My job teaching audience engagement is the best, and it could be yours

NOTE: This post was written before the intensity of recent events on Mizzou’s campus (events that came as less of a surprise to those of us invested in this community than they did to the larger world). The job might be even more interesting and important now than it was a few weeks ago.

It’s time for me to move on from what might be the most rewarding job I’ll ever have. For family reasons, I’ve moved from Missouri to Florida, and I’m teaching from afar this semester to bridge the gap between me and the lucky person chosen to do this job next. Will it be you?

THE JOB, PART ONE: I’m the director of community outreach at the Columbia Missourian, a newspaper that covers the community of Columbia (a very cool college town). We serve the town, not just the campus, and we do it with transparency, integrity and depth. We also do it with a staff of students that turns over every 16 weeks.

THE JOB, PART TWO: I’m an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism — part of the group of faculty members whose primary teaching duties lie in newsroom supervision. The professional/faculty editors who run the newsroom stay pretty darn consistent, with less turnover than any other newsroom I’ve worked in. But except for some paid students, the rest of the student staff is either brand new or in a new role every semester. It’s chaotic and crazy and so much damned fun.

Does it sound fun to …

  • Work in a teaching newsroom full of smart, optimistic, dedicated journalists?
  • Be given room to experiment and fail, with the understanding that the experiment is sometimes the highest good?
  • Stop defending why journalists should talk about their audiences and care who consumes their content, because the newsroom has already drunk the kool-aid?
  • Teach the next generation of journalists — the ones in your classes AND the 200+ every semester who work in your newsroom — that collaborative, audience-focused journalism is necessary, rewarding and fun?
  • Keep adding to a deep toolbox of ways to highlight diverse community voices?
  • Collaborate with dedicated colleagues, keeping your boss in the loop without having to ask permission for every idea?

The Missourian’s community outreach team is made up of students enrolled in the Participatory Journalism class. I see my staff (plus some non-staff students) in class twice a week, then also supervise them in the newsroom. So I have a staff of 8-15 every semester (depending on enrollment), but they each put in just 10 hours a week or so.

Our job on the team is to make the news more collaborative and social. And by “social,” I don’t just mean social media. I mean a genuine two-way experience and relationship. Feedback. Collaboration. Conversation. In-person socialization. Community voices. Measurement and analytics. Here are highlights of the kind of work we do. Some of it is work that stays with the outreach team, and some is designed to support and amplify the work of the rest of the newsroom.

outreach team members

The very first community outreach team at the Columbia Missourian, in the fall of 2011.

The community outreach team has been around since Fall 2011. I was the Missourian’s design editor for several years before I did a fellowship at the Reynolds Journalism Institute and refocused my work on audience engagement. When I finished the yearlong fellowship, I created a new role for myself and a new department in the newsroom.

It’s been a helluva ride. I moved to Columbia in December 2003 with no intention of staying 12 years.  (It’s worth mentioning that I started teaching when I was still in my 20s, with just a bachelor’s degree. Youth is not a barrier.)

The students who’ve been on the ride with me can be seen in this Facebook album (semester by semester) and on this Twitter list. The alumni of the team often find themselves in leadership roles early in their careers because their newsrooms and other organizations so desperately need their knowledge and skills. (If you’re looking for an employee with these skills, hit me up … I bet I can find you someone.)

Okay, so now I’m feeling sappy.

You should also know that the job is demanding and challenging like nothing I’ve taken on professionally before. The pace can be relentless, especially early in each semester when the students truly have no idea what they’re doing. Thank goodness there are generous breaks and lots of flexibility. (That’s in comparison to newsrooms. It’s a year-round job, not an academic schedule. We work summers and breaks, being a community news source and all.)

People who are happy at the Missourian embrace the chaos and fluidity of it. They take more pride in their students’ work than in their own. And they are willing to fully invest in their work because the work matters … more than most daily journalism, if I may be so bold. The stakes are higher than just today’s news report. The work pays dividends for years to come, as hundreds of students a year (seriously, hundreds) take what they learn at the Missourian into the world and hear our voices in their heads as they work.

Personally, I want what they hear in their heads to include a relentless focus on the people the journalism is designed to serve. Can you help make that happen?

To read the official job description and apply, go through and use job code 18140. I’m happy to answer your questions.

Checklist: How to edit for social media

We’re talking in my class this week about writing and editing behind social media posts. Here’s the list I use in my newsroom about what to look for when editing behind each other. 

