Lessons in audience engagement from Chicago’s Curious City

A Curious City journalist interviews a community member in Chinatown, Chicago. Photo courtesy of Bill Healy/WBEZ.

1) Grow audience
2) Kill audience
3) Eat audience

Thus read the Post-It notes affixed to a computer in Curious City’s corner of WBEZ Chicago Public Media. Despite poking fun, Curious City, the radio series that invites listeners to ask questions about Chicago, is serious about audience engagement. In 2016, Curious City embarked on a year-long outreach project to find out what residents from underrepresented Chicago neighborhoods wanted to hear. What they discovered offers lessons for all journalists interested in effective community engagement.

The show uses the Hearken digital platform to invite users to nominate and vote on questions they’d like answers to, and even participate in the reporting process. Curious City is not the only Hearken newsroom that’s been attempting to document and track their experiences of late. Not long ago, Bitch Media reported that readers who participated in Hearken projects were more likely than other groups to become sustaining members. According to a recent Democracy Fund report on engaged journalism, case studies like these “help to inform the field, strengthening the community of practice and building the public case for engaged journalism.”

Since its start in 2012, Curious City’s stories for radio, online, and podcasts have become some of WBEZ’s most popular. The show explores Chicago history, architecture, and the odd bit of trivia, such as: What’s at the bottom of the Chicago River? and What’s with all the gym shoes hanging from power lines?. The show’s producers also get frequent questions about city services, like what “really happens” to stuff in recycling bins.

But back in 2015, then-editor Shawn Allee noticed Curious City was getting some of the same questions from readers over and over, often from the same neighborhoods. He worried the show had been working so closely with its audience that it had become “captured” by the same set of players. He wanted to know who Curious City was not hearing from.

And so Allee mapped more than four years’ worth of Curious City questions to identify underrepresented areas—primarily African-American and Latino neighborhoods on the South and West sides of the city, as well as some predominantly white suburbs. Then in 2016, Allee worked with his team to figure out how to best reach these communities. They decided to try a combination of face-to-face outreach, outreach via community partners, and social media marketing. I joined the team in many of these efforts, as they talked to people in parks, at bus stops, and in library lobbies. (Read my full report of Curious City’s outreach effort here.)

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Overall, the project was a success: Curious City gathered 313 questions from target neighborhoods (out of a total of 976 questions submitted throughout the year). The resultant reporting included accountability stories grounded in the experiences of residents from historically under-resourced communities—for example, one story questioned why South Side (majority African-American) neighborhoods had fewer public murals than North Side neighborhoods.

The experiment also clearly identified some best practices for future outreach planning. By far, Curious City’s most efficient method was setting up booths at public library branches; such outings produced 159 questions. Pavement-pounding and approaching individual residents directly generated another 137 questions, but those approaches required considerable time and energy on the part of an outreach producer. Leaving question boxes with partner organizations such as cafés generated almost no questions, due to a lack of sustained promotion. Perhaps the biggest fail was a not-inexpensive Facebook marketing campaign—which generated 1,920 clicks but only 14 questions.

One of the most challenging, but also valuable, aspects of the project came in the form of negotiating trust and expectations with residents and partners. In Curious City’s outreach neighborhoods, community members frequently raised issues of trust in the media, and their frustration with a lack of representation of community voices. As a youth media leader explained to me, “Most of the time, we’re the subject of a story—and it’s not our perspective.” He suggested reporters who only parachuted in for “something bad” could more fully cover communities were they to work with groups like his, given that those groups “also know about all the good stuff that goes on over here.” He and other residents appreciated Curious City showing up.

At the same time, Curious City staff were wary of partners perceived to be “pushing an agenda.” Allee noted that some partners were more interested in getting residents to ask questions about particular issues they worked on than allowing them to ask questions about anything that interested them. For this reason, over the course of the project, Curious City gravitated more toward public libraries, which they viewed as ground receptive to any kind of curiosity.

Another major challenge of the project was in making sure stories, once produced, made it back to the communities where they originated. Curious City used the Hearken platform to engage the public in story selection and production. But their engagement dropped off when it came to distribution and feedback. Even low-budget flyers or networking through community groups could help residents know how to listen to stories or participate in events. Doing so could not only generate interesting stories, but contribute to what communication scholars call a local “storytelling network.” Researchers have found that when this network is strong, communities tend to have higher levels of civic engagement and residents tend to feel more invested in their neighborhoods.

Conducting outreach required a considerable investment of time for Curious City. But the resulting questions and stories often deviated from what was typical or expected, and many would have had difficulty making it through the normal editorial process (due, for example, to a lack of a time-sensitive news peg) had they not been nominated by a listener. For Allee, hearing these community voices was an indicator of success: “Part of our job is to be genuine,” he said. “I can sleep better at night at least knowing that I listened—and that it informed my editorial decision-making.”

Read the full report here.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Andrea Wenzel is a senior research fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. She is an incoming assistant professor at Temple University's Klein College of Media and Communication, and a PhD candidate at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.