When he came up with the idea for The Listening Post project, Jesse Hardman had already been working as a media developer for the international NGO Internews, in places such as Sri Lanka, Peru and Pakistan.
In his job, he often collaborated with local outlets and community radio stations in those countries to easily get news and information to people in difficult situations, whether it was famine, natural disasters or civil war.
"Being from the US, I saw a lot of similarities in the need for information, people feeling unheard or disconnected from what they see in media," Hardman told Journalism.co.uk.
"I was really interested in taking some of the strategies I had been practising abroad with Internews and applying them somewhere in the US."
His work with Internews inspired Hardman to found The Listening Post in 2013, and launch the first project in New Orleans. The Listening Post, which is owned and operated by Internews, partnered with local public radio station WWNO to assess the information needs of people living in neighbourhoods left out of the city's post-Katrina development, and how to re-engage them with the community.
It's based on the idea of listening, then trying to respond to what people tell you
– Jesse Hardman, The Listening Post Collective
This initial stage of the project is called the information need strategy, he said, which involves attending community events and spending time talking to people to collect information about how people get their news, what issues are on their minds, and what devices they use.
"It's based on the idea of listening, then trying to respond to what people tell you.
"So in New Orleans, we have been experimenting with sending people news and asking them to comment on their experiences with important topics through their cellphones, but also through spaces in their communities that they are already spending time in, such as public libraries, churches and grocery stores."
They also put up listings in those public spaces, encouraging people to record their stories and thoughts about things such as public safety, education, jobs or health, and send them through to the newsroom.
Over the last four years, The Listening Post has expanded to seven other cities in the US: New Jersey, Baltimore, Omaha, Oakland, Georgia and Minneapolis, becoming The Listening Post Collective.
Two weeks ago, on 23 June, Hardman and the rest of the team, which also includes a community manager, a programme officer and a data analyst, launched The Listening Post Collective website. The platform is a place where resources, projects and people working on these initiatives, as well as those interested in adopted The Listening Post approach, can come together.
Every time a new Listening Post chapter launches, the team uses a playbook they have devised to help journalists better understand the needs of their communities by first listening and facilitating two-way conversations, before getting to the stage where stories, projects and reports are produced and distributed.
The playbook is free and features seven steps that can be replicated for any editorial project: choose a community, visit and listen, survey and document, craft questions, engage, create content, and keep the conversation going. Journalists can go through the playbook at their own pace, and more tactics and examples are available for each step to guide them.
For example, in Omaha and Oakland, the projects are still at the initial listening stage, while The Listening Post in the other cities are more advanced, in the third or fourth stage of the playbook.
Hardman said newsrooms usually start the audience engagement process at step four or five, mostly because of the pressures to publish quickly and often, or because they are funded for a project for a limited amount of time. But building trust with a community takes time, "before you want something from them, whether that's a quote or their participation".
"We probably get two or three calls a week from people saying 'hey, I'm doing this thing, what do you think, what else would you try?, and they're often my favourite calls because there's lot of creativity and innovative work going on that we don't know about.
If you have this data and you can show participation, whether it's text messages sent or responses you get, you are able to show it to people who are going to help you make this sustainable
– Jesse Hardman, The Listening Post Collective
"You don't show up in Sri Lanka and say 'this is the BBC way of doing this' or 'this is the NPR way of doing this' – if you're actually serious about reaching people, it's more about 'how are you doing this, what are you trying, what do you think works?'"
The website also offers free project management tools for newsrooms to organise and analyse the data they collect on their engagement projects.
Among the resources available are a guide of engagement activities to try out in a community, such as setting up recording devices, hosting events or posting public signs, as well as a comprehensive overview of SMS platforms that can be used for crowdsourcing. There is also a discussion board where project partners and prospective partners can share findings and talk about what has worked in their communities.
"There's a section keeping organised and collecting your data – how do you sustain a project like this, how do you find funders and how do you convince a media outlet to want to support something like this financially?
"I think that is really helpful because if you have this data and you can show participation, whether it's text messages sent or responses you get, you are able to show it to people who are going to help you make this sustainable."
Until now, each Listening Post project has been funded individually, mostly by regional foundations. The next step will be to look for funding for The Listening Post Collective as a hub and service, said programme officer Carolyn Powers.
"We want to experiment with something like question of the month," she added, "where we suggest a question that partners can adopt and integrate into their own project in each community, which we think would be interesting to explore down the line."
"We are open-sourcing what we've learned and giving people an opportunity to work with us if they want to," Hardman said.
Update 05/07: The piece has been updated to reflect that The Listening Post is an initiative owned and operated by Internews.