What “engagement” means to California Watch’s Ashley Alvarado

Since July, Ashley Alvarado has been the public engagement manager at California Watch, a nonprofit investigative reporting group.

Ashley is the third person I’ve interviewed who actually has the word “engagement” in her title. (The first two were at TBD and Voice of San Diego.) One of the things I’m trying to accomplish with my fellowship is figuring out what people mean when they use the word, and I’ve gotten really different answer so far.

To Ashley, engagement means having a conversation with the people of California, so there’s give and take. She wants stories:
— to bubble up from within communities
— for those communities to help guide the work of the reporters
— and for the information California Watch puts out to be easily accessible, digestible and acted upon by those communities.

When she describes the mission of California Watch, she talks about identifying and reporting injustices, ferreting out inappropriate behavior and fraud, and contributing solution-oriented information. Her role (one that’s under a continual process of morphing and redefining) is partly to be involved in the solution part: not to tell people what to do or advocate for a course of action, but to give them information to improve their lives. Information she feels they’re entitled to.

I asked her about a theme that it sounded like was running through her description, one of being advocates for the people. There’s almost a superhero quality to the idea of righting wrongs for a living. She said there’s a continual conversation in the newsroom about that very idea, and how opposite it is from the notion of staying separate from the news, like we were all taught in journalism school. There’s definitely some hesitancy about this more involved approach. And when it comes to some issues, like politics, the stories are more traditionally straight-forward (this report about Jerry Brown, written by super-talented Mizzou alum Chase Davis, is an example).

Back to solutions.

California Watch has generated some buzz lately around a project on lead-tainted jewelry. The reporters told readers (and the readers of several other news outlets who ran the story) about the dangers of the lead that might be hiding in their jewelry. Ashley put together a FAQ to accompany the story as an effort to make the key facts more accessible to readers who might not read the whole investigative report. That’s not unusual.

What IS unusual are the free lead screenings California Watch is hosting around the state, inviting people to bring their jewelry and find out if it’s safe. The staff rented the necessary equipment and is taking it on the road. Journalists talk a lot about helping readers act on the information they’re given. But this goes far beyond the normal “who to call for help” sidebars.

Advocacy? Maybe. What frustrates me (and this is Joy talking, not Ashley) about the resistance to advocacy in journalism is this: Isn’t it absolutely okay to be in favor of some things? Why wouldn’t it be acceptable for a reporter covering the dangers of lead poisoning to be against jewelry that contains lead and retailers that sell it. I certainly won’t argue that impartiality is unimportant in all cases. But if we’re working to make our communities better, as many public service-oriented journalists would take pride in admitting, aren’t we for some things, rather than neutral about them or removed from them?

Back to Ashley.

She wants California Watch’s work to reach as many people as possible, and she’s especially focused on underserved communities. She talked about handing out information at the lead-screening event at a Richmond flea market last weekend, and having it handed back to her because the people couldn’t read. She wants to reach them. She also wants to reach people who prefer to get their information in Spanish. She’s proud of her diverse newsroom, and the diverse coverage that results.

Perhaps the most fun she’s had lately was at an Open Newsroom event last week. Staff members headed out to coffee shops around the state (organized ahead of time by Ashley) and talked to people. Not a new idea, they know. And the first time they did it, they didn’t get much turnout. But this time, Ashley felt a connection with readers that inspired her. “Coming home from Open Newsroom, I felt fantastic because people were excited to talk to me about what was going on in their lives and what kind of journalism they’re looking for.” And she was excited to listen.

We learn early on as journalists that people love pets and babies. Ashley also knows that they love to see themselves in the news, and for California Watch, that means covering what they’re invested in and have a personal stake in. They’ll come back over and over for that.

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

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