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Reports & Briefs

Tow/Knight Projects

Curious Communities: Online Engagement Meets Face-to-Face Outreach

Project Leader:



In the aftermath of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, numerous analysts have criticized the polarized nature of media and its failure to include perspectives that reflect the ideological and demographic diversity of the country. Many have argued that media must do more to listen to multiple publics.

Curious City, a radio series based at WBEZ Chicago Public Media, has been trying to do just that. Since its inception in 2012, it’s produced traffic-generating stories developed from questions nominated by listeners. However, question-askers tended to come from areas of metro Chicago that were public radio strongholds. Seeking to expand its question base, Curious City undertook an outreach project in 2016 focusing on underrepresented areas of the city—primarily African-American and Latino neighborhoods on the South and West Sides of the city, as well as some predominantly white suburbs. Using a combination of face-to-face outreach, outreach via community partners, and social media marketing, the team attempted to determine the best method for generating “novel” questions from target areas during this experimental period.

This report asks what we can learn from Curious City’s digital and offline strategies to expand the demographics of people whom media is listening to. It draws from my observations of the program’s outreach process and twenty-five interviews with journalists, participating audience members, residents of targeted outreach areas, and partner organizations. It also offers an opportunity to reflect on journalistic norms and approaches to participatory media, how community stakeholders interact with local news, and relations between public media and marginalized publics.

The first section offers an overview of the Curious City model—which uses Hearken, a digital engagement platform now being employed by more than seventy newsrooms in the United States and internationally. It looks at how this approach fits within contemporary audience engagement approaches. The second section outlines Curious City’s outreach project, the strategies employed, and WBEZ’s reflections on the series’ efficacy: not only the number of questions generated, but also the type of questions, and the pros and cons of various approaches. Staff members also reflected on negotiating expectations and power dynamics as they entered communities where they were often perceived to be outsiders.

Section three explores how the project did and did not challenge traditional journalistic norms regarding audience engagement. It examines how the public was or was not involved in the process of producing stories—from the selection of stories, to reporting them, to soliciting feedback following their broadcast. The fourth section examines the extent to which Curious City’s outreach initiative affected relationships between local stakeholders. In particular, it looks at the idea of a community “storytelling network” that connects media, community organizations and institutions, and residents.

Through its outreach project, Curious City has made headway as an engagement tool through many, if not all, phases of story production. Ultimately, for media outlets to make a more effective contribution to democratic dialogue in the United States, engagement projects must explore pathways that help them listen to audiences, integrate input into reporting, and offer shared spaces for community members to discuss with each other. While the project focused on demographic and geographic inclusivity more than political ideology, lessons learned regarding engagement could inform a range of projects pursuing more inclusive media. This report offers analysis of the project’s successes and limitations, in the hopes of providing suggestions for how to expand audience engagement beyond the publication or broadcast of stories for all journalists.

Key Findings

  1. Curious City found, as expected, that expanding the base of residents from which it sourced increased the variety of ideas and questions generated. While outreach to residents who were not familiar with WBEZ required a greater investment of time, the ideas these efforts yielded deviated from typical or expected ones and produced more novel questions. In addition, questions from previously underrepresented communities generated accountability stories (e.g., focusing on inequitable distribution of resources, local governance, etc.) grounded in local experiences.
  2. Engagement efforts were most effective when online technologies were combined with face-to-face outreach. These were most efficient when Curious City partnered with local institutions with aligned missions.
  3. The Curious City model and outreach efforts challenged standard journalistic practices around story selection by broadening the pool of possible story ideas. The resulting stories would have had difficulty making it through the normal editorial process (due to, for example, a lack of a time-sensitive news peg) had they not been nominated by a listener.
  4. The Hearken platform is designed to strengthen links between media and the public. But in the case of Curious City, the platform was mostly used to engage the public in story selection and production—and less so for distribution and feedback due to a lack of in-community marketing.
  5. Curious City’s outreach initiative also offered the possibility of strengthening storytelling network ties between regional media, hyper-local and ethnic media, and community organizations. Some connections were made that offer potential for future development. However, due to mission and resource priorities, these links were not prioritized as a goal in themselves.


News media organizations interested in strengthening their relationships with their audiences and communities through digital engagement technologies such as Hearken should do so in combination with offline, face-to-face outreach. Targeted offline interactions and events offer opportunities to connect with residents who may be unaware of the outlet or unfamiliar with how or why to engage. Outreach initiatives can incorporate in-community marketing to build upon connections made by face-to-face interactions. Even low-tech, low-budget strategies such as basic flyers, street signs, hosting, and/or advertising follow-up community events, etc., may be useful to build ties with residents. Media organizations should explore collaborations with community partners to conduct outreach. Community stakeholders with aligned missions such as public libraries may make especially strong partners. These partnerships may be strengthened and made more sustainable by ensuring that all sides of the partnership benefit. For example, libraries may find value in connecting audience questions to available books, classes offered, or follow-up community events held on site. Regional media outlets should explore partnerships with hyper-local and ethnic media outlets to further the reach of engagement initiatives by exchanging content and/or cross-promoting initiatives and events. Such relationships can be mutually beneficial, as well as strengthen the local media ecosystem and storytelling network.

Read the full report here

May 25, 2017