As a journalist in Sri Lanka, Jesse Hardman worked with a media platform that heavily relied on texting. Subscribers received updates on everything from cricket scores to nearby explosions, all through their phones.
When he moved to New Orleans, Hardman wanted to develop this idea even further. The Listening Post, born two years ago, is the result. The public media project makes individuals’ personal phones into both a community news resource and a tool to ask their opinions on matters large and small, serious and silly.
“I had been looking at how you expand the conversation to communities that might not be getting information to participate in life in the city,” Hardman told IJNet. “Cellphones are ubiquitous, even moreso than someone using a laptop, and it seemed like an underutilized way to share information and find out what’s important to them.”
Key to achieving this mission has been one tool in particular: GroundSource. Instead of just blasting out texts, GroundSource is a two-way mobile messaging system that’s increasingly used by journalistic organizations to engage with audiences. Started by Public Insight Network co-founder Andrew Haeg, GroundSource’s partners include The Center for Collaborative Journalism and Kenya’s Radio Namlolwe.
Hardman had previously met Haeg while both were fellows at Stanford University. Around the time GroundSource debuted, he was launching in New Orleans. For The Listening Post’s first few months, Hardman canvassed the city, hitting up neighborhood meetings and midnight basketball games the old-fashioned way — with clipboards and handouts asking residents what they cared about, how best to reach them and what kinds of devices they owned. It was a way of starting a continuing conversation between a media agency and its audience.
“The last question we asked — as we realized that we might want to use GroundSource — was for people to provide their phone numbers,” he said. “This was in the middle of the Edward Snowden NSA scandal, yet 70 percent shared their numbers. That became my first group of sources.”
From there, The Listening Post was given a dedicated GroundSource number. Members of the public merely had to text “hello” to that number to become part of its phone subscriber base. Currently, some 1,500 people receive regular texts, which include news items as well as questions.
One week, a question will dive into a meaty topic like incarceration, asking people’s opinions on what prisons actually achieve.
Another week, the question will be more personal, seeking to know, in a city brimming with transplants, why they specifically moved to The Big Easy. With Jazz Fest coming up, Hardman said he plans to ask users what music they remember playing in their house when they grew up, as well as what song they’d select to represent them.
“It’s an interesting way to reach out to a wide swath of the city in one fell swoop,” he said.
The replies are used in a few ways — as kernels Hardman will weave into online content, and as examples of the city’s pulse he’ll read aloud on the radio. Eventually, he aims to bring those responses to someone who can do something, whether that’s the mayor or a nonprofit.
“Hopefully that would complete the cycle of ‘I was engaged, I participated, there was a response,’” he said.
During a given week, a 5 percent response rate would be considered good. Yet even a handful of insightful answers is a win.
“Someone took the time to share that,” Hardman said. Plus, the question comes paired with short news items. “Even if they don’t want to answer that time, they can learn something. You can get a headline, or you know one more thing going on in that community.”
Compared to simply posting these questions on a Web site or on social media, The Listening Post — with GroundSource’s help — is able to have a regular give-and-take with citizens, many of whom wouldn’t otherwise engage with media or politicians. Perhaps most exciting to him is the variety of people who reply; it’s not as if the same five people chime in each week. In that way, he’s closer to being able to say that The Listening Post represents “what the city sounds like or feels like on a topic.”
Initially, the worry with asking direct questions via cellphone was that it would open up a Pandora’s box to fights, outcries or harassment. However, the opposite has proved to be true for The Listening Post.
“Reaching people on their phones, they make the effort and are mainly very sincere,” Hardman said. “I get very few jokes or dismissals...I think that’s because we’re not trying to impose our will but to invite people to be part of the conversation.”
Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via Nicolas Nova.