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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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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Data! About conversational journalism!

One of the struggles in talking about relationships between journalists and their audiences is that we too often stay philosophical and talk from our gut.

This morning at South by Southwest, Doreen Marchionni presented her dissertation research on how audiences perceive conversational news. I’ve talked to Doreen about her work before and have learned a lot from it, but I haven’t written about it. I apologize to her for the brevity of this post — her work deserves much more detail.

These are the variables that her research attached to the idea of conversational journalism, which she defines as a deeply collaborative relationship between journalists and audiences. Conversation consists of:

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What “engagement” means to Zach Seward at the Wall Street Journal

Zach Seward is the outreach editor at the Wall Street Journal. When you’re at an organization as large as the Journal, your relationship with your audience is going to necessarily look quite different from those at smaller shops. But I’ve talked this year to some other large newsrooms (including the Associated Press, NPR and the Chicago Tribune) and have found a lot of variety in their approaches as well.

Zach’s name has come up over and over as I’ve asked folks for interview suggestions, and I was glad to get a chance to ask him some questions about his job, his newsroom and his audience. Here’s what Zach had to say:

ON SOCIAL MEDIA BRAINSTORMING: Part of Zach’s job is to talk to reporters and editors about possible social elements to accompany individual projects. He says he approaches those from a neutral standpoint, rather than one of persuasion or evangelism. He allows for the possibility that a social component doesn’t make sense and tries to be more consultant than cheerleader. He says that approach suits his own personality and is consistent with the healthy skepticism journalists often wear. He doesn’t want social media to suffer from over-hype and to feel like a bandwagon every reporter’s got to jump on.

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