This was first published by Nieman Reports in its Summer 2011 issue.
Of the many challenges news organizations confront, there is one that inspires my research, informs my teaching, and ignites my imagination. It involves the disintegrating connection between journalists and their audiences—the separation of journalists from their communities that has taken place through the years. With the notion of objectivity having become such a dominant strategy, sometimes this distancing has been intentional.
The motivating idea behind the disconnection was simple: To enhance their ability to fairly report the news, journalists needed to stand apart from their community rather than be participants. Other factors, such as journalists' transient lives as they moved from place to place for career challenges and advancement, added to the disconnection. The result is that journalists often ended up without any roots, history or context in the communities they covered.
Journalists still foster and celebrate otherness more than they do connection. Ever mindful of conflicts of interest—actual or perceived—they hold themselves apart from influence and are wary of being swayed by sources or vocal readers.
The public journalism movement that emerged in the 1990's was in part about using news organizations as vehicles for finding solutions for community issues and problems. It was criticized for encouraging journalists to partner and align themselves with sources and for a perception of pandering to audience whims. Critics also threw around a word that makes journalists uncomfortable—advocacy.
Yet if we explore this idea now, helping to find solutions seems an accepted part of the job. I've asked a lot of journalists this year if they feel that they're working on behalf of their communities. To a person, they say "yes." (The opening line of the Chicago Tribune's editorial vision is "We stand up for the community.")
In general, I've found that most journalists would agree with these notions:
They are using information to improve their communities.
They want community members to feel invested in and connected to the news product.
They want as much information as they can get about what their readers want and need to know.
What Engagement Means
As I've spent several months talking with journalists about what community engagement means to them, I've asked them: Why do they think it's important? How are they seeking to achieve it?
Some described what it's like to be in conversation with people in their communities and how they use social media to be in the mix of what people are talking about. Others work to pursue collaborative relationships; people help them locate sources and shape stories and, in doing so, become involved in setting the news agenda. Sometimes they then help gather and share information. Still other journalists talk about community engagement mostly as outreach as they look for partners, build bridges, and identify and meet informational needs.
The book "The Elements of Journalism" does a great job laying out the obligations journalists have to their audiences, including principles such as an obligation to the truth, loyalty to citizens, monitoring people in power, and serving as a forum for public discussion. I would argue that today's media landscape now requires an additional element—a new principle to keep us in tune with our digital times: Journalists have an obligation to identify and attempt to connect with the people who most want and need their content.
In some cases, this obligation might apply to an entire publication, but in most cases this reaching out will happen in more granular ways—by the beat, the topic, the project, and maybe even the story. If journalists believe what they are doing is trying to improve their communities by providing information, isn't it true that the information needs to reach the right people to be utilized most effectively? If a journalism tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it do any good?
Adhering to this obligation is good for journalism's challenging bottom line. It mimics marketing, in a way—find the customer, meet the need, bring eyeballs to the product, and build brand loyalty. It's customer service, too—anticipating needs, inviting feedback, being responsive to input, and acting like a human being. It is also the right thing to do for our communities. Identify an informational need; make sure we fill it in a way readers can find and use.
Engagement: A Spectrum of Ideas
Some of the more interesting experiments I've found this year come from start-up news organizations, not legacy media. I like to call them "scrappy media," mission driven and goal oriented. They know their audience just as they understand the need their product is filling for them. Oakland Local and The Texas Tribune provide examples of mission statements that pair providing information with service to community. California Watch is not shy about its emphasis on "solution-oriented reporting intended to have an impact on the quality of life" of its online community. Ashley Alvarado, its public engagement manager, considers it part of her job to make sure the website's stories are easily understandable, get translated into all appropriate languages, and are easy to act on. In one riveting example, she and her colleagues at California Watch held free lead screenings as part of a project on unsafe lead levels in jewelry; they spent their time and money to make it easy for people to see if their jewelry was safe—and they viewed this as a natural and needed extension of their journalism.
This spring after California Watch investigated the seismic safety of public schools and found reason for concern, it went one step further and published an educational coloring book about earthquake preparedness. Visuals paired with words that kids can understand explain complex issues and provide information they'd need in an emergency; the books were translated into Spanish, Chinese and Vietnamese. The staff had a particular readership in mind—in this case, children—and it went to extreme measures to get important information to the right people.
Another California-based engagement editor, Grant Barrett of Voice of San Diego (VOSD), considers it his job to aggressively seek and connect with niche audiences, especially for important stories. A fantastic example is a six-month project on the life of a refugee who was deaf and unable to speak. To make sure that people who would be most interested and affected found the piece, VOSD reached out to refugee and refugee rights groups, the deaf community, and the public services community. Barrett describes his job as figuring out how to get stories into communities that want and need them. He's careful to say that he doesn't take this approach for every story; the strategy seems to fit best with projects that are especially significant or that provide much-wanted attention. "We are carefully finding individuals and groups who, if they did not hear about these stories, would be worse off for it," Barrett wrote in an e-mail to me. "We are hunting for change toward goodness, quality and enlightenment."
My conversations with Alvarado, Barrett and others have led me to embrace a "take the party to the people" philosophy. Journalists want what they do to reach those who want it. But most are accustomed to putting stories online and then hoping people find them. With so much content out there, hoping isn't a sound strategy—it's an excuse. Journalists need to become social by sparking conversation with people whose hobbies, work, ideas or interests make them natural audiences, and then find ways for their stories to enrich the conversation.
This does mean that sometimes the traffic and conversations happen elsewhere than on their website. This won't improve their own metrics; eyeballs on another site don't yet count for much. But what defines success in digital space will need to evolve over time to include conversations that happen on Facebook, mentions in online communities, and pingbacks from other sites.
Let's also not ignore the value that still comes from those person-to-person interactions that inform coverage, encourage content sharing, and foster brand loyalty.
Editors ought to require that story pitches and budget lines include an engagement component, reflecting community conversation, collaboration and outreach. In many cases, conversations about stories need to include these questions: Who is going to benefit most from this information? And how will reporters, editors and producers be sure those people find it?
After all, this is our obligation.