How Dallas Morning News Tunes Its Ear to Connect With Its Diverse Audiences

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Every community is diverse, both complicating and enriching the relationship of a local news organization to its readers. For the Dallas Morning News, the diversity of metro Dallas in race, ethnicity, and politics, to cite just some categories of difference, turned out to be a challenge the newspaper would meet head-on.

In this Q&A, Nicole Stockdale, the DMN’s director of digital strategy, talks about how that is happening and what it means for the A.H. Belo Corp.-owned paper’s multiple audiences.

Let’s begin with the tense news media situation after the Sept. 6 death of Botham Jean, the 26-year-old black Dallas resident and risk assurance associate who was fatally shot by off-duty Dallas Police Officer Amber Guyger in his own apartment, which she said she mistook for hers, one floor below. Guyger, a white, four-year officer, has been charged with manslaughter and was subsequently dismissed by the Dallas Police Department. Very quickly after the tragedy, your boss, Dallas Morning News Editor Mike Wilson, hosted a frank Facebook Live discussion with three local black ministers who were critical of media coverage of the slaying, including the DMN’s. Would you talk about that?

That was intentional on our part. We are—we want to be—the newsroom for the entire community. That means white people, Hispanics, African Americans. It also means conservatives and liberals. It means anywhere in society where you’re seeing these big divisions, we’re trying to make a conscious effort to reach out to readers, to let them know that we are covering the community as they see it.

When there are instances like the Botham Jean tragedy, where many members of the community felt the media coverage was unfair, we hear that and we want to reach out to people. We may not agree with their take on the situation, but their having their feelings is important to us. These are the times to lean into the conversation more, and people need to know we’re there to hear them.

What’s your role as director of digital strategy at the DMN?

My position was created in April of this year to make sure we’re not just focused in our coverage on today, tomorrow, and even next month, but also on the big-picture strategy down the road. We want to make decisions that will help us meet the expectations of our readers in one year and five years.

This requires a different set of thinking from our day-to-day coverage. It’s not as if we didn’t do this kind of thinking previously, but now we’re consolidating a lot of separate efforts.

What’s an example of this new kind of thinking?

Last summer we brought together 18 journalists from our newsroom to focus on how to keep pushing us forward digitally. We broke our strategy into three areas—content, innovation, and the culture of the newsroom—just doing everything we can to engage our audiences. Through that process, the team came up with more than a dozen goals to make sure we are progressing.

You used the word “culture” about your newsroom. Would you compare the receding legacy culture of the print era of the Dallas Morning News to what the paper is trying to do in taking the newsroom to the emerging digital culture?

We’re trying to develop an audience-first culture today. I’m not saying that an audience-first culture didn’t exist at the newspaper, say, 75 years ago. But how do we reach today’s audience? It’s not enough to put all the news that we decided is important on the front page and expect everyone to read that as part of their shared experience.

Instead, we’re focusing on different audiences and their sometimes different needs—what kind of news they want and figuring out the best way to use our resources to meet those needs. We want to identify and recognize these different audiences and reach out to them.

Is technology an important tool in trying to identify and reach out to different audiences that may total hundreds of thousands, even millions, of people?

Yes. There are new tools that help us to understand what millions of people want to read. You can’t call everyone on the phone and ask them. We are one of the newsrooms that is using Hearken to power a listening project with an audience-engagement focus.

We use Hearken to power our Curious Texas project, which we launched last year. The platform allows the community to tell us what questions it wants us to answer. The questions could be anything from what happened to my cans, bottles, and plastics after I put them in the recycling bins to what’s going on with that parcel of land at a popular intersection to why do we have school districts overlapping within city and county boundaries. We invite the community to look at all the questions and vote for the ones that are the most important to them.

The questions that get the most votes are the ones our reporters investigate. They’ll sometimes bring the readers who ask the questions into the reporting. One questioner, for example, wanted to know the full story of those underground tunnels in Dallas that people are always talking about. Our reporter invited her on his trip through the tunnels—where they led and what kind of restaurants they found. Everything that people wanted to know was in the story. It’s been the most well-read Curious Texas project we’ve featured.

What kind of responses are you getting from your audiences to Curious Texas?

We’ve got more than 600 questions so far. We’re selective about what we take on. We’ve published answers to more than 60 questions since December 2017.

What are some examples of the feedback that you’re getting from readers?

Here are several:

“Money is time, and it’s time for me to renew my subscription to the DMN. Curious Texas was a factor in helping me to decide to keep the subscription going.”

“Thanks for making a difference!”

“Just wanted to say thank you for the Curious Texas series. Growing up, I heard about poll taxes, but not ‘white primaries.’ Keep that series running!”

Are you reaching all your target audiences or do you need to do more?

We want to reach more. We understand that’s a challenge, and we’re set to find people where they are in our engagement effort.

We have launched our first foray into texting news to our audiences. We can text a certain number of readers to find out more about them and what they want in news and send links to our Curious Texas work and news roundup.

So readers can stay in touch with the DMN newsroom with this texting tool?

Absolutely. This is a tool for readers who may not be sitting in front of their laptop all day. We recognize many people are now using their smartphones as their main Internet connection. So why not use a text-based SMS system to reach readers and give them the opportunity to reach us?

How many readers have signed up for this texting tool?

We only launched it a week ago, so it’s too soon for any meaningful metrics.

What impact has your Curious Texas project had on your conversion strategy to acquire digital subscribers?

We are seeing that Curious Texas articles convert well; they do better than the average stories produced by our newsroom. And they’re helping to surface the kind of stories we want to follow up on. This information is valuable.

How many digital-only subscribers does the DMN have?

Through July of this year, we reported 26,677.

Has your success with Curious Texas got you thinking about how this project could be expanded to generate other kinds of stories, like long-form and investigative pieces?

Yes. The types of stories we’re promoting with Curious Texas run the gamut. One story may be a quick hit about changing weather patterns, where we talk to a meteorologist and can answer the question in a couple of days. But the very first Curious Texas question we received, back in December, was about disappearing horny toads, the official state reptile.

Our reporter, Charles Scudder, found there was a quick answer he could have given in a couple of days. Instead, he did months of reporting, following an effort to breed 300 hatchlings for release.

Beyond all this, we think Curious Texas could be useful in investigative reporting as well.

When you find new ways to listen to parts of the community that may not have had the opportunity to ask questions before, you will get different answers.

You’ve also launched a closed Facebook Group. What’s that about?

It’s open to print and digital subscribers of the Dallas Morning News and allows reporters and editors to discuss their work through a direct line from the newsroom to the community. It’s been very good in opening lines of two-way communication. We launched the group about a year ago, and it has about 1,750 members.

How are you feeling about your new job after your first six months?

I feel good. Yes, we are in a difficult environment. There’s no sugar-coating that. There’s so much work for us to do. But that’s part of the excitement that so many of us feel. With all this new technology that allows us to understand what our audiences want from us, it really gives us the opportunity to be valuable to them, to understand what they want from us and how we can provide it.

There’s a lot of payoff for all our efforts. At the end of the day, we can see when readers choose to subscribe to us and to the journalism that’s so valuable to them that they get out their wallet. It doesn’t get much more satisfying in having that kind of impact on our readers and the Dallas Morning News’ bottom line.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) has written “The New News” column for Street Fight since 2011. He is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.