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Terms of engagement

by: Michele McLellan |

May 03, 2011

Terms of engagement

Online engagement is an amorphous term that represents scary change for many of us who come from traditional journalism. So Joy Mayer’s work in breaking it down into practical chunks and examples represents a significant contribution to help newsrooms better understand what they might do.

Just what is engagement for the journalist?
1. Does it cross a line, say, into a cesspool of opinion without factual basis?
2. Is it a waste of time that is better spent reporting stories?
3. Or is it a natural extension of the ideal role of the journalist in providing information and helping foster a productive civic conversation?

I’m picking door number 3: It is both a challenging and optimistic way to approach the role of the journalist in the digital age.

If you are willing to accept that challenge, Mayer’s work is a place to start. Her message to traditional news organizations? “Don’t just issue an invitation to consume. Take the party to the people.”

Mayer, a fellow at the Reynolds Journalism Institute this year, identifies three buckets of engagement and cites examples of how news and other organizations are doing it:

Outreach: Invite people in or find them where they live.
Conversation: Talk to people. Oh, and don’t forget to listen.
Collaboration: Let them help you.

Mayer has compiled some great examples of each type of engagement and she shared them last week in a presentation at RJI. Here are some links:

- As part of its earthquake safety series “On Shaky Ground,” California Watch reached out to the under 10 demographic with a coloring book, “Ready to Rumble.”
- The Register Citizen in Torrington, Conn., meanwhile, is inviting the community in to its Newsroom Cafe, as well as offering training in blogging and using digital media tools.

- Expand use of social media and make it more than just another way to broadcast your stories. Host conversations on Twitter or Facebook. Example, The Washington Post used the hashtag #wherewereyou last September to get people talking about their experiences on Sept. 11, 2001.
- Likewise, expand to role of reporters and editors to be “hosts” of conversations about their beats, the way Honolulu’s the Civil Beat has done.
- The St. Louis Beacon, a nonprofit news organization that seeks to be an “engine of engagement” regularly hosts face-to-face discussions in the community about difficult issues like race.

- SeeClickFix has become the mother of all crowdsourcing platforms because it enables local site users to report close-to-home problems such as potholes.
- Ask people to report errors they find on your site, as the Register Citizen and the Washington Post do.

Mayer concludes that editors in traditional news organizations are thinking more about making news more social and participatory. But they often have a very narrow view of what engagement means. She recommends more discussion about best practices and strategies.

Mayer is hosting a conference, The Engagement Metric, this week, where participants will explore ways to measure effectiveness of outreach, conversation and collaboration.

Speaking of engagement, I enjoyed John Paton’s funny little post, JRC Employee Rules For Using Social Media.

“I have reduced them to three” he wrote. His list?

Cute. But I actually think it’s a good idea to offer journalists some guidance (not rules) for social media. Because once you are past the early adopters, you need to start providing a few specifics to get people on board.
So here are my three:
1. Engage rather than broadcasting.
2. Be authentic; admit when you don’t know or when you’re wrong.
3. Share what you are learning with your colleagues. Help them get better at it too.

The News for Digital Journalists blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

By Michele McLellan, 05/03/11 at 3:35 am


Thanks, Michele! If your readers are interested in seeing more of the examples I shared last week, some are online here (for reading online or downloading as a pdf): http://bit.ly/joyengage.

I’ll be eager to report back on what we find this week at The Engagement Metric (hashtag #rjiengage). I’m hoping to keep our conversation really practical and strategic.

By mayerjoy, 05/03/11 at 6:17 am

Michele McLellan

Michele McLellan is a writer, editor and consultant who works on projects that help strengthen the emerging local news ecosystem,
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