  1. Do a typical copy edit … spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc.
  2. Double check every fact against source material or story … proper name, number, gender pronouns, etc.
  3. Check the tone to see if it is a good fit for the story or topic. Also check the context. Is it accurate in spirit, not just fact?
  4. Ask what the post is designed to accomplish, and if the writing and frame are as compelling as possible. Does the post give users a reason to click? If there are questions posed, will those questions elicit interesting answers? Are you asking a question people are dying to answer? **Are you using appropriate tags and handles? ***Are there people/groups you could tag who might especially want to read/share? ****Would it be a good idea to give credit to anyone for having shared something first, written something, etc.?
  5. **Are there images in the post? If so, are they the right ones? If not, is there a photo, graphic, screen grab or quote that would add impact?
  6. Check links in the post if applicable. Make sure links send users to the right story. And make sure they’re publicly available links, not internal admin links.
  7. *Check the voice and content of the post to make sure they fit the platform they’re headed to.
  8. Double check the time the post is scheduled for. Does it match what’s intended (and what’s logged on your organization’s planning doc, if you use one)? Will the post still read correctly at the time it goes live (that time references like today or yesterday are still accurate, that we’re not being too specific predicting tomorrow’s weather, etc.)?
  9. Check that you’re on the right account, and not sending a tweet to Facebook (if you use a tool that covers both), a sports tweet to the news account or newsroom posts to your own accounts. 

What would you add?

*Thanks to Reuben Stern for adding this one.

**Thanks to Taylor Kasper, Makenzie Koch and Hellen Tian for adding other things we talk about in the newsroom!

***Thanks to Anika Anand for this elaboration.

****Thanks to Matt DeRienzo for this suggestion.

We’re in this together: Takeaways from Experience Engagement

I just spent an exhilarating four days in Portland at the Experience Engagement workshop, hosted by Journalism That Matters and the University of Oregon’s Agora Journalism Center.

Here are some quick highlights and lessons (besides that going from the west coast to the east coast on a red eye is ill advised). I’ll give credit when my notes are specific enough to do so, and otherwise credit goes to the collective wisdom of those gathered. (By the way, session notes for most of the conversations, which happened unconference style, are posted online.)

I was so impressed with the group that gathered. More and more people are doing engaged, social, audience-focused journalism.

One valuable sector of that group was made up of non-journalists. That’s right … people who were not journalists spent hours upon hours helping us talk about how news and engagement lead to more thriving communities. We had the incredible benefit of wrestling with the challenges of our work alongside people focused on civic engagement for government, advocacy and nonprofit work. A few of them said their participation in the workshop had restored their faith in journalism or made them feel more invested in it. So that’s cool, right?

As for the journalists, their jobs and perspectives were diverse, and it was gratifying to see so many types of journalism organizations that were supporting engagement work. It seemed most of the attendees had audience engagement at the center of their jobs, and an investment was made to send them to Portland. So that’s cool, too.

The flip side of that is one we as a community of practitioners needs to address: Engagement can be lonely work. Engagement specialists often work solo and don’t have mentors or advisers with expertise in the same work. They also are often called upon to be leaders and teachers in their newsrooms or organizations. They are persuading veteran journalists to ask new questions, use new tools and share control of their journalism with audiences. They are fundamentally working toward a shift in their organizational cultures.

That’s hard for anyone to do solo, and it’s especially hard for people early in their careers, as a lot of engagement editors are. I certainly am getting this message from alums of my community outreach team. They feel very qualified for the tasks of their job but didn’t expect to be thrust into the role of change agent in their first jobs.

That’s why I’m glad that a key goal and outcome for the workshop was to discuss plans for an interactive field guide for engagement. Tools are needed to support people working toward more engaged newsrooms, whether they were hired to do engagement work or are taking it upon themselves to dabble. I expect you’ll hear more about this planned field guide soon.

A few other highlights:

  • More and more, we’re looking at conversation and participation as a core product, not just a means to an end. We need to get better at reflecting those interactions IN our core products so the value is clear to our wider audiences. (Andrew Haeg put it this way: Journalists can be thought of as architects of participation.)
  • From Terry Parris: So much potential exists when we start with the people rather than a story. Let the people drive the story. Start with inquiry and listening.
  • From Linda Miller: Nothing about us without us. Don’t do community-focused work without the involvement of the people you aim to serve.
  • Related, also from Linda: We need to stop doing unicorn journalism … jumping up and down as if something is rare or unprecedented just because we found it. Those one-off efforts miss the context and make us look out of touch, and they can feel disrespectful to the other people doing the thing we’re touting.
  • From Sydette Harry: With just about any story, journalists should find and report on related online conversations. And don’t mistakenly think that that’s about giving people a voice. Lots of people have a voice on their own, we’re just not paying attention to what they’re saying and including them in our coverage. It takes work to find the conversation, but it’s important to make the effort if we want to stay relevant.

