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Curious Communities: An online engagement platform meets face-to-face outreach

“Would you like to be on the radio?” The outreach producer for WBEZ’s Curious City project approaches residents with variations of this question as I shadow him in a park on Chicago’s South Side. He is not here to record a vox pop or to get person-on-the-street reactions to the latest news. Instead he is inviting people to share questions they want answered about any aspect of life in the Chicago region.

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Since 2012, the Curious City project has been inviting Chicago public radio listeners to go online and nominate and vote on questions that they want a reporter to explore. A mix of staff and freelance reporters produce radio features about the questions that are selected, sometimes involving the question-askers in the storytelling process. The project was founded by Jennifer Brandel, who went on to set up Hearken, a digital platform that allows media outlets to adapt their own interactive engagement projects—and is now used by 44 state and regional broadcasters across the U.S.

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Using Hearken, Curious City has produced a number of traffic-generating stories for WBEZ—exploring heavy topics like what happened to the people displaced by the construction of a major expressway, as well as lighter fare like the origins of the Chicago accent. Question-askers, though, have tended to come from areas of metro Chicago that are public radio strongholds. Seeking to expand their reach, the team is undertaking a foundation-supported initiative to engage potential audiences from areas of the city where questions have not been coming—primarily African American and Latino neighborhoods, as well as some predominantly white suburbs. The team openly acknowledges that their efforts are experimental. They are trying out a range of offline approaches—direct outreach versus outreach mediated by community institutions. They’re even seeing if it makes a difference whether the producer soliciting questions uses a microphone and recorder or pen and paper. In the end they will compare and see which tactics prove most successful at generating “novel” questions.

For the next several months, I will be following this project, with the support of the Tow Center, to explore whether this initiative has an effect on the local news communication infrastructure, and what the initiative suggests about journalistic norms regarding collaboration with audiences. I will interview journalists, editors, question-askers, community stakeholders, and residents of areas targeted by the outreach campaign.

Initial field outings have taken us to places like Jesse Owens Park in the South Side’s Pill Hill neighborhood, where we met a woman getting a golf lesson. When invited to share a question, she responded with a series of thoughtful queries about the distribution of resources between Chicago’s North and South sides. But afterwards she acknowledged she had been surprised to see us. “Quite honestly, I was like, ‘Why are these white people over here?’” she laughed. While she had never heard of the Curious City project, she liked the idea of journalists physically venturing out to get the perspectives of residents, and genuinely learning about her community. She complained that media representations of Chicago’s South Side tended to paint a monolithic picture of violence, when the reality was a tapestry of very different neighborhoods.

Sentiments like hers echo perspectives documented by a prior Tow Center study on community-based solutions journalism that myself and colleagues from the Metamorphosis research group conducted in South Los Angeles last year. Focus group participants told us they were frustrated with how media coverage stigmatized their neighborhoods. They suggested they largely welcomed reporting that took a more problem-solving approach to exploring community challenges, and that more could be done to engage residents in the process. The study called for foundations and media outlets to do more to support the process of listening to communities.

Curious City’s initiative seems to be combining Hearken’s digital platform with old-school pavement pounding outreach. So far, following their efforts is raising numerous questions about journalistic approaches to participatory media, and relations between public media and marginalized publics. What makes a good question and what happens when the burning thought on a resident’s mind is of greater concern than a question? How do producers and reporters navigate power dynamics and differences of race and class when they are often coming into a community as an outsider? How can the question-asking process be something of value not only for the primary media outlet, but also for community institutions and hyperlocal and ethnic media?

The project also offers an opportunity to examine a media-driven effort to strengthen what communication infrastructure theory (CIT) calls the local “storytelling network.” CIT researchers have previously found that communities are more cohesive when they have stronger links between residents, local media, and community organizations—and all of these actors share an understanding of what is happening in the community. Residents who connect to strong storytelling networks tend to have higher levels of civic engagement and self-efficacy. By reaching out to residents and community groups, WBEZ may be altering the storytelling network. However, there are likely to be barriers of professional culture and language that result in mutual skepticism and incomplete communication.

In a future blog, I will report back how Curious City assesses its online and offline attempts to connect with new communities of Chicago metro residents, what those residents are curious about, and how they would like media to engage with their communities.