When it comes to journalism and engagement, the dirty word is…

Michael Caputo
Engagement Manager - Public Insight Network
American Public Media

WDET screenshot engagementWhen a newsroom decides it wants real engagement with the audience, the next question is: “How do we make it happen?”

The answer can be boiled down to one word: Campaign.

That word makes most reporters/editors squirm, as thoughts of marketing (an advertising campaign) or partisan politics (the campaign to elect X) come to mind.

But nothing captures better what a newsroom needs to do. Most people still see news organizations as deliverers of information, not receivers. So asking listeners/viewers/readers to share information can take some doing. The audience needs to get that you really want to hear from them and you intend to do something with what they provide. And it takes some effort to get the message across.

In other words, you need a bit of a campaign.


Rob St. Mary, WDETPublic broadcasters who work in fundraising and development are used to the idea of a campaign as they try to convince passive listeners to actively donate. Rob St. Mary, public insight analyst at WDET, says some of that approach applies when asking people to donate not their financial but intellectual capital for reporting.

St. Mary’s station has worked with the Public Insight Network since 2009. What he aims for, he says, is engagement at a high level: You are looking for someone to share direct knowledge and experiences on a topic through a survey form. But not everyone will be into it.

So St. Mary has experimented with a couple of techniques to ease people into sharing with WDET.

At the end of 2011, St. Mary and the WDET staff posted a simple survey on their website, using Survey Monkey (a free service). The survey asked about a hot-button topic – whether people who want to redevelop Detroit should have to put their money where their mouth is and move to the city. The survey got some 2,300 responses. It also gathered about 600 email addresses. St. Mary then emailed those 600 people, asking them to join the Public Insight Network. That netted some new sources.

wdet question of the day website screenshotIn February, St. Mary began asking online questions to the audience every day. Modeled after MPR’s “Today’s Question”project, WDET’s Question of the Day asks people to weigh in on whatever is in the “zeitgeist.” The question is promoted on-air and drives people to the WDET website. The theory behind what they do is that if you can get listeners to share something with WDET online — even if it is just an opinion on a topical question of the day — then you can offer them a way to share even more with WDET reporters.  In this case they did this with an embedded form inviting them to join the Public Insight Network.

Looked at another way, St. Mary sees the simple survey and the Question of the Day as levels of giving, similar to the tiers of dollar amounts suggested to potential public radio or television donors. Using Survey Monkey is analogous to giving whatever you can afford, while the Question of the Day is a higher dollar level. PIN, to follow the analogy, would be like being a sustainer.

“If you get people to give us comments on Question (of the Day) they are in the mind to talk to us,” St. Mary said. “You only have to push them a little bit more to engage with us more. It’s about building an attitude.”

The campaign has had an effect on new sources engaging at that highest (Public Insight) level. New sources to WDET were coming in at about 20-30 a month at the end of 2011, and are now up to about 60 a month during 2012. 

But a caution: The fundraising analogy doesn’t hold up as well when newsrooms want to connect with people outside of their core audience. St. Mary says that he fears creating an “echo chamber” network by appealing only to people who are tuned into WDET. So he continues to hit the road, hold community meetings, and reach out to constituencies that aren’t typical public radio listeners — like conservative Republicans. These are campaigns too — they just require more creativity and persistence.

I go into a bit of detail about doing this kind of outreach campaign with those who are in the core audience and those who aren’t. All of this activity is part of source-building in a networked age. Don’t be afraid to begin this process – or to call it a campaign for sources.


Michael Caputo Engagement Manager - Public Insight Network
American Public Media
A belief that journalism could better connect with those who need the information led Mike to the Public Insight Network in 2006. He served as a PIN journalist for the Minnesota Public Radio newsroom, then he coached and counseled newsrooms around the country on the PIN tools and the PIN approach.

Now as engagement manager, he focuses on the sources in PIN by designing strategies to grow the network, directing engagement with sources and assessing the source experience. He specializes in planning and convening forums that serve journalism, from roundtable discussions to events that can fill a hall.