When you tell the family you have a new job, the initial response, of course, is to congratulate you. If your new title is director of community engagement and social media, the second response is: What does “community engagement” mean?
I’ve been answering that question some since joining the Journal Register Co. (and answered the same question last year when I went to TBD to lead community engagement efforts).
Journalists aren’t as puzzled by the phrase as relatives, but I get questions from journalists, too. Some are skeptical, as journalists tend to be (and should be) of any buzzword. Some are enthusiastic about the general topic, but unsure what all it entails. Some suspect that community engagement is more about marketing than about journalism. Some fear that community engagement is one more chore stacked upon the already heavy workload of journalists in shrinking newsrooms.
My new Journal Register colleagues have been quite supportive of my new responsibilities. They are asking excellent questions about what we will be doing together to deepen engagement with the communities we serve.
I’m going to address all these questions in a series of blog posts that probably will take several weeks. Today I will provide an overview of community engagement. In coming weeks, I will dig into the various engagement techniques that I will cover only briefly here.
Let’s start with a tweet-length definition: Community engagement = News orgs making a top priority to listen, to join & lead conversation to elevate our journalism.
Update: Jeff Jarvis and Matt Terenzio said on Twitter that they thought I should have used “enable” instead of “lead” in the tweet above. I agree that enabling conversation is an important aspect of engagement (and I’d say it’s included in good leadership). But I’m not sure it’s more important than leadership. The community is pretty well able to converse already and is already doing so. But I’m pro-conversation, so I welcome this crowdsourced editing help:
Community engagement = News orgs make top priority to listen, to join, lead & enable conversation to elevate journalism.
I’ll elaborate on some key words there:
Priority. Community engagement doesn’t work as an afterthought. Engaging is hard work, and won’t get the time and attention it needs if the organization doesn’t stress its importance. More important, the community is smart and people will quickly recognize when engagement is lip service, rather than a priority.
Listen. Engagement is not mere promotion. If your engagement is all about telling the community what’s important and what you’re doing, or about gathering cheap content, it’s not engaging. You need to listen and respond. You need to change direction sometimes because you value the feedback from the community you’re listening to.
Join. You can’t expect to host all the conversation on your website or in your newspaper. People are discussing community news and issues in lots of important physical and digital places in the community. You need to join those discussions and respect the stature of others who are leading conversation.
Lead. News organizations need to be leaders in the community conversation (organizations with print roots and a history of editorial leadership already have such a role). By listening and joining other conversations, you earn the respect you need to lead.
Conversation. Lecturing and one-way reporting may have their place, but engagement is a multi-directional conversation, where you listen to people, pass along their knowledge to others, ask thoughtful questions and provide thoughtful answers. Conversation is human and personal (sometimes fun, sometimes sad, sometimes angry, sometimes rejoicing). Conversation requires a friendly voice.
Journalism. Engagement is an approach that can and must serve and improve our journalism. It may have some marketing benefit, but the purpose is better journalism.
For much of my career, journalism was pretty much a one-way street: Journalists decided what was news, wrote the stories and published them in newspapers or broadcast them on newscasts. About the only traffic coming the other way was letters to editors and phone calls complaining or praising or suggesting story ideas (and sometimes it wasn’t easy for those phone calls to get through). Editors viewed themselves as benevolent know-it-alls, deciding what was important for the community to know.
Community engagement doesn’t change the news organization’s responsibility to report what’s important, and sometimes what’s unpopular. A news organization that engages with its community should, in fact, have an easier time earning trust of the whistle-blowers who are key sources for such stories, and earning the trust of a community that might be skeptical of negative news.
I will blog later about time management and staff management, important aspects of community engagement. But here I should note that being busy or having a small staff (or a large staff that has suffered heavy cuts) are not excuses for failing to engage your community.
In some ways, community engagement can save time, so it’s a tool you must learn to use if you are busy and your staff it stretched thin. In some other ways, engagement does demand some time (especially while you’re learning). But it’s essential, so you need to get more efficient in some other areas. Or you need to decide what to stop doing to allow time to do what’s important now.
Update: I’ve added some links and edited the next two paragraphs since originally posting.
Joy Mayer, a University of Missouri journalism professor and Reynolds Journalism Fellow who led a program on engagement earlier this month, speaks of three primary types of engagement: outreach, conversation and collaboration. She elaborates in these slides and in her blog.
You pursue those three approaches with a wide array of tools and practices. Whichever approach you take to analyzing engagement, it’s important to realize that all these categories are overlapping circles, not distinct silos. The best engagement will use all these practices (and develop some new ones) to achieve outreach, conversation and collaboration.
These are the primary techniques of community engagement, as I see them (in the coming weeks, I will blog about each separately):
Social media. People are increasingly using such popular tools as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to tell their own stories of what’s happening in the community. A news organization needs to use social media in a variety of ways to connect with sources, monitor community conversation, stay on top of breaking news and distribute content to people using social media.
