Community engagement

A practical conversation for newsrooms

By Joy Mayer on August 15, 2011 1 Comment

An introduction from Joy Mayer, Reynolds Journalism Institute


There is a general understanding among journalists these days that flourishing in today’s media landscape involves more interaction with and responsiveness to our communities. Community engagement is often cited in future-of-news conversations as a key to continued success. Nine out of 10 editors in a Spring 2011 Reynolds Journalism Institute survey said they were talking in their newsrooms about how to make the news more social and participatory. The survey reinforced, however, that editors aren’t sure what exactly that means or how to go about it.

This discussion guide is an attempt to help get folks started.

As part of my 2010-2011 RJI Fellowship (“Ditch the Lecture. Join the Conversation.”), I spent several months interviewing journalists about their changing relationships with their communities. I focused on their attitudes and actions toward their intended news consumers. Along the way, I took notes about the questions these journalists seemed to be pondering, and of the tips and strategies they shared with me. I grouped those strategies into three categories of engagement: outreach, conversation and collaboration.

You’ll find many of their ideas on the following pages, and I’m indebted to everyone who shared their time and expertise with me.

A few lessons I heard time and again:

As a newsroom, know what your mission is. What do you value? What do you stand for? What does your community value in you? Do you re-evaluate those answers periodically? Are you adapting as community needs change, and as other information sources in your community change? Are you making long-term decisions, and daily decisions, based on the answers to these questions?

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to community engagement. Some of the strategies were suggested by national news outlets. Others came from community startups. Some are digital and some are analog (and many work either way). Find those that work for you and focus on those. Make sure, though, that you allow room for roles and strategies that you might not have considered in more straight-forward times. Consider a range of possibilities.

Approach each strategy or project with goals. Know what you hope to achieve. Have an agreed-upon, stated objective, followed by a plan to measure success. It’s hard to value what you can’t measure. Think broadly about measurement — it’s not just about page views. Measurement can mean the number of in-person participants in an event, the time spent on site with collaborative projects, the number of inbound or outbound links from your site, the civility of comments (yes, that can be measured), or the origin of story ideas. There are suggestions throughout this document, and click here for a link to a report that came out of a workshop on measuring engagement.

I hope the suggestions you’ll find here help you and your newsroom have meaningful conversations about how to better involve your community in your news processes and products. Together with your community, you can accomplish things that you couldn’t on your own, building a relationship that can serve as a solid foundation for thriving journalism.

How to use this discussion guide

This guide is intended to get you and your colleagues talking about specific strategies for shifting your newsroom’s focus to be more squarely on the audience. Because not every approach is right for every newsroom, the guide is divided into 11 value statements. You might agree with all of them, and that’s fine. But figuring out which ones you’d like to prioritize is key, so you can then allocate your resources to what you most want to accomplish.

Each value statement in this guide has a page of discussion notes, with questions to talk through on the top followed by specific strategies to try.

Value statements

  • Our core audience feels a connection with us.
  • We actively reach beyond our core audience.
  • We appear to be and actually are accessible, as a newsroom and as individual journalists.
  • Individual community members feel invited into our processes and products and encouraged to help shape our agenda.
  • We find ways to listen to and be in continual conversation with our community.
  • We continually alter what we cover, and how, based on what the audience responds to.
  • It is easy for community members to share their expertise and experiences, and we value their contributions.
  • We amplify community voices besides our own.
  • We invest in our community and are seen as a community resource.
  • Our content reaches the audience where, when and how it’s most useful or meaningful.
  • There are a variety of ways users can act on, share and react to our news and information.

If your goal is to get a conversation going in your newsroom, let me tell you how I envision this guide helping. (The method has been road tested by my colleagues at the Columbia Missourian, and I’m grateful for their patience, support and feedback.)

  1. Print out the large value statements and tape them up on the walls of a meeting room. Let folks take a few minutes to read over them.
  2. Give each person cut up pieces of post-it notes and ask them to put one on the three statements they think your newsroom needs to focus on most.
  3. Regroup the pieces of paper by priority, so you can visualize where the consensus is. Regroup according to the number of post-it notes, so the tally is clear.
  4. Invite participants to talk more about statements they voted for that didn’t get a lot of other votes. Ask each person if their top idea made the cut. Give folks a chance to explain what they value most and to talk the rest of the room into discussing what’s important to them.
  5. Then, as a facilitator, pull out the discussion guide pages for the three to five ideas you want to start with. (Save the other vote-getters for future conversations.) Project each on a screen so the room can see them, or hand out physical copies.
  6. For each idea, spend a few minutes talking through the discussion questions. See if you’re working from common definitions, and where there is tension that will need to be addressed.
  7. Then look over the list of strategies. Cross off the ones that don’t fit the mission of your newsroom or that you’re already doing. Ignore for now the ones you’re not quite ready for. My hope is that there are some left that will help you get started.

No matter how many you get through, or how many ideas you and your colleagues are ready to tackle, leave the discussion with practical tasks you can start on within a few days.

Please get in touch with me if you have suggestions for how this guide could be more useful, and I’d also be grateful to hear how your newsroom is progressing on the path to a more connected, collaborative relationship with your community. My contact information is below.

Joy Mayer
Reynolds Journalism Institute

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News Engagement

Thank you very much for share all your research. We will read the document deeply and I hope we will provide some insight.

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