An introduction to the toolkit

Embed transparency
+ engagement in your journalism

A DIY toolkit for newsrooms of all sizes

An introduction to the toolkit

For the past several years, the ASU News Co/Lab has been working with newsrooms to embed transparency and engagement in their journalism. We and our partners have had several goals, such as helping journalists better understand their communities’ attitudes about news; helping people in those communities better understand the journalism process; and deepening connections — and trust — between newsrooms and communities via conversation and collaboration.

Our pilot project has seen some notable successes. And we’ve learned a great deal from our partners, including three newsrooms in the McClatchy media company and our own Cronkite News at ASU.

Now we have good news for any newsroom that’s interested in this process: We’ve bundled up what we’ve learned so far into this “Do It Yourself” toolkit, a step-by-step guide to a process that gets genuine results.

As you’ll see, we recommend a multi-step approach, with one activity leading to another. It starts with creating an internal group of people who’ll guide the process, surveying your community’s attitudes and understanding of how news works, looking through “best practices” in key areas such as transparency and engagement, trying your own experiments, and seeing what happens. But you can dive in anywhere. Our goal is that you try, and learn.

If you’re a top editor, we suggest creating an internal group of volunteers who already see why transparency and engagement matter. They’ll be your vanguard in guiding the rest of the newsroom toward a collective goal. As with everything else, some staffers will be indifferent or opposed — and remember that they may be worried more about adding new tasks to their already full days.

Some staff members who aren’t part of the initial planning will come to you as you gear up your experiments and projects, asking to get involved. Say yes! And invite ideas from everyone.

If you’re a member of an internal task force, dig into the details. We have a lot of useful information here, and we’ll be adding to it as we learn more. (Please let us know, from your own experiences, what we’re missing!)

While we hope this DIY kit will give you everything you need to get started, we’ll be glad to answer your questions — within the limits of our own time, of course, as we pursue our other projects. We’ll be setting up an online forum, or perhaps creating a space on an existing service (or both), where we — and you — can ask and answer questions, and extend this conversation in ways that help all of us.

Well into the 21st Century, journalism faces tremendous challenges. Not least are the financial ones, especially at the community level. We can’t promise that embedding transparency and engagement in your journalism will fix the bottom line. But we can’t imagine a future for our craft without building more trust between newsrooms and communities, and there’s plenty of evidence that these practices can help in that arena.

It’s up to all of us — people who work in newsrooms, community members, and anyone who cares about the value of honest information in these times — to help each other. We need to talk, and collaborate, and we trust you’ll find some of what you need here.


Convene a working group.


Choosing the right working group is critical to your project’s success. Select a group of five to seven diverse individuals from across the newsroom — people who want to be there and care about improving news literacy in your community. This group should include at least one senior editor and have the explicit buy-in from the top editor. We recommend that the working group team “owns” your newsroom’s transparency and engagement initiatives. 

  • Who in the newsroom is interested in community engagement and transparency?
  • Do these people represent different ages, genders, titles and beats? 
  • What community members can add to this discussion?

The working group should meet at least monthly — more often is better — to choose, run and measure experiments from a set of proven Best Practices. 


The Kansas City Star’s working group includes an education reporter, the engagement and partnerships editor, the breaking news editor (who was a reporter at the group’s formation), the news editor and the former regional growth editor. The group, which is diverse in age, tenure and beat, meets monthly.  


Survey your community.


Do you actually know how your community finds and feels about the news? We created a set of surveys to help your team understand news perceptions of three local populations: the community at large, regular news sources, and local journalists themselves. Sometimes those views differ. Together, these survey results provide insight into how your news organization can better serve the community’s information and news fluency needs. 


The Star’s journalists expressed confidence in their ability to effectively explain to the community how news works, but the public and sources disagreed


Choose your experiments.


Armed with your survey results, the working group should look over these Best Practices in transparency, engagement, education and tools to generate experiment ideas. The best practices, curated by the News Co/Lab to highlight projects where evidence shows they have a positive impact, range from big investments to projects you can implement right away — but all are easy to read and adapt to your newsroom. Then, in consultation with outside community members, narrow down the list to agreed-on experiments.

