If you can't hire a neutral professional to gather objective research on how your community perceives you and what they need from your newsroom, there are a few things you can do to help jumpstart the process of reconnecting with your community or building a stronger relationship than you have now.
1.) Engage on social media
Social media isn't just for tweeting out a link every 15 min so people will see your stories, it's to actually engage with your community. Take the time to read what your community is tweeting or posting about and respond. Respond to their questions, their whims, their thoughts. See what the local trends and feelings are about issues, interact with them like a regular person would. Ask questions too! Show them there are thinking, feeling people behind your brand.
These social media tools allow us to connect with people no matter where we are or what we're doing, so let’s use them well! Interact with your community online so they see you as an organization with a human heart. You want them to see personality, humor and empathy. Acting less like bots and more like humans online will help genuinely connect with our communities and keep an eye on what is happening locally in real time.
2.) Use listening tools
As Melissa Thoma mentioned, using social media listening tools is always a good idea. There are plenty of tools like hootsuite and reddit keyword monitor where you can track what people are saying about your brand through keywords. Look at hashtags that have to do with your newsroom or coverage, set up google alerts, read and think about the feedback on your stories from your readers. Yes, trolls exist and bots attack, but that doesn't mean that readers aren't giving actual feedback on your platforms too. Take the time to find and consider the real feedback.
3.) Spend time with them in person
When you attend or are a part of an event, consider engaging with people there with no sign up sheets or subscription forms. If you have a booth at an event, use it to play a game with your community to just have fun! Maybe a dunking game, a photo booth or a spin the wheel game for prizes. Or don't have a booth at all - just be present and talk to them like they're people, not potential subscribers. Run a local book club, host a local brunch once a month - have some fun that is just for relationship building and letting them get to know you. If your community remembers you as engaging, friendly and open - that's a great first step. In contrast, if every time they meet you, you're just asking for money and subscriptions, that will make people feel like that's all you care about.
4.) Travel to them, host town halls
Travel to different neighborhoods to host town halls that are dedicated just to listening to what the people who show up have to say. Make it easy, painless and personal for those that attend. Open the floor for the community to tell you what they think about and want. What issues do they feel need more coverage, what doesn't get covered, what do they like and dislike. Don't get defensive or spend time arguing with difficult personalities that might show up, be there to show that you're willing to listen no matter what they have to say.
5.) Have an honest, soul-searching look at the diversity of your coverage in relation to the diversity of your community
Take a look at the diversity of your community and see if your coverage reflects that diversity in all beats. Put a map of your coverage area on a wall, add pins every day in the areas where you cover stories. One color for breaking news, one color for features, one for business profiles, sports etc. As you begin to accumulate clusters, see if there are patterns. If you're only visiting a neighborhood for breaking news but not business profiles or holiday features, that is something that could change by simply directing your journalists to that area more often for different beats. Maybe you'll see that you're very balanced in your coverage, or maybe you won't, but either way - it's an exercise that can be quite enlightening.
Kat Duncan is the senior video editor for the RJI Innovation & Futures Lab. She produces the video series Innovation in Focus, which explores emerging methods, tech and tools for journalists. She also creates and edits video projects for RJI and the Missouri School of Journalism, where she teaches photo and video journalism.