How to listen

On the last On the Media, Brooke Gladstone talked to Ellen Foley, editor of the Wisconsin State Journal, about their idea of having readers pick one story that should go on the front page from among a few the editors propose. Between 70 and 200 readers take them up on that offer. This from the transcript:

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jeff Jarvis, whose blog is called, wrote that, quote, “The real win will be when papers get their publics to vote on what stories they’re not covering that they should be.”

ELLEN FOLEY: Well, isn’t that an interesting idea? The only way I know to get at that is to send human beings out into the community and have them talk to the people who know what’s going on. And we call those people that we send out into the community reporters, and we call those people that know what’s going on, we call them readers. And as old-fashioned as that sounds, I think that that is the best technology for that particular truth-telling that there is at the moment.

I’ll pass by the Dana Carvey Church Lady tone of Foley’s reply and suggest to Editor Foley that there are, indeed, more ways to hear what you’re not covering. A few suggestions:

1. Read local blogs. See what they are saying about issues and stories in your town. Some papers are looking at and even listing blogs that link to their own stories and, like the State Journal’s move, it’s an interesting idea but only a start; they still put the papers at the center of the conversation, expecting people to talk about them. Again, you want to find what they’re talking about that you’re not covering. So read what they’re writing. They’re not just readers anymore.

2. Hire local bloggers to help cover the community. Tell them it’s their job to find what you’re not finding. Challenge them. Pay them — not a fortune but something that recognizes the worth of their effort, too. Go ahead and edit and vet what they find, if you want. It’s the substance that matters. But those people out there know more about what’s happening in their communities than you do. So make the means for them to share that.

3. Start a forum asking what you’re not covering. You’ll get suggestions, I guarantee.

4. Let people vote on beats, not just stories. The next time you hire a reporter or plan a shakeup, give the public choices: Should Sally here cover courts or health, police or pollution, golf or education? Or if you have a layoff coming, ask the public which beats you should eliminate.

5. Hold Meetups. Yes, this is not unlike your reporters going to talk with your “readers.” But then the reporters set the agenda. Set up local issues Meetups where the public sets the agenda. Bring pretzels.

6. Webcast your news meetings so people can have more input than voting on one story. That’s rather like going to a kid’s museum, where they give you buttons to push so you don’t make trouble. Let them make trouble. It’s their news. Hear what they say about how you manufacture the sausage.

7. Start a Digg edition. Go ahead and make your front page. But allow readers to tell you what they think is most important on their front page and let that guide your resource and news judgments.

8. Go Digg one better and create the means where people can vote on the stories they think you should cover. And when one wins, go cover it. Do that before you assign the reporters and write the stories and edit the copy. Make the public your boss.

That’s a start.