Any Questions: One way we’re trying to be a resource for our community

I’m a question-asker. A voracious, mildly annoying, painstakingly thorough question-asker. Ask any of my teachers or editors — they’ll corroborate my story.

And this isn’t one of those stories where I could follow a statement like that up with, “But it wasn’t always that way.” It was. It was always that way, and it probably always will be.

I first became aware that question-asking could set off sparks during a parent-teacher conference. My first-grade teacher told my mom that my twin sister, Ariel, asked too many questions. My mother, almost apoplectic at this point, countered: “Why is that a problem? My teacher couldn’t come up with an answer (I imagine that she cowered in fear or something, but that’s mostly wishful thinking).

In remembering the event, my mom told me what she matter-of-factly told my teacher: I will not discourage Ariel. She’s inquisitive, she’s little and thats exactly what she’s supposed to be doing at this age.

So, from a young age, I learned that questions are OK. More than OK — they’re encouraged.

And it’s because of that memory, perhaps, that I found myself so delighted and excited to help spearhead the outreach team’s “Any Questions” project this semester. Inspired by WBEZ 91.5 Chicago’s “Curious City,” Any Questions began a few semesters ago with an invitation to our readers and members of our community to be curious. We offered to take on any question, big or small, and try to answer it.

It was a slow start over the first two semesters, but this semester, we expanded it in earnest, dedicating a specific team to it. Our list of stories is still growing, but I’m so proud of how far we’ve come and the service we’ve been able to provide our readers.

This project is important to me because it has the potential to directly help our readers with no preset agenda from us. So often news organizations unilaterally decide what people should know. Sometimes, in an effort to turn a complete story or when we come up against an obstacle, we inadvertently withhold information that could still be useful to people.

With Any Questions, we are committed to showing our hand, so to speak. We publish what we have when we have it, even if we have to admit we couldn’t quite figure something out. If we answer a question in a social media post, that’s sufficient. If it needs a more fleshed out story, we’ll keep writing. The questions aren’t always timely, and they might not seem like “hard-hitting journalism” (whatever that is). There are no hard and fast rules at this point, except to be a resource.

With those things in mind, these are the goals I set for the semester:

  1. Increase our output, be that in articles, tweets, or facebook posts

  2. Show readers that the Missourian is a resource for them.

  3. Have readers feel comfortable coming to us with their concerns, and that no concern is trivial — that we as a newsroom are incorporating their needs and agenda into ours.

  4. Have a defined plan for finding/updating our list of questions to answer

  5. Understand how our content fits into daily coverage in the newsroom

  6. Create an analytics report mid-semester and at the end of the semester to measure our success and reach with readers.

I think we’ve made definite progress on 1 and 4; We’re publicizing our efforts when we publish stories and even when we don’t with evergreen social posts. To update our running list, I’ve assigned daily and weekly tasks for our team to do social searches on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and our story comments, as well as checks on a Google form we use for submissions.

Offline, team members have gone out to various places in the community with a big easel explaining the project to try to solicit interaction in person. With the weather becoming more pleasant, we’ve had better luck. We sent one team member out on roller skates (her brilliant idea) and had even better luck.

We are making some headway on 5 and 6. I’ve put together some guidelines for the rest of our newsroom about how to get started with questions we’ve already compiled when general assignment reporters are looking for an assignment. I think the project’s strong element of reporting is key to helping integrate it into our newsroom. Essential to this project’s survival is extending it beyond the outreach team. We aren’t the only ones who can answer questions. The more we can collaborate, the stronger and more far-reaching the section can be. I’ve taken a cursory look at our analytics for stories we’ve published, and I’m planning to have a more detailed report put together toward the end of the semester.

Obviously, 2 and 3 are the hardest. And they’re hardest with any type of engagement, not just this project. My team has an assignment to seek out a civic meeting of some sort to visit and talk about what we do at the Missourian. The goal is to make people aware of the fact that we’re here. Some have brought along fliers I made for Any Questions, and I’m hoping we can get on the radar of community-minded folks. For 3, I think it’s mostly a matter of sticking to our guns — if we ask for input, we have to be prepared to act on it, or at least acknowledge it. Occasionally, it means we let ourselves be silly.

That’s probably what I love most about Any Questions. It doesn’t have to serious hard news, although it definitely can be. It can be about drunk birds. Or bridge maintenance. Or even ghost monkeys (yup, you read that right — ghost monkeys).

I want the posts to have a voice. I want them to be friendly and approachable. To me, that seems like the best way to let our readers know there are real people working here who care about their concerns and questions, no matter how insignificant they might seem to others.

So now, my question to you: Do you live in Columbia? Do you have a question about your community? Do you need help figuring it out?

Perfect! We can help.