. And, well, people jumped in. “What’s Missing In New Orleans?” I asked through my sign. And, much to my delight, people responded:
You wanna know what’s missing in New Orleans? a lot. We need better schools that actually TEACH children, crimes off the streets, better systems, homeless people off that street also!
There’s many old houses you guys could fix up and give them to the homeless.
Most parts of the roads
A mayor for the citizens, not his political legacy.
Trader joes! also we need recycling receptacles at the festivals for plastic metal and glass, and compost.
I use a text messaging platform called GroundSource that enables me to get a phone number out into the community, and then when people text in, I can see the results and respond back with an explanation of the project. Then, if people want to stay connected to the Listening Post, they get bi-weekly news surveys from me on their phones, which include a news headline and a series of three questions based on that topic. Sometimes they jump in, sometimes they don’t, but at this point, around 1,500 folks all over the city hear from me on a regular basis.
What I’ve learned in my attempt to engage a city’s residents on important issues is that it’s all in the question. I spend hours trying to decide how to ask a question in a way that will maximize participation, but also get me the most deep and specific answers. I want to set up my audience to succeed, and not feel defeated or excluded by the question itself.
For instance, I wanted to explore a growing cloud of gentrification that’s hovering over New Orleans. But simply asking, “How do you feel about gentrification?” is too loaded and exclusive—not everybody has a sense of what gentrification means, and those that do often have differing definitions. I decided to explore this question through the lens of dollar stores, which seemed to be multiplying in the areas where long time resident were moving after being priced out of their traditional neighborhoods. It turns out there’s an algorithm for developers deciding where to put a dollar store. It doesn’t mean your neighborhood is becoming lower income, it means developers decided it already did. So I asked people, “How many dollar stores are in walking distance of your house?” Then I asked people how they use those stores, because dollar stores often become the defacto grocery store in neighborhoods isolated by poverty. Here are a few responses people texted in:
7 dollar stores. Maybe 2-5 times a week. Groceries mostly and paper products sometimes. There isn’t many big grocery stores in my area of St. Bernard parish.
Two I shop there at least three times a month. Household products and food items.
5 and counting dollar stores. I shop there about once a month. I usually buy greeting cards. 🙂
Another recent query was about affordable housing, an issue that is front and center in New Orleans as long time residents struggle to deal with rising costs in traditional neighborhoods. 1,200 participants got a text message asking what they pay for rent or mortgage and what percentage of their monthly income this amount represents—a crucial indicator of housing affordability. Around 100 people shared anecdotes about their housing from every area in the city, even neighborhoods I’d never heard of. I also asked people what they’d miss if they got priced out of their neighborhoods and had to move.
I cannot afford to move. I’m terrified to even look as I will be 35 and needing to find roommates. I don’t complain about any repairs to my apartment for fear that the landlord will raise the rent. I feel fairly safe here and love my neighborhood. I have no doubt I will be chased out soon due to soaring rents and Airbnb
I know all the resident homeowners on the block (half the occupants of our block). There is a sense of security and community. My neighbors made breakfast for the whole block after Katrina.
Her husband told me to get the refrigerator out, first. They put a watch dog in our yard, when we are away. Her sons get my tree out of the attic at Christmas. The guy in the corner checked out my car. I want my kid to have that extended family experience.
I’d miss being in a home not an apartment. I’ve never lived in a home before.
I’ve never lived in community with friendly neighbors like this one.
I spend more than half of my time on this project trying to craft queries that will get me information and anecdotes from a wide range of people—highly educated or not—smart phones or flip phones, overworked or unemployed, and everyone in between.
The volume of production—rather than quality—seems to be the focus of most media these days as they measure their value and audiences in clicks and tweets. Clicks might build a buzz about something, but the trust that comes from that can be very fleeting. And given production expectations in newsrooms, reporters often struggle to get out of the office to cover news in person because of the number of stories they need to post online to meet their daily quotas. Everybody suffers in those scenarios. Reporters don’t get great stories, communities don’t get covered in depth, and the important journalism relationships maintained by face-to-face interaction with citizens don’t happen as much.
While I certainly wouldn’t mind if 100,000 New Orleanians texted answers to Listening Post questions, volume is not my primary measure of success. I’m focused on making sure people see the question and feel invited to be heard. I believe that’s how to develop a longstanding trust with an audience. Even if ultimately they don’t respond to me with a text, they were included just by being asked. That’s a powerful act.
I’ve learned a lot from the insightful and often very personal anecdotes people share as they contemplate my questions about issues in New Orleans. But it’s important to remember that media engagement doesn’t always begin from a place of deep connection with the news. For example, I received the following text response to a message I sent out regarding the city budget:
The first time I sent a text to this, I saw a sign that asked, “who do you love.” I was newly in love so I said, Mary. This was about 2 years ago. She dumped me last night. And now I’m falling apart.
There was something bigger going on in this person’s life than the city budget, and they felt connected enough to the Listening Post to share it. I replied with some advice (“exercise, family, and Prince albums”). But looking at this respondent’s participation profile from the past year, I saw responses to questions about a public library tax, public transportation, and affordable housing. This person had joined in the discussion because they saw a sign with a question—“Who do you love?”—that then led them to information and news surveys that they engaged with. As somebody who works in media, it makes me sleep better at night knowing that I met people in their spaces, on their street corners, on their phones, and started a two-way conversation that hopefully will last a long time.
 All responses reproduced verbatim from text messages I received.
JESSE HARDMAN is a public radio reporter, writer, media developer, videographer, and journalism educator. He’s the creator of the Listening Post, an innovative community engagement project based in New Orleans that’s inspired similar programs around the US. He’s been a regular contributor to NPR, Le Monde Diplomatique, Al Jazeera and other outlets. @jesseahardman