Across the U.S., teachers were leading strikes, demanding proper compensation for their work. It started in West Virginia and gained momentum in a few other states. In the Facebook Group “This is Your Texas,” run by The Texas Tribune for Texans to discuss hot-button issues, one teacher lamented that she and her fellow teachers couldn’t join this movement, posting “I find it a little disheartening that we aren’t ‘allowed’ to strike. Since we are state employees, we fall under ‘The Taylor Law’. Now I fully admit that there are organizations that will lobby for us, but it is interesting that in our democracy we can’t use one of our basic rights.”

Editors at the Tribune reached out for more information and learned that Texas State Law barred public employees from being able to strike. The Tribune soon after published a story about this little-known law in Texas. It became one of their biggest stories of the year

The Tribune started this group to convene civically-minded Texans and discuss the biggest issues facing the state each month. They’ve covered topics like education and gun rights. In the run up to the midterm elections they’re covering property taxes, civility and affordable housing. Each month they explore a different topic. Discussion is largely led by the community, but the Tribune journalists will pose thoughtful questions, share related stories, and facilitate Q+As with experts.

The Tribune has seen three key results from this group:

  1. High-quality discourse around sensitive issues.
  2. Diversifying their audience. For instance, the group helped bring more women into these debates.
  3. Great journalism. The group has been a source for breaking stories and feeding content on their site.

We talked with Alex Samuels, the Tribune’s community reporter, and Amanda Zamora, head of audience growth and engagement, about why they started the group, what a typical month looks like, and how they hope it helps increase business to the Tribune.

What prompted you to start this group?
Amanda Zamora: We do events for our readers. We do more than 60 a year now. They’re free and open to the public. We are the conveners. We bring together journalists and elected officials and engaged Texans to dig into policy and politics. The level of quality and discourse of these events is really high. We saw Facebook Groups as a way to simulate that kind of level of engagement, design a better kind of online conversation, and be the convener. We bring together journalists, and local leaders to participate.

It matters for us and our business to facilitate quality engagement with our audience — to get to know names and faces. By having that kind of space and delivering that kind of experience, they’ll be more engaged, and ideally join our memberships programs.

What kind of results have you seen?
Zamora: The group has already been helpful in three ways. First, in the quality of discourse. Political discourse online has been really toxic. If you look at the same story we post on our page versus the group, it’s radically different. Being able to design our own rules of engagement has created a higher quality. Second, it’s diversified our audience. We see a lot more women engaging in this group. The third thing is the journalism. Alex is reporting out stories we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.

Who is in the group?
Alex Samuels: The group is diverse. There are some lawmakers in there. Generally though it’s engaged Texans who are interested in engaging with Tribune journalists or have a hand in what we report out of the group. And then also people who want to have a discussion about issues facing Texas and Texans with other like-minded folks.

Can you take us through what the discussions look like?
Samuels: Every month we put out a topic — for instance, gun policy in Texas. That was a hot topic because of recent shootings at the time. This is Your Texas became a great forum where people could openly discuss this in a civil way. Then we saw a spike in posts about immigration towards the end of the month. We only approve posts that are about the discussion topic for the month. But we look at what people are talking about and use that as a guide to what we will talk about the next month. It’s just a really good forum for people to get their thoughts out there, and then have meaningful and moderated discussions with other Texans.

It’s people from both sides of the aisle. To make sure it doesn’t devolve, we have house rules. Those rules helped keep it civil. We were discussing red flag gun control laws, and people were saying why and why not they were supporting it. People were able to see and understand others point of views really well.

Zamora: On both those topics. It’s really difficult to have a conversation about guns that doesn’t devolve into adhominum attacks, or superficial argumentation. The discussion happening is really thoughtful and high quality.

What does a typical month look like?
Samuels: During the last week of each month we get ready to switch discussion topics. I make a post that asks for suggestions for the next discussion topics and people comment. I tell people if they see an idea they want to talk about, to like it. I let that sit for 2-3 days, then I do a poll in the group with 3-5 of the best options. We have that up for 48 hours and people vote for their topic of choice. Starting on the first, we say the topic and that we’ll only accept posts from here on out centered on that topic. At the end of the month I’ll do a wrap up post of things we discussed in the group.

How do you engage the group around one topic?
Samuels: We try and do 2 AMAs (Ask Me Anything) a month. On our second month in the group, we did it around education policy. One AMA was with our executive editor Ross Ramsey, and we said to ask him anything around school finance policy in Texas. That was super engaging. It’s a complicated, convoluted topic and people could learn from an expert in the field. Later in the month, we noticed one member of the group was a a director of special education for a local school district. I reached out to him asked if he’d be interested in an AMA. It’s great when we get outside folks. That’s how we get people to engage around a specific topic. We always make sure it’s a topic that has enough topics to cover for a month.

I let the group lead the discussion. If it’s slowing down, then I’ll share stories we’ve done around that topic to get it started again. Or journalists will share their stories. I usually do one new post per day. It’s a 70/30 split with the audience leading the way.

What’s something unexpected that’s come out of the group?
Samuels: We have people who are really passionate in the group. When we were discussing education, teacher strikes were happening across the country. One teacher wrote “TK” . I had no idea what she was talking about. Myself and our social media editor asked what she meant and she told us that it’s in the code that government workers can’t strike without losing their benefits. That was something we had no clue about, and we wouldn’t have learned about it without this group. We looked it up and did this really cool explainer. It was a great example of finding people in the group who are sharing information in the group and it’s leading to great stories. It’s also been one of the most popular stories on our site.

How do you see this group impacting your business and building up your membership programs?
Zamora: We’re still in cultivation mode. For us, email is the biggest converting channel for members. Email subscriptions is the best measure for us because if they’re into our newsletters they’re into our events. For social, this is a great next step for engagement. It’s great when stories take and have reach. But we want more than drive bys. So this group is the next step to pull people a little closer in to us. So we will be looking to do special programming with this group for our fall drive. We’re planning on doing referral programming campaign where we incentivize people to get other members to join their program, and incentivize them with rewards. This group is the exact type of people we want to make that appeal to. They understand our mission. They’re civically engaged. They care about the issues. They’re like the perfect audience to be making those appeals to because they believe and understand the importance of our mission.

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