I’m helping organize a Poynter summit on audience engagement. (It’s Aug. 29 in New York, and you should grab one of the remaining seats!) One of the panels will look at inclusion as it relates to community work. In a planning call this week, the speakers (the amazing Anika Gupta, Andrew Haeg and Michelle Ferrier) asked questions like:
- Who are we engaging with?
- Who do we WISH we were engaging with?
- Why do we think people will want to engage with us? What would their motivation be?
- Does our interest in our communities feel authentic or self-serving?
The conversation has me chewing on some overlaps between community journalism and gaming or other niche communities.
Join me in mulling over this question: How does it feel when newbies (noobs in gaming vernacular) dive into something you know a lot about, overestimate how much they really know, mischaracterize your culture or truth and don’t seem to care or even be aware?
I’m spending a couple of days with community newspaper folks at the Reynolds Journalism Institute, and I led a discussion this afternoon about questions that make journalism more social.
I threw out a few topics to chew on, and one of them was this:
Where, offline and online, are people in your community talking to each other about what’s going on in town?
It’s easy to talk about online conversations (and boy, do I spend a lot of time doing that). But I also really love talking about what’s happening offline. Face to face, eyeball to eyeball. Over coffee, beer or sports. Over shared interests, shared geography or just an accidental shared location.
Wherever the public is gathered, journalists have an opportunity to be listening. They also have an opportunity to be distributing content customized for that specific gathering, situation or news need.
Here’s what I heard from community journalists today about where in their towns people frequently discuss community life. What would you add?
- Sports events (youth and high school)
- Beauty shops and barbershops
- Coffee shops
- Cultural events
- Post offices
- Chamber functions
- Grocery stores
- Standing in line anywhere
John Temple, editor of the Civil Beat (and formerly of the Rocky Mountain News), poses this question: How do you behave when you’re a trusted friend? On John’s staff, the people known as “reporter/hosts” are working to build relationships with readers, and a relationships involves sharing information about themselves and being present in their coverage.
“Readers actually do want (reporters) to tell it like it is, tell them what it means, cut to the quick,” John says. His staff has heard that refrain from readers enough that they’re seeing the value in it. “It’s made them more comfortable over time with a combination of news and opinion.” The reporter/hosts spend most of their time reporting, but they’re also charged with interacting meaningfully with readers, online and in person.
The seven-month-old Civil Beat doesn’t accept advertising and is built on a membership model. President Randy Ching (formerly of eBay) said the goal was to invest in investigative journalism in a commercially sustainable way. They want to build a product people value and are willing to pay for. Non-members can read discussions, and they have access to some articles free. Membership options include $1.49 for a single day and $19.99 for a month.
So, how do you go about becoming the readers’ trusted friend? Here are some strategies that Randy and John (in separate Skype interviews) shared:
— Participate in conversation, listening as well as talking. The online discussions and comments are treated as a priority. Staff members answer questions and clarify points raised by members. They behave in a way that sets the tone for the conversations. Randy says they’re also encouraged to share their own perspective and analysis — not to convince people to agree with them but to be transparent about what they believe. John talks about transparency in terms of not pretending the reporters weren’t there. He used the example of a war correspondent who is less concerned with balance than with painting a realistic, personally observed picture. “(Readers will) actually read the same sort of report about city hall,” he said. “We’re definitely present in our articles and in our stories … I’ve never seen any traditional news organization do what we do.” (Find the Civil Beat at @CivilBeat or #becivil on Twitter.)
Kathleen Majorsky is a Mizzou masters student. She is fascinated by new media, and this is her second involvement with an RJI project. She is working with Joy Mayer this semester on how information providers define engagement. She interviewed Andre Natta and wrote this post.
The Terminal, a hyperlocal news site in Birmingham, Ala., is relaunching later this month to try new ways to tell the city’s stories, and Publisher and Managing Editor Andre Natta says one of his motivations is to increase his engagement with the community.
“I think engagement means building a relationship with the community that likes your site. It is thinking of ways to make it easier to have those conversations, whether they are online or offline,” Natta says.
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.
When we talk about “engagement” in the news, often that includes the desire to motivate users to action of some variety.
- We want to take the casual readers and increase their loyalty and commitment.
- We want the loyal readers to start sharing our content with their friends.
- We want the sharers to take our polls and comment on our content.
- We want those easy actions to lead to more involved contributions of content.
Grant Barrett at the Voice of San Diego just told me this week that one of his jobs is to move people along a similar spectrum. And the goal isn’t a revolutionary one: Nonprofits have worked for years to motivate interested observers to get more and more involved. I’ve heard the concept referred to as the “ladder of engagement.” I set out to find the origins of the term, and I struck out. (If you have info on this, will you let me know?)
So I emailed Beth Kanter, who has been writing for and about the nonprofit sector for a decade. She said she has also had trouble nailing down where the idea began, but she’s written about it in general here, and specifically for Twitter and Facebook. She says it’s a commonly used concept in her world.
Last week’s gathering of community news folks, the Block by Block summit in Chicago, left me both psyched about the opportunities I have to make a contribution to the evolution of journalism and overwhelmed about which direction to head. (Check out the blog for the event for oodles of info.)
Here’s what I know for sure:
The word “journalism” itself is problematic. Last year sometime, I tired of the “who’s a journalist” debate and started reframing it with my students in terms of “what is journalism,” figuring it was easier to define a product than a job description. I still find that to be true. But these days, even deciding whether to label a product as a piece of journalism is feeling like a waste of time. What makes an eggplant recipe journalism? If it’s accompanied by a professionally written story about eggplants? If it’s shared by a professional communicator? If it’s published by a person who claims to be a journalist? If there’s a news peg? The discussion becomes useless quickly. Can we just skip it altogether? (Denise Cheng of The Rapidian has a great post up that touches on this.)