What I heard about community news at Block by Block

Last week’s gathering of community news folks, the Block by Block summit in Chicago, left me both psyched about the opportunities I have to make a contribution to the evolution of journalism and overwhelmed about which direction to head. (Check out the blog for the event for oodles of info.)

Here’s what I know for sure:

The word “journalism” itself is problematic. Last year sometime, I tired of the “who’s a journalist” debate and started reframing it with my students in terms of “what is journalism,” figuring it was easier to define a product than a job description. I still find that to be true. But these days, even deciding whether to label a product as a piece of journalism is feeling like a waste of time. What makes an eggplant recipe journalism? If it’s accompanied by a professionally written story about eggplants? If it’s shared by a professional communicator? If it’s published by a person who claims to be a journalist? If there’s a news peg? The discussion becomes useless quickly. Can we just skip it altogether? (Denise Cheng of The Rapidian has a great post up that touches on this.)

“New” journalists have a lot to learn from those who came before them. Many community news folks I’ve talked to say they are striving for an intimate relationship with their communities, something they think is missing from legacy newsrooms. They also talk about their clear sense of purpose, and feeling like they’re advocates for their communities. Both of those things, however, are not typically missing from small community weeklies. Or even alt weeklies. And they sure sound a lot like some public radio stations I know. As today’s emerging news folks work to develop authentic relationships with their communities, they might want to take a look at some old-fashioned, hometown news.

The word “engagement” means too many things to too many people to have much meaning. The individual news providers stood up at the conference to say what they wanted to get smarter about, and “engagement” was easily among the top 3 answers. But what the heck are they actually striving for? Over the course of this fellowship, I’m going to talk to journalists of many varieties (across platform, purpose, status, age and medium) about what they think it means. I’m also looking to talk to folks in industries like marketing, psychology and community organizing, to figure out what they mean when they talk about (and measure!) engagement. I hope to be able to offer some more specific terminology.

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

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