By Josh Mabry and Dorrine Mendoza, News Partnerships

Journalists have long invested in audience engagement. Especially in local newsrooms, attracting the right audience is often more important than risking attracting big, but unengaged audiences.

The team at al.com took up this challenge and thinks they’ve hit on something other newsrooms can learn from. In a Medium post about the launch of their statewide brand with a purely social focus called Reckon, VP of Content Michelle Holmes wrote that their mission is to create accountability journalism specifically for the Facebook feeds of Alabamians.

In this post she is transparent about the challenge many local newsrooms face — the award-winning hard news content readers say they want, doesn’t always perform well. And defying the commonly available industry answers, she and her team decided to “put audience at the heart” of their journalism and this included deeply engaging with groups on Facebook

Their first Facebook group, The Southern Girls Project, started as an Instagram account.

“The goal of the project,” said Elizabeth Hoekenga Whitmire, “is to listen and elevate voices, so a Facebook Group seemed like a natural fit because it does just that. It gives every member a place to be heard.” Whitmire is Alabama Media Group’s director of social media.

The public group’s mission was to include everyone who wanted to improve the future for girls across the South. Although the focus was solely on organic growth when it started, Whitmire said one of the things they learned was having a specific audience in mind, (mothers, teachers, women with Southern roots) could have helped foster an engaged audience.

Going Deeper

The team then shifted from broad to narrow with their Alabama/California project. This partnership with Spaceship Media placed 50 female Clinton and Trump supporters in a small, closed group for guided conversations.

“That group ran for a month, in that intense political period between election day and the presidential inauguration,” said Whitmire.

The results spoke for themselves. Digital and video stories from the women’s conversations covered immigration, healthcare and faith. Four women wrote opinion pieces for AL.com.

“When the official AL.com group closed, two thirds of the members went on to form their own, self-moderated Facebook Group, and they’re still talking months later,” said Eve Pearlman of Spaceship Media.“They even started a book club! For many of the participants, the experience was transformative.”

This led to Tackling the Gap, a closed Facebook Group giving teachers an opportunity to speak candidly about the achievement gap between black and white students in Alabama. It also led to a partnership with Hearken, which powers Ask Alabama.

“One of the biggest lessons learned was that investing time and resources into deep conversations with people – and listening and allowing those people to be heard – can lead to a level of extreme engagement that you just can’t get in traditional comment spaces,” Whitmire said.

What’s Paying Off

Al.com reporter Anna Claire Vollers was skeptical of anything useful coming out of a virtual meeting place for women with wildly contrasting political viewpoints. Her first a-ha moment came when she saw that where a person lives has a profound impact on their experiences with immigration or healthcare.

“Most of all,” Vollers said, “I was floored at the dedication these women – from opposite ends of the political spectrum and opposite ends of the country – showed to the project and to each other. Even when it got hard, even when there was no common ground, they treated their participation as almost a calling.”

And now they’re going even deeper. While revenue has been an important driver, they’ve been careful to be thoughtful about how they get there.

“As a publisher, our goal is get 10 times deeper into what engagement can mean,” Whitmire said. “and have conversations that mattered to people’s lives.”

“As publishers, the opportunity to do this was important to us from a mission driven perspective,” she said.

Holmes wraps up her Medium post with this, “We are committed to serving as conveners, and listeners, and storytellers and watchdogs in the service of a public that deserves clear and transparent news — done up fresh in a way you want to be a part of.”

Their Advice

What are the top things you recommend publishers think about before starting a group to engage with their communities?

How will you staff it? Who will moderate the conversation and help drive it? The time commitment must be there to reach a high level of engagement. It’s also important to establish and uphold community rules/guidelines to make your group a safe space for participants. Are group conversations on the record? Make sure you’re transparent about your goals from the beginning. Here’s what we tell members of Tackling the Gap: This is a journalism project and we will be developing stories out of this conversation – and we hope you will participate in that. However, we will not publish or reproduce anything you say/write in this group without your permission.

Based on what we’ve learned from other groups, we’d do a few things differently with the Southern Girls Project this time. The group is public, and I think people are more comfortable with closed or secret groups. The group’s mission is broad – it’s for anyone who wants to improve the future for girls across the southeastern U.S. That is exactly who we want to connect the Southern Girls Project with, but for the purposes of a Facebook Group, a more specific focus probably would have worked better: mothers of Southern girls, teachers, women who grew up in the South, etc. (The group was never intended to connect directly with girls.) We also didn’t focus on anything beyond organic growth with this group. We invited our interested contacts and asked members to invite their friends, but we didn’t do outreach specifically to build the group like we did for Alabama/California and Tackling the Gap. The direction of this Facebook Group is something we’re currently evaluating as we plan the next phase of the Southern Girls Project.

— Elizabeth Hoekenga Whitmire