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.
Allow me to share some highlights of the piece, written by Editor Abigail Albair.
"You, our readers are of incredible importance to us and we welcome your story suggestions and your thoughts and opinions on our work and the subject matter which we present to you."
"If you have a suggestion to offer, we welcome it, though there is a time and a place for it."
"Everyone needs some perspective and guidance at times, but the fact that other organizations are inviting this into their newsroom on a daily basis suggests to me that they have lost all faith in themselves to adequately fulfill their obligations to the public."
"You can be the source of some of our best topics, but there always comes a point where we can 'take it from here.' "
"It is upsetting that some news sources are eager to turn to gimmicks rather than solid, old-fashioned reporting and hard work to sell their product."
(I'm not sure with that last one if she really means sources? Or advertisers? Or journalists?)
She also says there should be no need for an invitation to submit corrections, because there should be no corrections. (I'd love to hear Craig Silverman's response to that.
My slightly flippant translation: You're important to us, readers. And we value your input. Really. As long it's on our terms, and as long as you don't overstep your bounds. When we want your opinion, we'll ask for it. And when we don't, butt out.
If I ever needed an example of Wizard of Oz journalism, this is it.
This editorial so neatly represents the threat many journalists feel, as if readers are going to edit over their shoulders. As if inviting "help" implies we've lost confidence in our own ability to practice the craft of journalism. That's just not what the engagement movement is about.
I recognize that there aren't one-size-fits-all solutions. Not every newsroom should invite readers to roam the halls. And many real community news organizations have engagement naturally, without even trying. One of the most enlightening days I've spent on this fellowship was at the Gasconade County Republican. The editor there, Dave Marner, seems to have almost effortless connection with his community because he's such a part of it. That day lead me to ruminate that we talk about engagement only if we don't have it. Perhaps that's the case for the Valley Press — perhaps the paper's relationship with its readers needs no improvement. I don't know a thing about Albair, her newsroom or her community.
If editors like Albair don't feel the need for a more collaborative relationship with their communities, that might still work for them. But if they don't even attempt to understand it, they're going to find themselves left behind. And stomping on the efforts of others highlights the separateness, rather than connectedness, that journalists have nurtured for far too long.
Joy Mayer is a 2010-2011 RJI fellow working on a project called “Ditch the lecture. Join the conversation.” Read Joy's other blog posts here, and talk back at firstname.lastname@example.org and @mayerjoy on Twitter.