Consider these questions:

  • Why are you doing this?
  • How does this fill the gaps illuminated by your survey?
  • What partners should you work with?
  • What’s your budget?
  • How many people should work on it?
  • Who will own individual projects/experiments?


The Star’s group chose to work on multiple projects concurrently. One of them is “What’s Your KC Q?” — a collaboration between The Star and the Kansas City Public Library, using tech tool Hearken.


Decide how to
measure success.

Before launching your project(s), the working group must first decide the metrics you’ll use to determine success. When we say “metrics” we mean data, as much as possible, beyond anecdotes and “Wow, that was great” statements. Rather than developing entirely new benchmarks — though you may decide to come up with some new metrics for this project — think about the key performance indicators (KPIs) that will best spell success for your organization.


The Star tracks conventional metrics like pageviews, time on site, and where traffic comes from, along with Hearken-focused metrics like quantity and quality of questions submitted. 


Share your work with the community.

In the spirit of transparency and engagement, it’s crucial to share what you’re doing with your audience. Brand your project, and categorize content so readers can easily find it. Launch the project with an editor’s letter explaining how and why you’re doing it. Write a news story on your audience surveys. Create a podcast. Talk about it on social media. Start a blog devoted to describing and explaining this work. Embed a Google form or other engagement tool in your article to get real-time feedback. 

In all cases, be sure you have a conversation with the community. Don’t announce the project and leave it at that. Instead, keep your audience up to date on what’s happening, including what you’ve learned and how you’ve adapted along the way.

Speaking of conversations, don’t forget to tell us what you’re doing! Email or tweet us with your ideas, questions and results. We’d love to chat.


Evaluate as you go.


You have a project. You’ve established how you’re going to measure its success. Now, it’s up to your working group to assess the experiment regularly and navigate any roadblocks. Are you staying on mission? Any early evidence that it’s successful or not? Should you adjust resources? Is this a viable, long-term initiative?

Establish up front how often you should do these reality checks, and be sure to frame meetings around key moments — such as after an event, while the results are fresh.

Your working group leader will keep the top editor or editors (assuming he/she/they aren’t members of the working group) up to speed along the way, of course. These periodic evaluations can be useful milestones for fuller briefings with the top folks, perhaps over lunch with the full working group.


When a key working group member and library contacts left, KC Q momentum slowed. The team regrouped with a revised strategy and the project picked up more steam than ever. 


Resurvey the community.


Your team has dedicated significant time and effort into your initiative, but has it changed your audience’s perceptions? You won’t know until you ask. We recommend you re-administer the community survey to see if there are changes in overall perceptions and news fluency. You may also choose to add specific questions related to your experiments to measure awareness about those efforts. Though you won’t be able to survey the same group of people, try to keep your population parameters the same. You aren’t looking to measure change in individuals, but rather the community at large. You will also want to ask if your transparency and engagement practices have made them more or less likely to consume and pay for news from your outlet.




Your evaluations and survey results will help your working group make an informed decision about next steps. 

Remember: Our goal is to help you create long-term change — not just a one-off experiment — in your newsroom. All your transparency and engagement efforts will build upon each other to help your community better understand how news works. You can make this happen by expanding or reconfiguring a current project or launching a new project. 

Expand your current project: Ideally your initiative is successful, impactful and viable. If your project hit its benchmarks, keep at it. Think about ways to expand it, whether that’s introducing it newsroom-wide, hosting a related event or increasing its frequency and/or reach.

Reconfigure your current project in a phase two: What happens if your project falls short but you’re not ready to give up? You’ve likely been evaluating its success along the way and adjusting as necessary. Now is the time to pointedly rethink your efforts for a version 2.0: Is the audience wrong? Do you need an outside partner? A new project owner? More manpower? 

Launch a new project: Whether you’re replacing an original project or launching a new one, head back to the “Choose your experiment” step. Consider if you should tackle a new category, goal or audience. Also think about your initial working group meetings and any “runner-up” ideas you can rekindle now.

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