Opening new lines of communication

by | Apr 24, 2020 | Blog, Research

by Kristy Roschke, Celeste Sepessy and Gail Rhodes

In 2017, in part in response to increasing attacks on the paper by Rep. Devin Nunes, the Fresno Bee defended its credibility by increasing transparency in its reporting and boosting efforts to connect more deeply with its community. 

The Bee embarked on several projects in partnership with the News Co/Lab at Arizona State University throughout the next year designed to achieve two goals: 

  1. To help its readers gain new understanding of how news works by increasing transparency around the editorial process, and 
  2. To better understand the community’s perceptions of the Bee and its information needs. 

The partnership created several new working roles for the Bee in the areas of convening and facilitating group discussions with the public, including a dialogue journalism effort developed with Spaceship Media. The result was the project Crossing the Line.

Fresno Bee editor Joe Kieta described Crossing the Line as “exciting but daunting.” But it “tapped into a very tough issue and spurred a genuine, meaningful community dialogue that has a future.” 

With Crossing the Line, the Bee departed from its traditional engagement endeavors, which focused on industry-standard methods of using data analytics to measure audience interaction with pieces of Bee content, and instead directly brought residents together to facilitate dialogue on local issues. The Bee approached this project as an experiment in increasing direct engagement and information exchange with Fresno residents to learn more about residents’ needs and wants. The Bee working group identified success in terms of the new relationships it developed through the process, the positive feedback from community members, and the journalism that was created and will be created in the future as a result of the conversations. 

The case study for this project began as an academic paper that was presented to a group of journalists and academics at the Engaged Journalism Pre-Conference at the 2019 International Communication Association annual conference in Washington D.C. This blog post series presents a condensed version of the study’s findings.

Background research

News organizations have long been caught in a struggle between offering what audiences want to know and what it needs to know, but the struggle takes on new complexities as audiences play a greater role in content creation, distribution, and amplification.

Adoption of new technologies that result in new media habits outpace the evolution of professional practice, forcing journalists to be more audience-responsive, which in turn, allows for more data about audiences, but not necessarily better understanding of audience behavior1. Developing greater understanding of audience needs and wants—an undertaking that has come to be known broadly as audience engagement—figures prominently in conceptualizing the future of news media and journalism practices.  

Despite the fact that audience engagement can be hard to define and measure2, journalism has in many ways evolved from a dissemination of information to an exchange of information. 

Researchers have found evidence that connecting with audiences can play a role in building trust and credibility3. The process of audience engagement is not a one-size-fits-all process, but can take shape depending on the goals, needs, and constraints of individual newsrooms4. Spaceship Media’s dialogue journalism approach creates more intimacy with the audience without necessarily attaching the goal of creating content from it5

Spaceship Media believes dialogue journalism is not simply asking people questions and getting story ideas from their answers, but rather it is about getting two sides talking in a more productive way6. It may take a deeper conversation—potentially one that is off the record—to get at the heart of an audience and how a news outlet can serve its readers better. Given that most journalistic measures of success are based upon the distribution of some content, such a project requires a newsroom to evaluate success through a new lens7


Read the next parts in the series here:


1.Philip M. Napoli. Audience evolution: New technologies and the transformation of media audiences. Columbia University Press, 2011.

2. Jacob L. Nelson “Partnering with the public: The pursuit of ‘audience engagement’ in journalism.” PhD diss., Northwestern University, 2018.

3. Gina Chen et al.  “How the public, news sources, and journalists think about news in three communities.” 2018. Retrieved from

4. Nelson, “Partnering with the public,” 2018.

5. Spaceship Media, “Spaceship Media: Journalism to Bridge Divides.” Retrieved from

6. Madalina Ciobanu. “Spaceship Media is using ‘dialogue journalism’ to enable productive conversations between communities at odds.” January 9, 2018. Retrieved from

7. Matt Carlson, M. (2018).“Confronting measurable journalism.” (2018): 406-417.