Cheers to gaining momentum and walking away inspired, my friends.

In comments, readers hold us accountable

I really enjoyed Jack Murtha’s piece in CJR today about how audience engagement editors are guiding online discussions. It covers a lot of the kind of work I do and also touches on some familiar tensions in newsrooms about how audience contributions do or don’t influence the traditional journalism.

I especially appreciate this lovely description of the job.

(Audience engagement editors) are the children of the copy editor, the public editor, and the paperboy. Instead of grammar and style, this new breed of editor crafts online tone and relationships with readers. Web traffic and, if subtly, advertising dollars depend on their work. Together, their efforts help tear down a perception that the media is declarative and deaf to how readers interact with its work.

I want to contribute a reason I love online comments and encourage my newsroom to invest in them: They help make our journalism better, and they are evidence that we’re being genuinely responsive to the information needs of the people we aim to serve.

We should want questions and ideas from readers, right? Even when they make us do more work?

Here are two examples of really constructive comments from my newsroom’s readers just last week.

One story got two follow-up questions that led to additional reporting from the two reporters. One of the reporters replied with detailed answers to both readers. Here’s what eager readers want to know about golf carts in Columbia. 

On another story, a reader actually questioned something we let a source get away with saying. After a shooting at a VFW, a source told us this:

Bart Belgya, 70, sat at the bar Tuesday and smoked a cigarette. The Vietnam vet said he didn’t think the shooter would have the guts — though he used a more colorful term — to come back when veterans were around. All the veterans are expert marksmen here, he said, and all know how to handle a situation with a gun.

But one of our frequent commenters questioned it:

That assumes that one or more of the veterans is carrying. Does the VFW allow its members to carry weapons in the building? It wouldn’t surprise me if they didn’t.

It turns out they don’t allow guns — information our reporter learned and shared when prompted by the comment to follow up.

That’s readers holding us accountable. It’s commenting gold.

Quick Meerkat test shows potential for journalists

I played around this morning with Meerkat, a new live streaming app that’s built to integrate with Twitter. I thought I’d share a few quick observations about how it worked for me in my newsroom.

I have suggestions below. My main takeaway, though, is that the simple Twitter integration makes me likely to use Meerkat (over Ustream, for example) for times when I prioritize interaction with followers.

(I won’t spend time on step by step instructions. Here are useful posts from TechCrunch and Mashable.)

I signed in first this morning with my personal Twitter credentials. I was walking into a large lecture hall to teach a colleague’s class, and I started a stream while they were getting settled.

IMG_4425 I invited the class to click the link on my Twitter feed, and several of them did. (Fuzzy screen grab is on the right. I didn’t think to take one once folks joined.) It became clear quickly, though, that while the users could watch from a browser or from within their Twitter app, and I could see how many were watching, they needed to be in the Meerkat app to comment or interact.

I played around with my colleagues in the Columbia Missourian newsroom after class. We learned some things quickly and decided to live stream our morning news meeting a few minutes later.

Lesson: Browser not the same as in-app

If we want people to interact with us in the app, we need to give them a chance to download it before the stream starts. So before we went live with our branded stream, we did just that.

Lesson: Comments auto-tweet

Once there’s conversation within the app, each comment prompts an automatic tweet. And those tweets don’t include a link to the stream or a hashtag, so when seen on their own, they won’t make sense to followers. In the screen grab below, you can see that when a user asked within the app what the meeting was about, his comment showed up on my screen and also as a tweet to @CoMissourian from his Twitter account.


It does show up as a reply to our tweet announcing the stream, so if the tweet is expanded, the context will appear. But it would be nice if a short link or a hashtag appeared as well. (Maybe have the option for the hosts to designate a hashtag?)

Lesson: Retweets and likes also auto-tweet

Users watching a stream have buttons inviting them to retweet the stream or like it. Below are screen grabs from a stream my colleague, Elizabeth Stephens, set up for testing before the Missourian went live. On the left is the view I saw as a follower. Once I clicked the retweet and like buttons on the bottom, you can see in the right image that those actions were reflected and that the buttons no longer appeared.


