When people ask what I do, I can answer a lot of different ways. Engagement, after all, means a lot of things.
I found myself yesterday morning reverting to what might be my favorite description, though. In a conversation with Brian Ries, engagement editor at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, about strategies his newsroom might try, we discussed how it all comes down to invitations.
What are you inviting your users to do?
The default answer usually comes down to consumption. Most of our communication efforts with readers/listeners/viewers/followers have two things in common:
- The goal is to get as many people as possible to click/read/listen/watch the journalism we have produced.
- They efforts are not specifically targeted but instead are a mass invitation to anyone whose attention we can get.
It’s not hard to move beyond that, but it does take a shift in mindset.
Audience-focused, engaged journalism wants more than consumption. It wants participation. Criticism. Discussion. Collaboration. Empowerment.
So much of journalism is about changing our routines and habits. As we think about the workflow of our news gathering and production processes, we need invitations baked into the DNA of the whole shebang. Not just a “what do you think” tacked on at the end. Not just a blanket statement that people can call/email the newsroom with story tips. But authentic, specific invitations.
In a post almost six years ago, I described a mobile party I wished journalists would throw. I said they should quit hiring bouncers to keep control over who participates but instead take a margarita machine around their communities and get people in the mood to join the fun. (“So long, “Wizard of Oz” journalism. Let’s make margaritas!”)
What are the actions jouranlists can take to get people to join the party? To answer that question, we need to understand the mood people are already in. How do they talk to either other? Where are they talking? What do they need — from each other, from us and from their greater community?
If you wanted to invite people to a literal party, you would try to make it attractive to them. You would talk in a way they found relevant and describe the party in a way that sounded appropriate to them. You would think about how your offer might meet a need or scratch an itch of theirs.
You wouldn’t assume that what you’re offering is so awesome that of course everyone will want to take you up on it, even if the invitation is … boring.
That audience-focused sensibility belongs all through our processes and products.
What do you want users to do …
So, let’s get specific. How do you invite ideas, participation and action? (RELATED POST: “Social journalism is everyone’s job”)
… to help shape what you decide to cover?
What if news orgs published lists of all the ways users could participate, beyond just sharing the newsroom’s contact information?
What if journalists invested time in taking specific invitations to communities where they would be especially relevant (online and offline)? (Oh, wait, have you checked out GroundSource yet?)
What if reporters’ routines valued listening to public conversations and then shaping coverage around what people are talking about?
What if newsrooms had an easy way to literally answer the questions their communities deem most important? (Oh, wait, have you checked out Hearken yet?)
What if people understood how their own experiences and expertise could shape the agenda of the newsroom that is in the business of reflecting their lives?
… as you report?
What if reporters’ published stories included by default a look at what those reporters were working on next, with specific ways users could help shape that work? What if they asked things like … What questions do you hope I’ll ask? Whose voices should be included in this? Who can help explain it? Have you seen an example of it? Or, perhaps my favorite: What do journalists usually get wrong about this?
What if newsrooms developed a default habit of being transparent about the reporting process, with frequent updates and callouts on social media and across digital, print and broadcast outlets as a part of the majority of stories?
What if people understood how their own experiences, expertise and connections could shape each specific story?
… in response to your work?
Why do we do what we do? Most of the time, journalists would say they’re in the business of providing information. We hope to make people more informed. But when we probe this topic further, there’s often more to it.
Sometimes we want people to feel (pride, outrage, connection).
Sometimes we want to open peoples’ eyes or change their minds.
Sometimes we want people to join a conversation (with us, with each other, with elected officials).
Sometimes we want to make it easier for people to go somewhere (attend an event, get involved in an issue or cause, show up to a public conversation, meet their neighbors).
Sometimes we want people to help make the world smarter. Check out efforts from First Draft and others to combat misinformation online. (The topic of deploying users to help spread information is of special interest to me these days. It’s part of a project on trust and credibility that I’m working on this year.)
What if we invested in being clear about what we hope people will do, and then spent time tracking the outcomes and impact of our work? (“Is it “working”? Let’s talk about metrics for mission-driven work.)
So, what are your invitations?
What do you hope your audience and community will do? In general? With what you’re working on today? How can they see themselves in your processes and products?
I’ll invoke once again the model designed by Meg Pickard, when she was at the Guardian, for thinking about the social life cycle of a story. How are journalists involving their audiences as they gather the news, and how are they staying involved after publication?