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.
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.
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 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.
— Joy Mayer (@mayerjoy) March 4, 2015
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.
We’ll plan to go live from the newsroom at about 11 this morning. Check back for a link if you want to follow along. — Columbia Missourian (@CoMissourian) March 4, 2015
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.
— Elizabeth Stephens (@lizziec22) March 4, 2015
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’m not usually shy about sharing my personal data. When it comes to where I am, where I’ve been or where I’m going — on the Internet or in person — I’m typically okay with sharing it, as long as I have a say over who in my network gets to see it.
I’m much pickier about which friend requests I accept for tools that display my physical location, for example, than I am for other social networks. But in general, I’m not creeped out by select people knowing where I am. Location tools have come in handy so many times to meet up with people I otherwise would have missed seeing (as in, “Hey, you’re there? I’m right around the corner!).
But something totally odd happened to me last week. For what might be the first time, a location-sharing tool felt sort of intrusive.