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Joy Mayer, journalism’s new ‘minister of engagement,’ offers guidance for newsrooms

by: Melanie Sill |

The Web and social media are still relatively young, but even allowing for that most news organizations have been painfully slow to embrace the capacity of these digital forms for receiving as well as transmitting information—in other words, for deepening journalism’s value and connection to users.

Enter the University of Missouri’s Joy Mayer, who has spent a Reynolds Journalism Institute fellowship year doing research and producing real-world guidance for newsrooms on audience engagement.

While others have taken on parts of the puzzle, Mayer has become an unofficial minister of engagement for journalism professionals—speaking, blogging and evangelizing about findings from the fellowship project she dubbed “Ditch the Lecture. Join the Conversation.”

On Monday, the RJI web site published the last and most significant result of Mayer’s work, a guide called “Community engagement: A practical conversation for newsrooms.

It followed the July publication of another resource offering both inspiration and instruction for newsrooms, “The Engagement Metric,” which Mayer and Reuben Stern edited to capture ideas from a May brainstorming and strategy gathering at RJI.

Through formal research and interviews, Mayer found that newsrooms small and large see community engagement as a key part of the future of news. She also discovered that editors and other journalists often aren’t sure what that means: what tools or approaches to use, how to measure success or how to build engagement into core news and audience strategies.

Similar questions also challenge alternative news organizations, including some online-only shops, expanding the universe of journalists who might benefit from the guides offered by Mayer and RJI.

“I’m trying to shake up how we think about community, our concept of audience, and being responsive, she said in an email the other day. “I’m also, though, laying out what I think new, emerging news organizations can do to thrive.”

Her new guide outlines approaches to engagement that make audience focus a building block—not an add-on—for gathering and publishing news.

Mayer says the guide can help newsrooms to get started on increasing engagement, even with small steps. But the framework she offers requires more of those who use it than setting up new Twitter streams—it asks them to put engagement efforts at the heart of the journalistic endeavor.

“So many of us are still using social media as a broadcast tool rather than a listening tool,” Mayer said recently, “and so much of communication is receiving information, not just sharing it.” In the guide, Mayer suggests that conversations begin with organizational mission, continue with strategy and involve newsroom-wide conversation and measurable goals.

The guide identifies 11 values statements, including: “Our core audience feels a connection with us,” “We amplify community voices besides our own” “We continually alter what we cover, and how, based on what the audience responds to.”

For each statement, the guide offers discussion questions and tactics to consider. Some specifics: pushing coverage links out to where readers who need coverage will find them. Using online metrics to inform coverage and story play decisions. Inviting people into physical newsrooms.

Some of the tactics are simple. Some require changing the starting point for certain coverage to what users are saying or doing and devoting much more time and attention to being responsive. The guide focuses heavily on digital tools and in-person interaction rather than on traditional print and broadcast platforms.

Reading it as a change advocate who shares some of Mayer’s basic outlook, I found the guide simultaneously visionary and useful. Reading it through the eyes of an overloaded, overwhelmed daily news producer, I could see it as a bit daunting—which Mayer acknowledged in a followup email, noting that “no one should try to do all of it,” and advising that users pick options that seem best for their own missions.

“But we can’t have a different relationship with our communities without changing our priorities, which always involves a shift in workload,” Mayer wrote. “I definitely don’t have any magic solutions that don’t require effort. But some of these strategies (like more fully taking advantage of what we can learn from analytics, using social media to listen not just broadcast, and identifying audiences to take specific content to) have so much potential that we can’t afford NOT to invest in them.”

Mayer adds, and I agree, that such steps are crucial to business strategy and to civic impact. News organizations of any size can’t survive without providing measurable value or without being important to audiences.

Newsrooms with limited resources, i.e. most of them, need ways to clarify goals and to determine whether new tactics work. Engagement, in that context, becomes part of a larger idea of service - an idea that matters to news organizations trying to demonstrate their value in a competitive online news market.

“My goal, especially with the discussion guide, is to help newsrooms keep the focus on the audience,” Mayer said in our phone chat. “I don’t mean just remember you have readers. I mean be responsive to what works the way that other businesses are used to doing.”

The Engagement Metric” organizes ideas from the RJI brainstorming session using three broad categories Mayer identified: community outreach, conversation and collaboration. Like the discussion guide, it uses a structured approach identifying goals, tactics and ways to measure success.

But neither document offers plug-‘n’-play solutions. Instead, part of Mayer’s message is that engagement is specific—to communities, to newsroom missions and to individual journalists.

Mayer, who has a news design background, is an associate professor at the Missouri journalism school and an editor at the Columbia Missourian.

Recently, Mayer has done presentations for conferences of alternative news media, copy editors and journalism educators. She’ll travel in September to the News Design convention and to Block by Block: Community News Summit 2011, which RJI co-sponsors.

Mayer’s strong opinions about engagement are built on her journalism experience and her research. She helped produce an engagement survey of community daily newspapers (100,000 circulation or less) based on telephone interviews with 529 editors by RJI’s Center for Advanced Social Research.

The findings showed that editors and newsrooms are using social media, Web analytics and other tools, but indicated that there’s still a lot of sorting out going on about what these methods mean for both business and journalism goals.

Mayer also interviewed many of the top thinkers and practitioners experimenting with new engagement approaches for her project, sharing along the way via her RJI blog.

Now that her fellowship has ended, Mayer is back in the Missourian newsroom and eager to practice what she’s been preaching through a new student team at the paper and a participatory journalism class she’ll be teaching.

Her “Dear Reader” column published Aug. 9 set out Mayer’s hopes for the engagement effort at the Missourian, which has been inviting community and reader participation for years via MyMissourian.com.

News-gatherers, she wrote, now have more windows onto community life and quicker, more specific feedback on what people outside newsrooms are reading, discussing and publishing.

“Along with all this information comes a duty to be responsive. If we’re really listening, we should be changing what we’re doing based on what we hear. We should pay attention to what you like, join in the conversations you’re having about the news and respond when you get in touch with us directly, whether you’re walking into the newsroom (which you’re welcome to do anytime—221 S. Eighth St.) or commenting on our Facebook or Twitter pages.

“If it’s easier for you to talk to us than it used to be, our routines need to adapt to allow for listening. Our journalism should be guided by your needs and preferences.”

As a good minister of engagement, Mayer offered her email address—[email protected]—and an invitation for input to Missourian readers, discussion guide users and blog visitors.

Newsrooms might have never been offered such forward-looking, useful resources to learn how to connect with readers in ways that improve coverage and service. Let’s hope many journalists grab the ideas Mayer is offering and run with them. Even those who’ve been slow to start have plenty of opportunity to catch up - with the possibilities of our times, and with the communities they serve.

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.