What does “engagement” really mean?

If you go to OaklandLocal.com and click on “About,” you’ll find these phrases:
— democratize access
— partner with community organizations
— make their voices heard
— community service
— we teach
— we welcome all who wish to contribute

… along with these phrases:
— original investigative and feature reporting
— community news and information
— voice of independent journalism

As someone who’s spent my career in print newsrooms, I’m totally familiar with the second list. The first one looks interesting, but attaching it to the second one is a bold move — one I hope to explore this year as a Reynolds Journalism Institute fellow.

What happens when an organization’s mission statement sets out the goal of enriching a community, along with providing information? What if those goals conflict? What about journalistic independence and objectivity? Journalists have spent a lot of years fostering independence, taking pride in being uninfluenced — by sources, certainly, but also by readers. We’ve basically worked toward separateness, not togetherness. And that independence might still be valuable in some areas of journalism. But should it still be a central paradigm? (Sound familiar? Some of this echoes conversations around public journalism over the past 15 years. I’ll write more about that soon.)

Another question: What does putting a mission statement like Oakland Local’s into practice actually look like? How do I as a journalist structure my day? How do I participate in my community? What is my fundamental attitude toward my intended users, and what is their role in my process and product?

At the new Civil Beat in Honolulu, what does the job title “reporter/host” mean? What does it look like to be a Director of Community Engagement, like Steve Buttry is at TBD. What is the community-building project Front Porch Forum doing right that has caused 40 percent of the state’s largest city to subscribe?

We could start by asking, “what is engagement?” It’s one of those words that’s getting thrown around a lot, but what does it actually mean? And again, what does it LOOK like?

Can it be measured?

Journalists aren’t good at measuring their own performance. We know good journalism when we see it (based on journalists’ ideas of what journalism is and should be). But we’re not used to measuring success based on user response to our work. Hell, we get tons more feedback when we mess up the crossword puzzle than when we publish the results of a six-month investigation. We’re used to doing important work because we know it’s important, not because anyone will thank us. But if I work at an organization that expects me to engage my community, how do I know if I’ve done that?

In other fields, communicators are surely judged more specifically. If I worked in public health or social justice, in marketing or government, I’d have a way of knowing whether a message resonated or fell flat, and the answer would certainly be factored into my job performance. What can journalism learn from those industries?

How can we more actively listen, and then adjust our day, our coverage, our goals as a result?

IS there a way to define and measure engagement? And if engagement is part of my mission, what does that look like?

I’m just getting started here, and I’d love your ideas. A lot of great work is happening around the changes taking place in journalism these days, and I hope to contribute to the discussion. What does engagement mean or look like to you? Who’s practicing it and could help make me smarter? Drop me an email or tweet, or comment below. Thanks, and I look forward to conversating with you.

This was originally posted on the blog of the Reynolds Journalism Institute, where I am a 2010-2011 fellow.

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