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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What “engagement” means to Honolulu’s Civil Beat

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.)

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What “engagement” means to California Watch’s Ashley Alvarado

Since July, Ashley Alvarado has been the public engagement manager at California Watch, a nonprofit investigative reporting group.

Ashley is the third person I’ve interviewed who actually has the word “engagement” in her title. (The first two were at TBD and Voice of San Diego.) One of the things I’m trying to accomplish with my fellowship is figuring out what people mean when they use the word, and I’ve gotten really different answer so far.

To Ashley, engagement means having a conversation with the people of California, so there’s give and take. She wants stories:
— to bubble up from within communities
— for those communities to help guide the work of the reporters
— and for the information California Watch puts out to be easily accessible, digestible and acted upon by those communities.

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What “engagement” means to Voice of San Diego’s Grant Barrett

Grant Barrett, Voice of San Diego‘s new engagement editor, knows his job title is a funny one. But he doesn’t think the work he’s doing is new. Engagement is just “putting a name to a job that anybody who’s been on the Internet for awhile is already doing,” he says. “There’s nothing novel about what I’m doing, or any engagement editor is doing.”

Maybe that’s true, but the concepts are sure new to bunches of news providers. Which is we why so many of us are curious about what people like Grant are up to. The job title, Grant says, could be called a web editor or community manager in other places. It’s just a combination of skill sets. (Here’s how VOSD advertised the position.)

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So long, “Wizard of Oz” journalism. Let’s make margaritas!

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.

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What does “engagement” really mean?

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.)

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