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How a university partnership helps The Coloradoan build opinion content and audience engagement

Colorado State University Center for Public Deliberation Director Martin Carcasson guides a conversation on the future of local journalism during a monthly installment of “The Scoop” conversation series at the Old Town Library in Fort Collins, Colo. (Rebecca Powell/Fort Collins Coloradoan)

Here’s an idea to steal and adapt: To build your opinion content, solicit responses from readers who have registered for a free account on your site. Pick the best snippets of a commenter’s ideas, creating a broader range of voices on curated discussions of local issues. Partner with a local university to foster and analyze these discussions.

This is a series on Better News to a) showcase innovative/experimental ideas that emerge from the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative and b) share replicable tactics that benefit the news industry as a whole. This “win” comes from Eric Larsen, Colorado and New Mexico editor of the USA TODAY Network and executive editor of The Coloradoan, which participated in the Poynter Table Stakes program in 2018-2019.

Question: What communities do you serve and what can you tell us about the history of your organization?

Answer: The Coloradoan serves Fort Collins, Colo., and Larimer County, covering an area with a population of 362,000 residents. The Coloradoan and its predecessors have served the area with local news for nearly 150 years. We’ll begin publishing our 150th year in April 2023.

Q: What problem were you trying to solve, and why was solving the problem strategically important for your organization?

A: Staff reductions brought our newsroom down to 16 members in 2019. That forced us to re-evaluate publishing a traditional opinion section that relied on weekly op-eds, letters to the editor, editorials and staff columns. We scrapped our weekly opinion offering altogether, only publishing submitted endorsements of candidates and issues around elections.

Our traditional opinion offering didn’t drive significant digital readership. But its absence as a community forum was missed by community stakeholders and our staff. 

We tried to envision a 21st century successor to opinion offerings that weren’t working for us. We wanted to deliver the offerings without a dedicated opinion editor. We looked at the best replicable practices that two editors – content strategist Rebecca Powell and I – could emulate with roughly 4-8 combined hours per week.

The best opinion offerings we saw often provided a variety of views on a certain topic. This wasn’t happening with our more scattershot reliance on what came through our opinion inbox. 

So we landed on Coloradoan Conversations, a weekly curated discussion of a question related to recent local news that we asked the prior week, or a collection of views on a story published during the prior week.

With our new Coral-based opinion platform, we solicit responses from readers who have registered a free account at Coloradoan.com. We occasionally pull views from social media platforms including Facebook and Reddit, and from reader emails. 

This allows us to pick the best snippets of a commenter’s ideas without tying us to publication of more lengthy signed opinion pieces. It also allows us to include a broader range of voices on these curated discussions of local issues.

As part of this initiative, we partner with the Northern Colorado Deliberative Journalism Project and Colorado State University’s Center for Public Deliberation and Journalism and Mass Communications Department, providing us with additional resources to foster and analyze these discussions. 

Martin Carcasson, director of the CSU Center for Public Deliberation, helps us frame questions and analyze answers for common themes. And CSU journalism students help improve the quality of conversations on Coloradoan.com through fact-checking and providing added context.

As part of our partnership with the Deliberative Journalism Project, we organize events with the Poudre River Public Library District, which hosts “The Scoop,” a monthly discussion of local news (and usually an extension of Coloradoan Conversations) that’s facilitated by Carcasson and Coloradoan journalists.

In 2023, we hope to deepen Coloradoan Conversations by digging into a few key local issues in greater depth and bringing more of that online conversation into physical spaces.

We also hope to diversify and grow the community of commenters through expanded outreach and in-person events, along with expanded promotion of our efforts.

In the future, we’d like to form a type of community editorial board where we take nuanced stances on local issues informed by broad public input through comments, surveys and analysis.

Q: How is this approach related to Table Stakes (e.g. one of the 7 Table Stakes and/or an outgrowth of the Knight-Lenfest initiative, etc.)?

A:  This effort most closely aligns with Table Stake No. 1 (“Serve targeted audiences with targeted content”) and Table Stake No. 6 (“Partner to expand your capacity and capabilities at lower and more flexible cost”).

We sought to serve an audience interested in having a moderated, credible forum for the sharing of Fort Collins news outside of social media and message boards. 

By combining our expertise in local news with Carcasson’s framework and expertise in facilitating public deliberation, we provide a weekly forum that includes more voices in our traditional one-page print opinion offering and focus much of the interaction at Coloradoan.com, where more than 75% of our subscribers get their daily local news.

Q: How did you go about solving the problem?

