Outreach team serves democracy, along with Taylor Swift fans

First published at the Missourian’s Transition blog.

On a Monday a few weeks ago, the Missourian’s community outreach team delivered a product that contributed to civic empowerment and democratic conversation. On the next Wednesday, I spent my day on a task that made me wholly uncomfortable.

All in all, not a bad week.

First I’ll discuss the pride. Then the discomfort.

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Designers as user advocates: My talk at #sndstl

I’m thrilled to be speaking this weekend at the Society for News Design annual shindig in St. Louis. My topic is a really happy marriage of the two primary focuses of my career: design and community engagement.

Turns out, they’re not so different.

Designers have long been speaking up for the consumption of information. For making information clear, accessible and enjoyable. That focus on the user experience is what I’ve always loved most about design, actually.

I’ll put my slides at the bottom of this post (though I’ve never made the kind of presentations that make much sense without the accompanying words coming out of my mouth).

The main purpose here is to share links to some of the projects and posts I mentioned in my talk. Usually, I make a custom Delicious tag and url, and just share that. But Delicious isn’t working so well these days. So here you go, folks who were in the audience today. And for the rest of you who stumbled by? Good luck making sense of this collection of randomness!

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The future of community news is bright: thoughts from Block by Block 2011

Once again, I’m coming away from Block by Block, a gathering of primarily local news startups, with dozens of innovative ideas and thought-provoking philosophies to chew on. Kudos to Michele McLellan and Jay Rosen for enabling this community of passion to get together.

Here’s some of what I learned and want to take back to my community outreach team at the Columbia Missourian.

— Engagement efforts can’t be the frosting on the cake. They’re the meat and potatoes and should make up your basic approach to community interactions. Don’t report a story, then figure out how to share it. Have a specific audience in mind from the idea-generation stage, and go about your reporting in a way that figures out how you can make sure the people who most want and need the content will find it.

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The community outreach team: A progress report

First published at the Missourian’s Transition blog.

In August, I wrote to Missourian readers about what I hoped my new community outreach team would do. Now I’d like to share some of what we’re doing day to day.

Here’s a running list of the tasks we’re assigned, beginning with some routine ones and leading up to some exciting experiments. Many of these come straight out of the community engagement discussion guide I published as part of my fellowship at the Reynolds Journalism Institute. Many are also inspired by or directly borrowed from what I learned through a series of interviews.

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Let’s have practical conversations, in real newsrooms, about focusing on the community

In my community engagement work, I’ve felt too often that I’ve reached only people who have already drunk the engagement kool-aid. I mean, who’s going to seek out research on audience unless they already know it’s important? Who’s going to follow a fellow’s blog, if not to find out more about something they already find interesting?

But what about the people who don’t already know they should be paying attention?

If anything I’ve done all year has the potential to help change cultures of non-believers, or at least the uninitiated, the discussion guide that published last night is it.

“Community engagement: A practical conversation for newsrooms” is the final product of my RJI fellowship. And I’ve known all year that it, or something like it, would be more useful and more understandable than my other reports.

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Tom Rosenstiel’s Seven/Eight/Nine functions of journalism

I rely a lot on the research coming out of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, and I was thrilled this morning to get to hear Tom Rosenstiel himself speak to the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies about the state of the media industry. It’s in New Orleans. At the Ritz. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it.

I was even more thrilled that his session was right before mine (which was about keeping the focus on the audience), because so much of the message I tried to get across was made more salient by the research he shared. In fact, I kept joking during my session that I was citing him too much! So Tom, thanks for the awesome intro you didn’t know you were giving!

Tom is one of the authors of “The Elements of Journalism,” a book that’s required for Mizzou journalism students. (I referenced it in a Nieman Reports piece this spring, adding my own obligation that I think journalists have to identify and attempt to connect with the audience.)

Tom shared some general observations about the changing culture of information consumption — nuggets of wisdom like:

— The power is shifting from journalists to their communities.

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Three kinds of engagement: outreach, conversation, collaboration

As part of my RJI fellowship, I conducted dozens of interviews with journalists and non-journalists about how a more social culture is changing the relationships between institutions and the people they serve. I talked to academics and practitioners. To people from the corporate world and nonprofit leaders. And I sought out journalists whose job duties include a focus on audience.

That’s what engagement really is, the way I’ve studied it: A focus on, respect for and enthusiasm about the role of the audience.

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A journalistic obligation: to identify and attempt to engage the audience

I was honored to be asked to write for the Nieman Reports summer 2011 issue, which is all about community and is jam packed with awesome resources. Here’s the post I contributed:

Of the many challenges news organizations confront, there is one that inspires my research, informs my teaching, and ignites my imagination. It involves the disintegrating connection between journalists and their audiences — the separation of journalists from their communities that has taken place through the years. With the notion of objectivity having become such a dominant strategy, sometimes this distancing has been intentional.

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A published report: Measuring the success of audience engagement efforts

I had the privilege of hosting, along with the awesome Reuben Stern, a workshop at RJI last month on measuring engagement. My motivation for the event was really justifying engagement. We can’t value what we don’t measure, and we can’t convince our bosses/funders/supporters to invest in audience unless we can show it works.

After an intense few weeks of editing, Reuben and I published (on behalf of our esteemed participants) the report of suggestions. Here’s the intro we put on the RJI website. Please go there to read the rest, or download the report (the link is at the top of the post). It includes a huge (but easily scannable and digestible) table that shows some specific engagement goals and strategies, what value they offer to newsrooms and how they can be measured.

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Inside the engagement experiments at the Register-Citizen

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For almost a year now, I’ve been reading and learning about a little newsroom in Connecticut making extreme moves (literally and figuratively) on the engagement front. This spring, I got a chance to see it for myself.

The Register-Citizen in Torrington, driven by the vision and efforts of Publisher Matt DeRienzo, has shown the rest of us what it can mean to make community outreach central to what we do. (Outreach is one of my three categories of engagement. For more detail, see this presentation.) Journalists are creatures of habit and routine, and Matt is trying to change his staff’s fundamental outlook, starting with what they see when they walk into their newsroom.

I’ll go over a few of the highlights of what they’re up to, and share some observations.

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