Blog networks. People are reporting on the activities, views and interests of their neighborhoods and circles of interest. News organizations need to view blogs as potential partners, rather than competitors.
Crowdsourcing. Journalists have always told stories by finding people in the community who knew what was happening with particular events and issues. Crowdsourcing can connect us faster with more sources.
Breaking news. Many breaking news stories are widely shared community experiences that affect many people, draw a crowd and/or stimulate conversation: weather, disasters, fires, commuting problems, elections firing or hiring a public official. In virtually all of these stories, the news organization that taps into the community conversation will provide the best coverage.
Engaging through stories and community events. Most community news stories provide engagement opportunities. Whether you ask people what they are seeing or experiencing or ask them for their photos or their opinions, many of the stories your organization covers provide ways to converse with the community.
Curation and aggregation. Much of the community conversation is happening off your site on social media, blogs and other news sites. You can bring that content onto your site through Twitter and Facebook widgets, through curation tools such as Storify and through roundups or aggregation of headlines, feeds and links.
Content submitted by users. As blogs, cellphone cameras and social media put the tools of news-gathering and publishing in more hands, people have started reporting news themselves, taking in many cases the first photographs of disasters, crimes, accidents, fires and festivals. They also are creating content about community life in countless ways. Invite people to share their content with your audience.
Make content engaging. You need content that people want to share, respond to and talk about. That’s partly a matter of producing good content (storytelling still counts). And it’s partly a matter of thinking of ways for people to interact with the content, whether that means providing polls asking people what they think or presenting the content in a game or providing links where people can express their views about the story to city council or school board members.
Voting. You can invite the public to choose the best or worst or funniest or most outrageous or some other superlative in almost any category that you imagine that the public cares about. This is a form of engagement that (when it works) gives you a cycle of content and engagement. An initial article explains the contest and launches the vote. During the voting period, you (and in some cases, people who are voting and/or contenders in the vote) continue promoting the vote on various platforms. And then you write again about the outcome.
Contests. Here you are seeking to determine the best or worst or funniest or most outrageous or some other superlative in some category where the contenders are submitted by the public. You (or perhaps some judges you assemble because of their prominence or expertise) may determine the winner. Or you may combine the contest with voting and let the public vote on the contenders. Or perhaps you select the finalists and let the public choose the winners. Contests work best with prizes, which can be donated by sponsors or can be silly prizes or swag with your logo.
Comments. Whether you demand that people use their own names, encourage use of names using Facebook Connect or allow anonymity, the conversation on your stories and blogs is an important engagement tool.
Face to face. The opportunities presented by digital tools do not mean we can ignore old-school engagement where you connect with a smile and eye contact and a true listening ear. Invite the community into your newsroom. Get out to community events, service club meetings, school classes and coffee shops, wherever the community conversation occurs. (As with some other techniques listed here, this could actually be multiple techniques, but I will address them all in a single blog post and treat it as one to emphasize the importance of face-to-face engagement).
Schools. Consider the engagement possibilities with high schools and colleges in your community (not just the journalism schools and departments). What are the possibilities for you to partner with them, where you give a forum (digital and/or print) to their students and faculty and they provide content for you? Or you link to work they are doing? Or you provide internships, mentoring, tours, guest speakers or adjunct faculty?
Community groups. At the very least, make sure that community groups know how to submit items to your calendar. But perhaps you can invite them to blog (or liveblog) about their speakers and weekly meetings. Certainly you can offer occasional speakers — the editor or a community engagement leader to explain your community engagement strategy and projects, or a popular columnist or blogger, or your funniest staff member as an entertaining speaker, or a reporter who has just completed (or is working on) a major project.
Feedback. As I’ve noted repeatedly here, part of engagement is truly listening. We need to make it easy for people to tell us what they like and don’t like about our content and our engagement — and whatever else we do. We need to have phone numbers, email addresses, social media and snail addresses easy to find (and we need to monitor the feedback, track it and respond). And when people come to the office or provide feedback as we’re in the community, we need to record and respond.
That’s a lot of community engagement tools and techniques (and a lot of blog posts I just promised to write; this may take all summer). Each news staff is not going to master them all, at least not immediately.
Especially in small newsrooms (which means all JRC newsrooms), you need to master a few techniques and build your repertoire gradually, rather than spin your wheels trying to do all of these things at once and not mastering any of them. You might have individual staff members who excel in a particular technique and become your in-house expert, helping others when they need to try that tool.
As long as this list is, I probably overlooked some techniques that I know about (I’ll add them later, and blog about them as well, if I remember them). And you are probably using some tools or techniques that I don’t know about. What should I add to this community engagement toolbox? (Whoops, there’s another engagement technique: Ending a post or story with a question to invite continued discussion.)