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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9/11 coverage includes going door to door with tips for parents

I have a lot to write and say about my three-week-old Community Outreach team, and how we’re hoping to expand the boundaries of traditional definitions of journalism and keep the focus of the Columbia Missourian squarely on the community it serves.

But today, I have to take just a few minutes to share the project that I’m most excited about to date.

In assessing our newsroom’s coverage plans for the 9/11 anniversary, we decided we wanted to stay focused on real people and real conversations. A couple of students wanted to put together tips for parents on how to talk to young children about 9/11, during a weekend when scary images and stories would be hard to avoid. So Lexa Deckert and Charesse James did the interviews and wrote a story. I think it’s pretty good.

And then we turned the information into a two-page handout (downloadable on the left side of the story, and right here) and distributed it around town. We’ve handed out about 400 so far, at the public library, daycare centers, popular kid spots and coffee shops. We have plans to take a few hundred more to kids soccer picture day tomorrow and a few other spots.

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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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A changing culture deserves an evolving, responsive newsroom

This was originally written for the Columbia Missourian, where I’m the editor of a not-quite-named team focusing on the community.

There are a lot more ways we in the newsroom can listen to you than there used to be. And I think we have an obligation to do so.

We can listen to what you say in the comments on our website, and we can join in the conversation.

We can listen to what you’re saying online in general, on social networks (did you know Twitter will search by location?) and on local blogs, for example.

We can spend more time listening in person, attending events and hanging out around town not to cover anything specific, but just to hear what’s on your mind.

We can “listen,” in a way, to what kind of news you’re looking for by paying attention to our web analytics. We can know (collectively, not individually) things such as what you’re reading at what time of day, what you’re searching for and which stories you spend the most time with.

Along with all this information comes a duty to be responsive. If we’re really listening, we should be changing what we’re doing based on what we hear. We should pay attention to what you like, join in the conversations you’re having about the news and respond when you get in touch with us directly, whether you’re walking into the newsroom (which you’re welcome to do anytime — 221 S. Eighth St.) or commenting on our Facebook or Twitter pages.

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How I’ll teach community outreach at Mizzou

As much as I’m enjoying my RJI fellowship (lots of thinking. lots of quiet. not enough chaos.) I’m really excited to get back in a newsroom. If you ask me what I do for a living, I’ll say I’m a journalist. So I’m ready to be back doing journalism.

Next year, I’ll be back as an editor at the Columbia Missourian, this time in a new position. I’m going to take what I’ve been learning all year about community engagement and bring it into the newsroom, as a community outreach editor (or some other title yet to be discussed).

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