Quinnipiac University

Three Billboards (+Three Listening Posts) Inside Hamden, Connecticut

Quinnipiac University is one of the 2018 winners of the Challenge Fund. See all the winners.


  • Amy Walker, Assistant Teaching Professor of Journalism, Quinnipiac University
  • Paul Bass, Executive Editor, The New Haven Independent
  • Terry Bloom, Associate Dean of the School of Communications, Quinnipiac University
  • Molly Yanity, Assistant Professor of Journalism, Quinnipiac University
  • Burgess Brown, Community Manager, Listening Post Collective/Internews
  • Courtney Marchese, Associate Professor of Interactive Media + Design, Quinnipiac University

Describe your project

Can audience engagement strategies offer value to a hyperlocal newsroom? Our team will assess whether billboards, text message exchanges, and audio recording posts can deepen reporting on food insecurity, and help a New Haven newsroom expand its audience in neighboring Hamden, Connecticut. Much of our work will be based on the community engagement playbook designed by the Listening Post Collective. We also want to evaluate whether the community values this sort of engagement with journalists, a research question that some say is essential right now (see Columbia Journalism Review, “The audience engagement industry struggles with measuring success,” April 2018).

What is your experiment?

We will first meet with the Hamden Food Security Task Force and St. Ann’s Church, to build trust and connect with residents. We will contact Hamden school teachers, many of whom say hunger is a problem for students (80 percent) and that they keep food for them in the classroom (60 percent), according to a United Way survey. We will be mindful that sources may be reluctant to discuss their experiences. These conversations will inform in-person and digital surveys of residents, which we will conduct to track experiences with hunger as well as news habits.

We will launch audience engagement strategies, such as the placement of listening posts in community centers and street-level billboards asking readers to respond by texting a number. We would ask participants to share their experiences with the option to remain anonymous. This may help us find new sources, including those who don’t want to speak with a reporter about this sensitive topic. We will interview public school officials and government representatives.

The team would produce multimedia stories for the Independent’s website. We will hold an event in partnership with local leaders to share our results. We would survey again to look at changes in awareness of hunger, and to assess whether people participated in our engagement projects (e.g., saw the billboards, responded to the call for text messages, interacted with the listening posts). We would also ask whether people valued this sort of engagement and analyze metrics via the Independent’s website and social media.

2019 update: We had initially planned to launch community surveys in October and to set up listening posts/community mics in November, but this was just too soon. We are now doing these activities in the winter/early spring. We used the time to plan for a two-way text messaging project (with community member input) to address an information need in the community. It became clear after attending many community gatherings in the fall that it would be hard to get residents to speak about the incredibly personal/sensitive topic of hunger. We felt we needed more time to connect with different members of the community (through our regular presence at meetings) to get closer to residents experiencing hunger, and to then get feedback about engagement strategies and survey questions. Listening posts, for example, just didn’t feel right without more time for relationship building and understanding. And we felt that formal surveys might be the wrong way to introduce ourselves to residents.

If the experiment works, what do you think might happen?

If we are successful we will have collected previously non-existent data on residents facing hunger in Hamden, and have articles documenting the problem, possible solutions, and the stories of people most affected. This work may help officials, community leaders, educators, and residents better understand and act on the issue, and may help those affected by hunger find assistance. Our engagement strategies may also attract a Hamden audience to the Independent, a newsroom that offers more in-depth reporting than competitors. We will also have some understanding of whether residents want journalists to engage with them via these methods. This work will contribute to a growing and necessary body of research to measure the impact of journalistic community engagement (and specifically the strategies outlined by the Listening Post Collective). The work may also help the Independent determine how to expand its reach in Hamden, and whether Quinnipiac students can play a role.

2019 update: In the spring, 17 undergraduate and graduate students participated in a semester course called “Covering Suburban Hunger” (including the three students above). Students met with representatives from the United Way and studied the group’s surveys and data and built story idea lists. They applied to join one of two engagement teams (SMS or community mics), and worked to finalize billboard/flyer designs, to build the texting platform language, to identify places to post flyers, and to find locations for the community mics.

Students also have mapped out “engagement points” throughout Hamden. Here is one example.

How is this project unique and innovative?

Hamden does not have a dedicated news outlet that offers the in-depth reporting and neighborhood-level focus that the Independent provides in neighboring New Haven. Combining the Independent’s reporting mindset and experience with a Quinnipiac team of students and faculty would chart new territory and fill an information void in our community. Support from ONA would also allow Quinnipiac’s School of Communications to continue to offer new approaches to learning both in and out of the classroom.

This project may also help the Independent determine if it should expand its coverage to the Hamden area over the long term, and whether Quinnipiac can play a supportive role in that expansion. It will give the Independent’s journalists a better sense of whether audience engagement strategies are worth incorporating into their reporting and production. No news outlet, to our knowledge, has used billboards, text messaging, or listening posts to connect with its audience in the larger Hamden community (we have experimented a bit with texting students via GroundSource on our campus only). News sources in our area, including the Hamden Patch, the print-only Hamden Journal and the New Haven Register, typically focus on connecting with audiences via social media and email. Our efforts to determine whether the community wants to engage with news outlets in new ways will also offer valuable results to the New Haven Independent and its peers throughout Connecticut, and perhaps even beyond.

How might this experiment change teaching at your school or media practices in your partner’s newsroom?

This experiment will inform the development of a longer-term partnership with the Independent to fill information gaps in Hamden. In previous partnerships with other newsrooms, our work started and ended in a semester, and student learning was rushed. We wish to improve student outcomes and offer sustained reporting for our community. We may create a reporting fellows program, where students can take a fall independent study, a spring course, and work with faculty in the summer. The Independent already sees its readers as an essential part of its reporting. Its followers comment on stories, acting as copy editors and fact checkers. But as a nonprofit with a small staff, the Independent doesn’t have resources to experiment with other forms of engagement, such as listening posts or texting. If this project is successful, the Independent may choose to adopt these strategies in partnership with Quinnipiac to enhance reporting and find sources.