We’re in this together: Takeaways from Experience Engagement

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.

Readers, we want your opinion, just don’t get too close

Many journalists have come a long way, but it’s important to remember how far some of us still have to go.

You’ve perhaps read about the transformation happening at the Register Citizen in Connecticut. The newspaper is inviting the public in (literally and figuratively) in envelope-pushing ways. You might call it extreme engagement (like extreme sports, but less dangerous). I haven’t interviewed the folks at the Register Citizen yet — I thought I’d wait until they’ve had a chance to see what’s working and what they’re learning. But I’m excited about what I hear and see coming from Publisher Matt DeRienzo and Community Editor Kaitlyn Yeager.

An editor at a nearby weekly newspaper, The Valley Press, has published her opinion of the project in an editorial. DeRienzo mentioned it on Twitter this morning, then shared it with me when I asked for it. I’d link to it, but it doesn’t seem to be online. Click here for an image of it.

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Engagement makes for happy customers (and other wisdom from Chrys Wu)

Chrys Wu is a journalist-turned-user engagement strategist. When I called to ask her what engagement is and how journalists can achieve it, she offered stellar nuggets of wisdom. I’ll share a few here.

— Engagement (and, really, we should use more specific words so we know what we’re talking about) is about the things we do to develop a relationship between us and the people who are interested in what we’re doing. It’s not just about pushing out content.

— Engagement forms an emotional bond between you and your community. Think of it as developing a good customer relationship. “If you do engagement well, however you define it, what you’re essentially doing is creating happy customers,” Chrys says. “When people have an attachment to you, they’re less likely to leave” when presented with other options. Help them feel something about what you’re doing.

— Offline and online engagement can be seamless, if you have a community that’s interested in what you’re doing. Your strategies for connecting with them may not be the same online and off, but your motivation for creating relationships might be consistent.

— If you have limited staffing, don’t feel like you have to be everywhere your users are. Be strategic about how and where you spend your time.

— Understand that there are lots of valid ways to communicate. Don’t be fooled into thinking there’s One Right Way, for social media in particular. There are cultural norms that are good to be aware of, but there’s no single recipe for success. If someone tells you you’re “doing it wrong,” don’t conform without giving it some thought. Make sure you’re meeting your objectives and the needs of your community, then don’t worry about what others think.

— For engagement efforts to work, cultural changes have to be company wide. One person dancing alone does not make an organization more engaged with its community.

This was originally posted on the blog of the Reynolds Journalism Institute, where I am a 2010-2011 fellow.

What “engagement” means to the Chicago Tribune

My conversation last week with James Janega at the Chicago Tribune surprised the heck out of me. After spending several weeks interviewing folks at small community operations, I expected my interviews with with large organizations like the Tribune to be more like the one I had with the Associated Press, whose focus is on social media strategies.

Nope. The Chicago Tribune is all about face-to-face interactions.

James is the manager of Trib Nation, which is the paper’s blog and the umbrella for outreach efforts. He says his job is to build bridges between the newsroom and its communities. For James, that means being in constant conversation with readers — with an emphasis on listening — and doing that primarily in person.

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Who needs “engagement” training most: worker bees or queen bees?

I’m lucky enough to be spending eight months learning from the best about what it means for journalists to engage with their communities. I’m getting interesting and varied answers. For some folks, engagement is about listening to the community. For others, it’s more to do with inspiring civic activism and involvement. And sometimes it really comes down to brand loyalty and page views.

Where does the responsibility for audience engagement fall within a news organization? Part of my mission is to make sure working journalists get to benefit from the information and tips I’m gathering, and I’m thinking about who I should target with my evangelism.

Continue reading “Who needs “engagement” training most: worker bees or queen bees?”