The Takeaway seeks to engage diverse communities via texting: Part 1

Michael Skoler
Michael Skoler, 2009-2010 Reynolds Fellow

This week, The Takeaway takes to the streets of Miami in the latest of its experiments to partner with communities in gathering news and uncovering stories that deserve attention. The Takeaway is a new morning news show produced by Public Radio International (PRI) and WNYC Radio. Initial audience data shows its conversational format and editorial openness is attracting a more diverse audience than the public radio stalwart Morning Edition in cities like New York, Baltimore and Atlanta. Part of its mission is to engage people from diverse communities.

Those in community news are rightly skeptical of national news organizations that parachute in and expect real engagement. Few know that better than Michael Skoler, who founded the Public Insight Journalism model that a dozen local newsrooms are using to create long-term relationships with citizen sources. Skoler now heads engagement for PRI, co-producer of The Takeaway, and offered to report on the Miami experiment this week. In today’s post, he describes a similar experiment a few months ago in Detroit and the challenges of citizen engagement.

By Michael Skoler

At 8 a.m. on April 29, six teams gathered at Wayne State University’s TechTown in Detroit. Their mission: to design six projects in the next thre hours that would lower a barrier. They aimed to inspire people living in southwest Detroit, in a neighborhood known as Mexicantown, to work with reporters they didn’t know on stories that mattered to their community.

Their tool: software from Mobile Commons that could quickly set up a messaging service to recognize, organize and respond to information sent as text messages from cell phones. Cell phones and texting are common in communities of color and an easy way for people and reporters to share information. And because texting is essentially giving out your phone number, it creates a relationship and establishes trust.

Around the room sat local reporters from WDET public radio, national journalists, community members and techies. By the end of the day, they were expected to have chosen and executed a project in Mexicantown. The one-day deadline was to push everyone to think creatively, act quickly and get beyond the normal habits that allow barriers between people and journalists to persist.

Though the timeline was short, the project had been nearly two years in the making, and it was centered around a morning news show on public radio that itself aimed to break a barrier. Public radio has long known that its audience is mainly older and overwhelmingly white. PRI and WNYC Radio launched The Takeaway as a national news show that would attract a diverse audience. It would be conversational, feature a wide range of voices, and assist local stations in reaching into their own communities.

With support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, The Takeaway had already worked with stations to hold community gatherings in Baltimore, Atlanta, New York City, Boston and, just a few days earlier, in Detroit. Thanks to a grant from the Knight Foundation to fund the experiments and an agreement between PRI and Mobile Commons, a new element was now being added – text messaging as a way to keep the lines of communication open between reporters and residents. Smart phones and dumb phones can all send text messages, and eMarketer estimates that three-quarters of those in the US now have cell phones.

Before the April brainstorming, two reporters from the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships program at Stanford and one from WDET had visited Mexicantown to meet and profile some of its residents. The journalists briefed the group on the community.

By 11 am, the teams had settled on their projects. One plan was to ask residents to text words that described their neighborhood, as a way to find images and issues that were important. Those who responded were invited for coffee at a café to talk with the team. Another plan asked people to text “home” or “casa” – the word chosen determined the language of text messages in response – and then to nominate the nicest homes and yards in the neighborhood in conjunction with a community beautification day.

One team found an issue that was important to Mexicantown residents and not on the radar of local media. It involved potentially illegal truck driving on residential streets in the neighborhood. Semi-trailers were taking a shortcut to a highway and people hated the diesel exhaust, the traffic that beat up their roads, and health problems like asthma that they linked to the pollution.

That team, along with the others, moved into execution by late morning. The group printed flyers in English and Spanish asking people to text the word “truck” to 69866 when they spotted a semi-trailer in the neighborhood. The team set up the Mobile Commons system to respond to messages, asking people to report their location and the truck’s license plate number. The system organized the data to feed into a Google map. WDET set up a web page for the project and offered to provide people with updates on the results.

That afternoon, the team spread out through Mexicantown talking with people, posting and distributing the flyers, and even asking a minister to spread the word to his congregation. By day’s end, text messages with “truck” had started coming in. And the barrier between journalists and residents, at least in this experiment, was breached.

After that day, WDET worked with residents to report the story and plans to air a week-long series about the illegal trucking in July. The Takeaway will carry parts of the series, delivering on its goal of raising issues from communities that rarely have a voice in national media.

One of the partners in the texting project is American Public Media, whose Public Insight Journalism system will help WDET staff maintain and extend its relationships with those in Mexicantown and other diverse communities.

There are three main challenges in this and other experiments aimed at making journalism a true partnership with the public. The first is creating long-term relationships. Parachuting into a community, especially during a crisis, does not make for honest coverage or collaboration. One-off reporting projects often leave people feeling like their stories are token examples of diversity and leave them feeling just as voiceless as before. True relationships, and trust, are cultivated and maintained over time.

Second, relationships must be equal. They are not spigots that are only turned on when journalists need stories. The very culture of a newsroom must change from “we are the experts, the deciders of what is news, and you are the audience that we must inform.” Certainly journalists are professionals with crucial skills from verifying facts to vetting sources and crafting powerful stories. Yet journalists must first and foremost be listeners who recognize that the audience is often better informed and better knows what it needs.

Finally, with the multitude of experiments going on and “citizen engagement” fast becoming a trend, we need to make sure that we learn from all this effort. It’s not enough to pat ourselves on the back for engaging the public. We need to study, learn and grow our skills so that engagement defines a new model of journalism — a journalism of partnership.

On Tuesday, The Takeaway’s next Knight-funded experiment in texting begins with five teams fanning out in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood. The local journalists involved will be from WLRN public radio and the Miami Herald.

The approach will be a bit different. The teams will spend most of the day in the community, talking and watching and learning about the issues and needs of this Haitian neighborhood. They’ll work to understand how life has been affected by the earthquake almost six months ago in Haiti. Then they’ll design projects to partner with the community and offer their ideas at a public gathering the next day. I’ll let you know how the experiment works in another post on Thursday.

Related links:

Sourcing Through Texting Project

The future of journalism on the streets of Detroit

Michael Skoler is vice president of interactive media for Public Radio International and a 2009-10 Reynolds Fellow at the Missouri School of Journalism. Follow him @mskoler or email him at

This is a cross-post with Knight Digital Media Center’s News Leadership 3.0 blog.


Comments are closed.