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Many ways to listen: Takeaways from my time at the JA

Denise Cheng at Brooklyn Bureau Launch Party

Denise (middle) with CUNY colleagues and other friends at a launch party for The Brooklyn Bureau. Photo by Adi Talwar; courtesy of City Limits

Last November, I moved from The Rapidian, where I served as citizen journalism coordinator, to become the research and outreach editor for the Journalism Accelerator. Months later, I’m shifting again, making a little more room on my plate to maximize another commitment: CUNY’s Tow-Knight Entrepreneurial Journalism Program.

I started with CUNY’s journalism incubator last month, seeking to develop a more sophisticated vocabulary and framework to think about the business of journalism. My “first family,” as JA founder Lisa Skube, likes to put it, is the Block by Block community. My greatest interests are in outlets that make a local impact and empower people by inviting public participation in media creation. One question dominating my mind is how to build a financial backbone so these outlets thrive and communities are well served.

I take my leave from the JA in hopes that I’ll begin to piece together that answer for myself through a semester at CUNY’s Journalism School.

Meanwhile, coming from an on-the-go outlet with scant staff resources (sound familiar? You must be with a hyperlocal!), I’ve added to my toolbox by being at the JA. I’d like to share two tidbits I’ve learned that may be helpful to anyone in publishing.

First, the power of documentation. As I prepared to leave The Rapidian, my foremost concern was passing on what I knew. I helped launch the site and was the only full-time staffer for two years, so I had an intimate understanding of our intricate community relationships. Before I left, I wanted to nail down all those details in a way that was navigable to others. I dug up as many mental notes as I could in just a few weeks, but it’s anyone’s guess what remains missing.

Coming to the JA was walking into a world of documentation. The project uses 37signals tools in conjunction with Google Docs. From my perspective as a community engagement junkie, the most valuable tool is Highrise, or more accurately, what Highrise represents: a customer relationship management database. There are many CRMs out there, including some that have redefined “CRM” to mean community relationship management. I doubt there’s a one-size-fits-all CRM, but at their core, CRMs are meant to track relationships and touch points made on behalf of an organization. There are lots of companies that offer CRM software and they cater to every industry. For example, if you work in the pharmaceutical industry, you should learn about Synergistix. CRM software can seriously change businesses for the better and they’re so important! The value is obvious for massive organizations, but I’ve realized that even for projects with limited staff, it’s very useful for passing on information and showing who has maintained a relationship. With relationship streams captured in Highrise, I feel assured community members will be well cared for.

Second, the many ways of listening. Here’s a dirty little secret: If you had asked me four months ago whether I believe in social media gurus, I would have put them in the same category as unicorns and griffins. I cut my social media teeth in Portland, where many self-proclaimed social media experts evangelized that the way to know your audience is to simply “listen and talk to them!” There were usually few instructions beyond staking out an Internet presence. This kind of ambiguity with the process of handling social media and online customer communications is probably why many businesses tend to look for reputation management companies. They can probably identify problem areas easily and provide solutions as well; otherwise, it’s often anybody’s guess as to what works and what doesn’t.

At the JA, I’ve seen what it means to really listen to an audience. It means sensing interest patterns. It means organizing those patterns into themes and filtering a wealth of information through that framework. Then it means tracking which themes keep their value. I’ve also seen that the measurement of audience engagement is not all in the familiar tracking of click-throughs.

In particular, I learned new ways to measure engagement by observing how people share across their own networks, such as Twitter. How many people favored a tweet? Did they add an RT (retweet) to note the original author? An MT (modified tweet) to honor the creator while tweaking the character count? A hat tip (h/t) to say thanks? Count up all those and you have a different picture of engagement. Twitter is just one example that shows it’s not the tools, but how you use them, that reveals audience interests and needs.

My last week at the JA included two days of forum frenzy and a reminder of what ignites me about the JA. It has been exciting to be a part of a project that connects bodies of expertise across the media landscape, with strong colleagues from whom I’ve learned so much. I’m looking forward to continue to be a part of and contribute to the JA community.