My job teaching audience engagement is the best, and it could be yours

outreach team members

NOTE: This post was written before the intensity of recent events on Mizzou’s campus (events that came as less of a surprise to those of us invested in this community than they did to the larger world). The job might be even more interesting and important now than it was a few weeks ago.

It’s time for me to move on from what might be the most rewarding job I’ll ever have. For family reasons, I’ve moved from Missouri to Florida, and I’m teaching from afar this semester to bridge the gap between me and the lucky person chosen to do this job next. Will it be you?

THE JOB, PART ONE: I’m the director of community outreach at the Columbia Missourian, a newspaper that covers the community of Columbia (a very cool college town). We serve the town, not just the campus, and we do it with transparency, integrity and depth. We also do it with a staff of students that turns over every 16 weeks.

THE JOB, PART TWO: I’m an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism — part of the group of faculty members whose primary teaching duties lie in newsroom supervision. The professional/faculty editors who run the newsroom stay pretty darn consistent, with less turnover than any other newsroom I’ve worked in. But except for some paid students, the rest of the student staff is either brand new or in a new role every semester. It’s chaotic and crazy and so much damned fun.

Does it sound fun to …

  • Work in a teaching newsroom full of smart, optimistic, dedicated journalists?
  • Be given room to experiment and fail, with the understanding that the experiment is sometimes the highest good?
  • Stop defending why journalists should talk about their audiences and care who consumes their content, because the newsroom has already drunk the kool-aid?
  • Teach the next generation of journalists — the ones in your classes AND the 200+ every semester who work in your newsroom — that collaborative, audience-focused journalism is necessary, rewarding and fun?
  • Keep adding to a deep toolbox of ways to highlight diverse community voices?
  • Collaborate with dedicated colleagues, keeping your boss in the loop without having to ask permission for every idea?

The Missourian’s community outreach team is made up of students enrolled in the Participatory Journalism class. I see my staff (plus some non-staff students) in class twice a week, then also supervise them in the newsroom. So I have a staff of 8-15 every semester (depending on enrollment), but they each put in just 10 hours a week or so.

Our job on the team is to make the news more collaborative and social. And by “social,” I don’t just mean social media. I mean a genuine two-way experience and relationship. Feedback. Collaboration. Conversation. In-person socialization. Community voices. Measurement and analytics. Here are highlights of the kind of work we do. Some of it is work that stays with the outreach team, and some is designed to support and amplify the work of the rest of the newsroom.

outreach team members
The very first community outreach team at the Columbia Missourian, in the fall of 2011.

The community outreach team has been around since Fall 2011. I was the Missourian’s design editor for several years before I did a fellowship at the Reynolds Journalism Institute and refocused my work on audience engagement. When I finished the yearlong fellowship, I created a new role for myself and a new department in the newsroom.

It’s been a helluva ride. I moved to Columbia in December 2003 with no intention of staying 12 years.  (It’s worth mentioning that I started teaching when I was still in my 20s, with just a bachelor’s degree. Youth is not a barrier.)

The students who’ve been on the ride with me can be seen in this Facebook album (semester by semester) and on this Twitter list. The alumni of the team often find themselves in leadership roles early in their careers because their newsrooms and other organizations so desperately need their knowledge and skills. (If you’re looking for an employee with these skills, hit me up … I bet I can find you someone.)

Okay, so now I’m feeling sappy.

You should also know that the job is demanding and challenging like nothing I’ve taken on professionally before. The pace can be relentless, especially early in each semester when the students truly have no idea what they’re doing. Thank goodness there are generous breaks and lots of flexibility. (That’s in comparison to newsrooms. It’s a year-round job, not an academic schedule. We work summers and breaks, being a community news source and all.)

People who are happy at the Missourian embrace the chaos and fluidity of it. They take more pride in their students’ work than in their own. And they are willing to fully invest in their work because the work matters … more than most daily journalism, if I may be so bold. The stakes are higher than just today’s news report. The work pays dividends for years to come, as hundreds of students a year (seriously, hundreds) take what they learn at the Missourian into the world and hear our voices in their heads as they work.

Personally, I want what they hear in their heads to include a relentless focus on the people the journalism is designed to serve. Can you help make that happen?

To read the official job description and apply, go through and use job code 18140. I’m happy to answer your questions.


From idea to distribution: Teaching an expanded life cycle for a community story

This is a version of a talk I gave this morning at the Green Shoots in Journalism Education event at the Reynolds Journalism Institute.

Appropriately, a lot of what we teach in journalism school is about the craft of gathering information and telling stories.

But too often missing is a discussion of who it’s all for.

  • Who wants it?
  • Who is it helping?
  • Who will seek it out?
  • Who will pay for it?
  • Who gets to decide what “good journalism” is?

If we want a future full of relevant, well-funded journalism, we have to be teaching students to ask those questions.

We can’t work in a vacuum, publish, then pat ourselves on the back and move on to the next story. We need a plan to:

  • aggressively reflect a community’s priorities and voices
  • identify the audience for what we do
  • invest in bringing audience and content together
  • track what works so we can continually experiment and improve

My Participatory Journalism class makes up my staff at the Columbia Missourian newspaper. And our task as the paper’s community outreach team is to ask and answer those questions on behalf of our product and our newsroom. We work to infuse audience-focused philosophies into our newsroom’s processes and products.

What I’d love to see is a journalism curriculum that infuses this focus on audience into all our classes. I’d like there to be no need for a Participatory Journalism class or a community outreach team. We all need to focus on making journalism that the audience wants and finding the audience for the journalism we think is important.

Here’s an example of what that looked like for a package of stories that my newsroom published a couple of weeks ago. Click through the slides, or watch me explain them during an 8-minute presentation.

Related posts:

This concept from The Guardian still motivates me to think broadly about the life cycle of a story.

Here are questions I think journalists should be asking for more audience-focused reporting.