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.
David Poulson serves an unusual community and has some wacky ideas about how to provoke them. As he wrote for the Knight Citizen News Network, “Try poking your community with a sharp stick and challenging it to interact.”
He works with students on on the site, which defines a community around natural resources rather than political boundaries. Their coverage area covers eight states and two Canadian provinces. David says he thinks of it like a “news shed” rather than a “watershed” and is trying to build connections between people who do — or at least should — have a huge thing in common. He says he’s seen how news can be a unifying concept, and he wants to bring a small town “we’re in this together” mentality to his environmental coverage.
Meg Pickard, The Guardian’s head of digital engagement, has a little diagram that gets so perfectly to the heart of this thing we call engagement that I giggled through her explanation of it, so amazed at its crystal clarity.
The horizontal line is the process of journalism. The vertical line represents publication. Above the line are the actions of journalists. Those folks traditionally work really hard up until publication, then return to the beginning to start something new. Below the line are the users, whose role has always come after publication, reacting and sharing.
The other two quadrants are empty. And that’s where Meg’s work lies.
After publication, how can/should journalists stay involved with the content? What’s their responsibility or opportunity for tending the fire they started? For raising the child they birthed? For nurturing the community they fed?
Before publication, how can/should users be involved? How can their interests, insight and expertise shape what we do? How can they contribute to conversations, and to stories?
Denise Cheng is making a go of listening to and engaging with the people of Grand Rapids, Mich., and it sounds like she’s at it pretty much every waking hour.
As the only full-time staff member for The Rapidian, she says her primary goal is citizen engagement. That makes her a natural fit for my google spreadsheet listing all the people I hope to talk to while on this fellowship. Denise’s take on her staff’s mission is this: The Rapidian is a platform for citizens to engage with their city and their neighbors by submitting content that bubbles up from their experiences. She hopes that by creating media content, contributors become more media savvy and civically engaged.
Denise doesn’t like using the phrase “citizen journalism” unless she needs it to to get her point across. She likes “participatory media” and “civic media.” She also avoids calling The Rapidian’s writers “journalists,” because she’s found there’s baggage around that term. She calls them “citizen reporters” or the nice, neutral “contributors.” She doesn’t want to spend time arguing about what is and isn’t journalism, and she’s not too worried about the craft involved in information delivery.
She spends most of her time working on behalf of, talking to and listening to community members. She goes to as many events as she can, often with listening as her primary task. (I’m really interested in listening. Check out this book in my stack of things to read. What else should I be reading?) If she writes for the site, it’s on her own time. Her actual job is more organization and outreach. She says she tries to hear what is and is not being said, so The Rapidian can better meet people where they are.
Consider traditional journalism as a scene from “The Wizard of Oz.”
“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.” There’s a hint of some journalists I know in that statement. Don’t worry, audience. We know what we’re doing. We know what’s important, and we’re putting it out into the universe for you to consume and enjoy. Transparency, if we claim to practice it, too often means a weekly column from an editor, not processes that are truly open and viewable, and able to be participated in.
“Count yourself lucky,” the Great and Powerful Oz says. We’re here to serve you, but only in the ways we deem acceptable. We’re a bit afraid to ask what you want, because we’re afraid you want entertainment coverage. So instead we’ll use our professional judgment to tell you what you should know. “The Great Oz has spoken.” Too often, we’re proud of being uninfluenced — by sources, certainly, but also by consumer desire.
If you go to OaklandLocal.com and click on “About,” you’ll find these phrases:
— democratize access
— partner with community organizations
— make their voices heard
— community service
— we teach
— we welcome all who wish to contribute
… along with these phrases:
— original investigative and feature reporting
— community news and information
— voice of independent journalism
As someone who’s spent my career in print newsrooms, I’m totally familiar with the second list. The first one looks interesting, but attaching it to the second one is a bold move — one I hope to explore this year as a Reynolds Journalism Institute fellow.
What happens when an organization’s mission statement sets out the goal of enriching a community, along with providing information? What if those goals conflict? What about journalistic independence and objectivity? Journalists have spent a lot of years fostering independence, taking pride in being uninfluenced — by sources, certainly, but also by readers. We’ve basically worked toward separateness, not togetherness. And that independence might still be valuable in some areas of journalism. But should it still be a central paradigm? (Sound familiar? Some of this echoes conversations around public journalism over the past 15 years. I’ll write more about that soon.)