Leave the building: A guide to effective newsroom outreach

By Rachel Lund


A Public Insight Network Bureau journalist speaks to people at the Arab American Festival. (Photo by )

Most journalism students can recall the time they heard that the best way to find the stories that matter to a community is to get out of the building.

It has also proven to be a good way to expand the source base in the Public Insight Network.

Each of the analysts in the PIN Bureau has had the chance to do in-person outreach. The PIN Bureau has set up tables at the Arab American Festival, the State of Arizona Latino Voters forum, and political events. We’ve also spent time walking around Phoenix Comic-Con and attending a football tailgate. During these events we have learned some valuable lessons about community outreach.

1. Make eye contact

Pay attention to where people are looking. When they glance at you and you catch their eye – you’ve won half the battle. Social rules dictate that they have to give you some sort of response – a smile for a smile or an answer to a question. So look at people, smile and be ready to start a conversation.

This may not come naturally, but it is the single most important thing you can do to engage strangers in a conversation.

2. Ask a quick question

As soon as you make contact, ask a question. Start with something that won’t threaten them but will make them think. My favorite questions is, “Do you keep up with the news?” or “How do you feel about the media?”

Starting a conversation this way may also help you get going. The first time PIN Bureau journalist Darby Fitzgerald participated in an outreach event, she said she felt nervous.

“After jumping in the nerves were gone, I could concentration my pitch and the conversation,” Fitzgerald said.

3. Make a pitch

We’ve found that we have about 30 seconds before the potential source fills out our card or walks away.

It’s important to first establish who you are. This leads to the bigger issue of branding. If your organization hasn’t gotten to the point of a trusted brand, make sure you start by being honest about your intentions and desire to tell his or her story.

4. Know Your Audience

PIN Bureau journalist Dominick DiFurio found that some events work better than others.

“Outreach tends to workout better when we have strong signage, look professional and are stationary so that people who are interested can come to us for info,” DiFurio said.

When you’re at a table, potential sources will look to see what is going on. Often their gazes will travel to you, which makes generating eye contact a lot easier.

Knowing what frame of mind your audience will be in can help you decide which events would be effective. For example, we have learned that alcohol consumption is often not conducive to community engagement.

5. Gather Information


We bring either small cards for collecting contact information or half-sheet paper queries. We’ve found that shorter is better.

“Bring short forms!” said PIN Bureau journalist Samantha Shotzbarger. “When my outreach partner and I asked potential sources to fill our very brief forms, we received a greater response than when we asked them to fill out a questionnaire.”

6. Give Thanks

Make sure you thank your new sources both in person and through an email, welcoming them to the network.

We’ve had mixed results when sending a query immediately after adding sources to the network, but this doesn’t mean they won’t be active members. Establish an ongoing connection, and give them time.


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