We’re in this together: Takeaways from Experience Engagement

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.

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