A: Carcasson was a driving factor in forming the Deliberative Journalism Project. He led initial outreach to potential stakeholders in journalism, education, philanthropic and civic spaces, and provided a framework for us to begin collaboration. A $10,000 grant from the American Press Institute allowed us to conduct initial community outreach and facilitation of a discussion about the place of local news in the community and of opinion journalism in Fort Collins. 

Since the formation of the DPJ one year ago, a core group of stakeholders has met, typically weekly, to discuss progress, plan events and increase our scope. 

Powell and I set aside time for publication of our weekly Conversation Starter and Conversation recap, which appear online Friday at Coloradoan.com and in Sunday print.

While testing out the Coloradoan Conversation format, we’ve tried a mix of populist questions – “Which former Fort Collins restaurant would you most like to see reopen?” and “With home prices rising, do you have a future in Northern Colorado?” – along with discussions on imminent or potential policy changes, such as “Fort Collins paves the way for accessory dwelling units. How will they impact neighborhoods?

Each of those questions, along with the related conversation roundups, has driven 2,000 or more views at Coloradoan.com and multiple additional comments and interactions.

Q: What worked?

A: Coloradoan Conversations: Since launching in March, the new opinion forum has drawn 184,000 page views from 145,000 visitors, with the roughly 100 posts averaging more than 1 minute of engaged time and the Conversations recaps averaging significantly higher time. 

Published stories have also accounted for 249 new digital subscriptions, a significant increase from the limited subscriptions our previous opinion offerings drove.

We’ve also used the questions to engage new audiences in social spaces, finding good success with posting our weekly questions into the Fort Collins subreddit. This has traditionally been a fickle space for us, but posting the questions and encouraging users to engage on the Reddit platform has driven good additional discussion, which we’ve referenced in multiple follow-up articles. We haven’t done a lot of work moderating the discussion on Facebook or Twitter, but do post links to the pieces there.

Community engagement around “The Scoop” has also been solid, growing a steady gathering of 15-25 highly engaged people to the monthly meetups.

Q: What didn’t work?

A: Outreach to other news outlets: While we originally envisioned the Northern Colorado Deliberative Journalism Project as a collaboration involving multiple news partners, we’ve found limited interest from other news outlets serving Northern Colorado. 

We hope to refine the project in 2023 to provide avenues for more collaboration outside of Coloradoan Conversations, which is specific to the Coloradoan’s platform. 

This could involve additional outreach in getting more outlets involved in “The Scoop” or other outreach efforts to promote deliberative processes in area newsgathering and engagement.

Q: What happened that you didn’t expect?

A: I’m not really sure here. I kept a pretty open mind about this experiment, figuring it would evolve and take life of its own after we convened our core group of stakeholders. That’s certainly been the case, and I’m excited to see where the next evolution will take place.

Q: What would you do differently now? What did you learn?

A: We launched the Deliberative Journalism Project before the launch of Coloradoan Conversations, and I think that without a product or piece of content to show, potential stakeholders didn’t really understand what we were attempting. 

I think that in hindsight we would have liked to have Conversations and “The Scoop” as launch offerings, as they give people something tangible to relate to.

Q: What advice would you give to others who try to do this?

A: On the opinion front, I’d say it’s important to have a vision for what you want out of your community forum, along with an idea of what resources you’re willing to commit toward achieving that vision. 

We stepped away from regular opinion publication due to staffing restraints. We didn’t feel that we had enough reporting firepower on our team while still employing a full-time opinion editor and columnist. 

But we also felt that not providing a community forum beyond online story comments left a hole in our report. What we landed on feels sustainable and scalable should we need to expand or contract.

Also, it’s important to have a clear vision about your values for an opinion offering. We wanted to foster a broader range of voices by accepting comments of any length and then editing them down, much like we’d edit a quote from a source. We believed this approach would give us the opportunity to attract a wider readership that might not sit down to pen a traditional op-ed or letter to the editor. 

We gave up some specificity in the process – our commenters commonly are only identified by first name and last initial. But we feel that the ideas shared are perhaps more important than fully identifying the originator of the idea.

On the collaborative element, don’t overcommit. 

A partnership like this, especially one initially supported by a grant, comes with a lot of pressure to perform. That pressure can be good, but be careful about starting something, with a bang, that you can’t sustain. Make sure to understand the amount of time and resources you’re able to commit to a project and adjust as necessary.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

A: We’re incredibly grateful for the core group of stakeholders in this project, which includes multiple branches of Colorado State University, Fort Collins Public TV, the Poudre River Public Library District, League of Women Voters of Larimer County and others. 

We look forward to working with them in the year to come to further refine our goals and tasks in order to provide more avenues for community engagement in a journalistic process that hopefully leads to beneficial solutions to pressing community concerns.