By Frank MungeamLMA Chief Innovation Officer

“We don’t know what we don’t know.”

That was Liz White’s top takeaway after the publisher of the Record-Journal (Meriden, Conn.) engaged in a “community listening tour.”

This focus on listening is a key early lesson for members of LMA’s Lab for Journalism Funding, launched in September with support from Google. The Record-Journal is one of 16 publishers working through a curriculum created by a team at The Seattle Times.

The publishers are creating and implementing strategies to fund critical reporting through philanthropy. A key early step in that process has been the community listening tour.

“Listening tours are essential for establishing open channels of communication between the newsroom and the communities it seeks to serve through the community-funded model for local journalism,” said Joaquin Alvarado, executive director of Project Accelerate Seattle at The Times.

Publishers in the fundraising lab have found their listening tours valuable, sometimes in unexpected ways. For example, a listening tour doesn’t just improve your chances of getting philanthropic funding; it also improves your journalism. Here are six lessons from the lab on the power of listening.

Listen for reputation

Does your community know you, trust you, and value you? News organizations cannot assume the answer is “yes.” One of the most important reasons to begin any exploration of philanthropic support is to start by assessing your reputation in the community. Some publishers may learn they have to build (or rebuild) trust first, before they can ask the community to support a reporting project. For others, the listening tour can confirm that relationship of trust.

“There was a real affirmation of value for what we do,” said Judi Terzotis, publisher of The Advocate and The Times-Picayune (Louisiana). She came away from their listening tour reassured that folks in their community felt: “if we don’t do it, who will?”

Listen for discovery

White’s “aha moment” from the Record-Journal listening tour was no accident. White and her team prepared a strategic list of open-ended questions that focused not on their needs and concerns as a media outlet, but rather on the needs and challenges of the community. The questions were intentionally designed to discover — what she didn’t know she didn’t know — rather than to confirm existing assumptions (see below for examples of the Listening Tour questions used by White and her team).

In Bozeman, Montana, where Traci Bauer and the team at the Daily Chronicle were planning to focus on housing affordability, their listening tour uncovered dimensions of the larger livability issue they hadn’t considered.

“It woke us up to two issues not on our radar that we would not have accounted for,” Bauer said.

That’s the power of listening for discovery.

Listen for alignment

Leaders for one lab participant in a southern market learned through listening that the reporting project they were most interested in funding via philanthropy was not a subject a key community foundation was interested in supporting. The publisher was disappointed, of course. But it’s critical to find matches: alignment between community need, funder interest, and journalism impact. Early listening helped this publisher rethink the approach before investing a lot of resources in that proposal. The team avoided the trap of “falling in love” with an idea that wasn’t a good match for philanthropy, enabling team members to refocus on a different journalism project that met both the newsroom’s mission and the funder’s goals.

Listen to learn from experts

Another publisher in the lab created an advisory group of community organizations focused on the environmental topic team members hoped to cover with philanthropic support. They tapped the expertise of this group to refine the answers to key questions, such as: Which environmental threats are most critical in the community they serve? What would be the most important impacts to drive? And where could the publisher make the most difference?

Listen to iterate

Listening also isn’t a one-and-done step, something to be “gotten out of the way” so folks in the newsroom can “go back to doing news.” The process of engaging continually in “listening loops” can help iterate and build on good past work.

The Anchorage Daily News already received funding to support a year-long effort covering the homeless problem in its coverage area. The news team met internally to brainstorm ideas on how to iterate and expand coverage. Editor David Hulen described being really excited about some of the ideas but he recognized a gap.

“I have no idea what (the funders) think. I mainly want to listen,” he said as he prepared for his listening tour.

Listen for unexpected opportunities

One reason any philanthropic effort should start with listening is to avoid starting by asking for money. Publishers should first seek to understand community needs and funders’ interests. At the same time, publishers who have earned a strong reputation in their communities need to be ready for serendipity.

One publisher in the lab reached out for a fact-finding meeting with a funder, and wound up being asked, “Can you get me a proposal in the next week?” That funder had, as told to the publisher, some “spare change in the sofa” at the end of its fiscal year, and wanted to find a way to give it to the publisher to create immediate impact.

“Through listening tours, we learn from the community, gather insights, and demonstrate a commitment to openness that makes new relationships possible, including with funders,” Alvarado said.

A listening tour may not result in an immediate invitation from a funder for a grant proposal. But one thing is clear to the participants in our Lab for Journalism Funding. Putting your community first by listening isn’t just a best practice for seeking funding; it also makes for better journalism.

Questions to kickstart community listening

  • What are the most important issues affecting this community? What’s not being covered enough? What’s important for us to know about this community?
  • Where do people in these communities get information now?
  • What would be an outcome for this community that would be meaningful?
  • What are we doing well? What can we improve on? Where could we have the most impact?

Questions for funders

  • What are their goals and priorities? What issues are important to them?
  • What kinds of community impact do they want to support? Past success examples?
  • What’s currently being funded? What would they want to support in the future?
  • Where could we as a news organization have the most positive impact?

Any good listening tour always ends with, “Who else do you recommend we talk to?”