Civic engagement online is changing the role of journalism

By Alecia Swasy on September 4, 2009 0 Comments Experiments

An interview with Michele McLellan as she begins her fellowship year.

As a consultant for the Knight Foundation, journalist Michele McLellan works as a “circuit rider,” traveling the country to coach local folks on how to create digital community information projects. The Knight Foundation awards matching grants to projects such as “The Green Table Virtual Meeting Place,” a Buffalo environmental Web site. In Coral Gables, FL, a Knight grant supports “Bridging the Digital Gray Divide,” which trains seniors in how to become citizen journalists for their online website.

Michele McLellan
Michele McLellan

“It’s really been quite heartening to see the civic engagement with news that these people exemplify,” says McLellan, who spent the bulk of her newsroom years at The Oregonian.

"The news ecosystem is really expanding."

As a 2009-10 Donald W. Reynolds Fellow, McLellan wants to build on her Knight experience and explore how new forms of civic engagement online are changing the role of journalism. She believes traditional journalists can learn from what citizens are doing, as it shows their real passions and what they consider newsworthy. “The news ecosystem is really expanding. For many of us, it’s sad what’s happening to newspapers, but more and more people can do news, especially at the local level.”

“Social media is changing how people are interacting,” she says. “The gatekeeper role is going away and we see a democratization of news and information, which I happen to think is a good thing.”

She got a hefty dose of what readers think of the newspaper when she was Ombudsman for the Oregonian. In three years, she had contact with 10,000 readers. “I now see things very differently than how they look inside the newsroom. I see how self-reinforcing the newsroom culture is and how hard it is for the public to break through and get heard.”

McLellan “fell into journalism” while at the University of California-Riverside. The university didn’t have a journalism program, but she worked at the school paper and eventually became its editor. After a stint at the Riverside Press Enterprise, she went to the Oregonian, where she stayed for 19 years. Along the way, she got a Nieman Fellowship, then taught in Cambodia for six months. She loves the slower pace of Southeast Asia and planned to stay there until the Knight Foundation recruited her to do a project on newsroom training and how it can improve the culture of the organization and the content of the paper. That led to a book called News Improved.

While on her fellowship, McLellan plans to do a survey to see how the public is using the Internet as a tool for civic engagement. 

“When we write about all the incremental developments, (readers) think we have an ax to grind."

One outcome is likely to address a long-standing issue she’s seen: what’s really relevant to readers?  “With big stories, the relevance is obvious,” she says. Too often, newspapers “drone on and on” about every twist and turn, fearing the competition might scoop them.  To readers, “when we write about all the incremental developments, they think we have an ax to grind.”

At the end of her research, McLellan plans to write case studies on new forms of civic engagement and their implications for journalism. “I’d like to create a body of knowledge that is useful to journalists and others who think news is important.”

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