What “engagement” means to The Rapidian’s Denise Cheng

Denise Cheng is making a go of listening to and engaging with the people of Grand Rapids, Mich., and it sounds like she’s at it pretty much every waking hour.

As the only full-time staff member for The Rapidian, she says her primary goal is citizen engagement. That makes her a natural fit for my google spreadsheet listing all the people I hope to talk to while on this fellowship. Denise’s take on her staff’s mission is this: The Rapidian is a platform for citizens to engage with their city and their neighbors by submitting content that bubbles up from their experiences. She hopes that by creating media content, contributors become more media savvy and civically engaged.

Denise doesn’t like using the phrase “citizen journalism” unless she needs it to to get her point across. She likes “participatory media” and “civic media.” She also avoids calling The Rapidian’s writers “journalists,” because she’s found there’s baggage around that term. She calls them “citizen reporters” or the nice, neutral “contributors.” She doesn’t want to spend time arguing about what is and isn’t journalism, and she’s not too worried about the craft involved in information delivery.

She spends most of her time working on behalf of, talking to and listening to community members. She goes to as many events as she can, often with listening as her primary task. (I’m really interested in listening. Check out this book in my stack of things to read. What else should I be reading?) If she writes for the site, it’s on her own time. Her actual job is more organization and outreach. She says she tries to hear what is and is not being said, so The Rapidian can better meet people where they are.

We talked quite a bit about the word “journalist.” She says she doesn’t mind calling herself one if it helps people understand what The Rapidian is about, but the term really only applies if defined loosely. When we emailed back and forth to clarify this point, she wrote:

“I’ve always felt the goal of journalism to be equipping people with the tools they need to act, should they choose. In short, civic engagement. We are filtering interviews and raw data into something consumable and actionable.”

She wouldn’t have trouble finding a bunch of traditional journalists who’d agree with that, I wouldn’t think. But then she goes on:

“I think in many estimations, even though this is still the goal of journalism, it’s been lost in the focus on product. I’ve read and tend to agree that “journalism the profession” is moving more toward curation and management. In my mind, the goal is still the same, but how we get there is being radically rethought. And in The Rapidian’s case, it involves some community organizing and capacity building.”

Even if the ultimate goal of a more engaged, informed citizenry is widely accepted, people like Denise are taking the road less traveled to get there. One that has less to do with the craft of news (and what we learned in journalism school) and more to do with conversation, community and sharing information.

When I asked Denise what her job really entailed, here are just some of the duties she sent me:

  • Being the main public interface for The Rapidian
  • Media literacy education for the community, including a weekly radio show
  • Actual editing and editorial mentorship of content, a task she shares with other staff and volunteer editors
  • Increasing exposure for the site, including social media use, a weekly digest and a development blog
  • Organizing community events, and listening intently around the community
  • User interface advocacy, checking in with users to make sure the site is easy to use
  • Work with community partners to empower their constituencies as contributors to The Rapidian
  • On her own time, contributing to The Rapidian as a citizen reporter and primary contact for her neighborhood association

Again, it’s all about engaging the community. So, what is engagement?

Denise said she works to build investment and ownership in The Rapidian. She wants folks to plug in at any level they feel comfortable with, and The Rapidian (through the efforts of Denise and her colleagues, Laurie Cirivello and George Wietor) tries to make that easy with things like Twitter hashtags, Flickr pools — interactions that don’t require registering on the site. She’s also involved in the user experience on the website, tweaking and adjusting based on feedback, with ease of use as her main goal.

But engagement isn’t just encouraging interaction. Denise wants to make the ladder of participation easier for people to climb up, with lots of manageable steps, from the bottom (wearing a Rapidian pin around town) up to things like contributing content and helping distribute it. (That’s pretty similar to what Grant Barrett at Voice of San Diego told me.) Denise wants community members to feel an investment and sense of ownership, like they personally have something at stake with the site, and in Grand Rapids.

She’s got her ear to the ground, and online, eager for feedback and conversation.

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


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