Reese News Lab initiative brings audience-driven news to Chatham County

How do you know what your audience wants?

You ask them.

Online, at community meetings or in the middle of a farmers’ market with a clipboard in your hand—that’s where Alexis Allston stood last summer in Chatham County, as she helped Reese News Lab launch an innovative audience-driven news product serving the rural county booming with population growth just west of Chapel Hill.

The venture, called Our Chatham—which now includes a student-staffed newsletter and website—reflects a growing media trend around the country, a laser focus on audience that often flips the traditional editorial model on its head.

Allston and her colleagues don’t tell Chatham County residents what they want to hear—they ask them and then create in-depth stories on the topics that concern their readers. In Chatham County, the issues have ranged from worries about deforestation to the urgency surrounding a Confederate monument that stands outside the entrance to the county’s historic courthouse.

Hussman School professor and former Reese News Lab director Ryan Thornburg spearheaded the creation of Our Chatham, which is currently staffed by four student reporters. Hussman School lecturer Eric Ferkenhoff now leads the project as editor.

Readers vote on the Our Chatham website for stories they’d like investigated or directly email the staff with ideas. Our Chatham also produces staff-generated enterprise stories.

“For a long time, newsrooms have been focusing on this one-way form of communication. In the digital age you have to tell people why they should choose you,” said Allston, who’s served as Our Chatham’s audience engagement specialist and recently helped organize a community gathering on economic disparity that drew more than 100 Our Chatham readers.

The Chatham News + Record partnered with Our Chatham for the event, which took place May 15 in Pittsboro. The News + Record also runs Our Chatham stories, which the newspaper’s editor Bill Horner sees as a chance to give back to student journalists. “You learn a lot in school, but experience is an even better teacher,” Horner said.

The Our Chatham venture has taught Allston, a self-described “people person,” that audience engagement suits her outgoing nature. And she’ll work in the same role in an internship with The Texas Tribune this summer.  However, the field of audience engagement wasn’t even a blip on her radar when she first entered the Hussman School on a reporting track.

That’s not surprising. Even the term “audience engagement” is relatively new, said Bridget Thoreson, who serves as an engagement strategist for Hearken, a consulting group that helps media organizations create more digital-friendly practices. Our Chatham’s work is based on Hearken’s audience-engagement model and the project utilized Thoreson as a mentor.

In the last five years, targeting and engaging media consumers has become an imperative for media organizations in an information landscape with countless sources of content just a click away. Creative audience engagement practices aren’t just trendy, they increasingly mean survival for media organizations, Thoreson said.

Thoreson pointed to a number of media organizations, large and small, doing audience engagement well around the country: Chicago-based City Bureau (with its focus on public newsrooms and civic reporting programs), ProPublica (an organization Thoreson notes does a good job showing reader contributions in their investigative work), and Ohio’s Richland Source (Thoreson applauds the media organization’s innovative community baby showers used to highlight issues around infant and maternal health).

Before coming to academia, Our Chatham editor Ferkenhoff worked for years in legacy media organizations such as the Chicago Tribune, The Boston Globe and The New York Times. He appreciates the emerging trend in targeted audience engagement.

“This is really engaging the community. We know right out of the gate that we are delivering news that matters,” Ferkenhoff said. “I think the old editorial model is dated.”

With an ever-growing list of 50 story ideas generated by readers, Our Chatham has already tackled serious issues in Chatham County such as high school homelessnessinternet access and the forced relocation of a mobile home park’s tenants. Our Chatham newsletters regularly hit an open rate of 60 percent.

This summer, the goal is to keep up the good work, as well as focus on working towards making Our Chatham a self-sustaining nonprofit, Ferkenhoff said.

“It’s a booming audience out there and it’s a great laboratory for students to learn about this type of editorial model,” Ferkenhoff said. “For the community, the project gives them a chance to be heard, as well as answered.”

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