In addition, Elizabeth’s initial automated tweet announcing the stream shows me as having liked it and retweeted it.

The integration is what makes this great. Each interaction has a chance to pique the curiosity of each participant’s network, amplifying the reach pretty quickly. But because the auto-tweets lack context, we weren’t initially sure if they were a bug or a feature.

Content ideas

If you want to watch our 12-minute Missourian experiment this morning, it’s at the bottom of this post. We had about 25 people watching for a big chunk of it, and we learned a lot.

As the person holding the phone, I went back and forth between showing the room and reversing the camera to talk directly to the viewers. A couple of times, I awkwardly stepped back a few steps into my office so I could talk to the viewers without disturbing the meeting.

We talked about ideas for Meerkat use by journalists.

We’d use it to stream live events, but it would be better done from an individual journalist’s account than from a brand account, probably. The interactions would be too much from a brand account, but the brand could retweet the individual’s invitations.

It’d be great for bringing viewers to the sidelines at a football game. Or to a behind-the-scenes tour of a facility or place most people don’t get to go. Or, like we did today, to newsroom conversations.

I’m looking forward to playing with it more.

From idea to distribution: Teaching an expanded life cycle for a community story

This is a version of a talk I gave this morning at the Green Shoots in Journalism Education event at the Reynolds Journalism Institute.

Appropriately, a lot of what we teach in journalism school is about the craft of gathering information and telling stories.

But too often missing is a discussion of who it’s all for.

  • Who wants it?
  • Who is it helping?
  • Who will seek it out?
  • Who will pay for it?
  • Who gets to decide what “good journalism” is?

If we want a future full of relevant, well-funded journalism, we have to be teaching students to ask those questions.

We can’t work in a vacuum, publish, then pat ourselves on the back and move on to the next story. We need a plan to:

  • aggressively reflect a community’s priorities and voices
  • identify the audience for what we do
  • invest in bringing audience and content together
  • track what works so we can continually experiment and improve

My Participatory Journalism class makes up my staff at the Columbia Missourian newspaper. And our task as the paper’s community outreach team is to ask and answer those questions on behalf of our product and our newsroom. We work to infuse audience-focused philosophies into our newsroom’s processes and products.

What I’d love to see is a journalism curriculum that infuses this focus on audience into all our classes. I’d like there to be no need for a Participatory Journalism class or a community outreach team. We all need to focus on making journalism that the audience wants and finding the audience for the journalism we think is important.

Here’s an example of what that looked like for a package of stories that my newsroom published a couple of weeks ago. Click through the slides, or watch me explain them during an 8-minute presentation.

Related posts:

This concept from The Guardian still motivates me to think broadly about the life cycle of a story.

Here are questions I think journalists should be asking for more audience-focused reporting.

Lou Reed and journalism: How creation changes perception

I kicked off this semester’s Participatory Journalism class with a new reading — a blog post that has become like a mental ear worm for me. I keep chewing on it and getting more from it.

Scott Rosenberg published an insightful story last month called Doing is knowing: “Sweet Jane” and the Web. It’s a wonderful reflection on how a participatory culture and digital innovation have opened up possibilities of creation, not just consumption, to the masses. Plus, Lou Reed is awesome.

From the post:

“But I’ve learned what musicians have always known: Playing a song changes your understanding of it. Playing music changes how you listen to it. Doing changes knowing.”

I’d love to hear thoughts from others about how this might relate to their own lives and work. In my class, we talked about the differences between “Sweet Jane” YouTube tutorials that had thousands of views versus dozens. We talked about the rise of Let’s Play videos on YouTube, and how my 11-year-old son watches them but also wants to record himself playing Minecraft and share that video with others. We talked about the ways we invite readers of our news product to contribute, and what might motivate them to do that.

I suspect I’ll keep this music theme going throughout the semester.

One more excerpt, then go read the thing yourself:

Millions of people today have the chance to feel what it’s like to make media — to create texts or images or recordings or videos to be consumed by other people they may or may not know. Whether they are skilled at doing this is as beside the point as whether or not I can play “Sweet Jane” well. What matters about all this media-making is that they are doing it, and in the doing, they are able to understand so much more about how it works and what it means and how tough it is to do right — to say exactly what you mean, to be fair to people, to be heard and to be understood. If you find this exciting, and I do, it is not because you are getting some fresh tickets to the fame lottery; that’s the same game it’s always been. It’s because we are all getting a chance to tinker with and fathom the entire system that surrounds fame — and that shapes the news and entertainment we consume every day.


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