Why You Should Launch an “AUA”

Oh, dip! (No, really.)

Why You Should Launch an “AUA”
An AUA about French onion dip went viral. (The story went viral, not the dip.)

By Alice Dreger

Today, I’ve got another hack for you, one I hope you’ll seriously consider. This one is simple to execute (usually), it lets you do what you love to do (dig and report!), and it pays dividends (sometimes literally).

Start up a regular column called “Ask Us to Investigate,” except in place of “Us,” put the name of your news operation. Invite readers to send in questions they want you to investigate, and then bring to your full audience the question, the answer, and the method you used to get the answer.

This may sound too obvious to bother, but if you’re not already doing it, know that, in time, our “Ask ELi to Investigate” series at East Lansing Info led to:

  • some of our biggest story leads;
  • people talking about our operation as the first place to turn for answers to local questions;
  • questions that educated us about things we probably should have known;
  • new donors, newsletters sign-ups, and paid subscriptions.

“Ask ELi to Investigate” made a fabulous year-end fundraising tool as we reminded readers of all the questions we answered over the course of a year. It really made us stand out as a truly local news operation, and our staff found it one of the most satisfying aspects of our public service.

Here are some examples:

A few tips if you take on this approach:

Show your work. Within each column, explain how you went about getting the information you’re bringing. This helps remind people what reporting requires – and that it is real work.

Consider keeping questioners anonymous. In our experience, this seemed to make more people more willing to send in questions.

Short is okay. Grouping questions into “grab bags” columns can feel satisfying in that they’re a little meatier that an uber-short column, but one advantage of discrete articles for each question is that linking back in future reporting becomes simpler. Limiting each column to one question also makes it easier for people to understand comments and join the conversation (because you don’t get one person talking about a warplane rumors while another person is talking about snapping turtles).

Finally, make sure you solicit next-level reader interaction with each column. Encourage newsletter sign-ups. Remind people that subscriptions support your investigative service. Stick a “donate” button next to the boldfaced question, “Who else brings you this kind of public service?”

Have a local news hack you’d like to share with Local News Blues’ readership? Contact me.

Alice Dreger is a journalist, historian, and the publisher of Local News Blues. She founded East Lansing Info, a nonprofit digital investigative news service, and ran the operation for about ten years. Read more at the Local News Blues contributors page.