How journalism is falling short to engage local communities

And what I’m doing about it.

The following covers my research to fill the gaps between local journalism and community engagement. It’s an inside-the-notebook look at what has led me and a fantastic team to create a solution called ACT, reach the podium at a social impact competition, and begin publicly launching our work.

Personally, I constantly think about how my actions, words, and presence can make the most impact for literally everything I do. I seek for ways that I can influence others and for ways people or information can influence me. This affects my decisions on what I choose to learn based on its valuable takeaways and opportunities. I’m quite stubborn, honestly. I look forward to reading essays and watching documentaries much more than fiction or nonsensical content. Overtime, I’ve narrowed my options for consuming information — years ago I got rid of my TV services and, now, I’m feeling the same frustration and repulsion against social media and news websites. And, I’m not alone.

One of the most well-known characteristics of millennials is that we are purpose-driven and willing to sacrifice many things, including money, to get purpose and to ignore much of everything else. In 2015, I cut my salary in half to launch my startup, Bloom, money didn’t matter, purpose did. And this characteristic is spreading even more to the next generation (i.e. The Change Generation). Soon, any organization, information, or data that lacks purpose will quickly be glanced upon and forgotten. The reason for this is that purposeful information naturally inspires me to understand what I’m passionate about and build my role in society, whether it be for a person, organization, industry, or field, I want to lend a hand in their activity or advocacy. I wake up seeking it, fall asleep dreaming of it, and am constantly driven to designate more time on purposeful topics.

With my time spent in local journalism, I’ve learned how myself and other readers may have a purpose-driven attitude toward local news, but that the news doesn’t always meet us halfway. Like other businesses, newsrooms are being blindsided and challenged as they try to make sense of how to reel and sustain engagement with young readers. I don’t believe they understand how critical it is to deliver purpose these days, and if they should be the ones responsible for providing it.

“What’s needed are initiatives that truly combat social isolation with enhanced belonging. Brands should create spaces, experiences, products, and services that deliberately foster the conditions for diverse people coming together in respectful environments for shared experiences.” — mission-driven entrepreneur, Sebastian Buck.

A bottom-up approach to understand local news engagement

In November 2017, I was eager to learn more about the correlation between engagement in communities and local news, so I collaborated on a study with Amy Schmitz Weiss, Associate Professor of Journalism at SDSU. However, I took a bottom-up approach to get a better understanding about the general interests and behaviors of residents in their community, with journalism left aside.

The study consisted of a short survey about the resident’s interest for community participation, local topics that appeal to them most, and technology they use to learn about local topics. I will cover one part here in this article — their interest to participate. You can read the rest of the results at news.bloom.li.

Out of 979 respondents (U.S. residents), we discovered that a majority (over 75%) are aware of opportunities to get involved and voice their opinion in their community. However, 75% did not see it “very important” to actually take action and participate in their community. Today, it is ever-so-easy to just learn about what’s happening locally through Facebook (78%) or community websites (73%) but it seems these resources are limited to push a resident’s community interest to engagement.

National survey research, conducted and compiled by Amy Schmitz Weiss, Ph.D. SDSU.

The key insight gathered from this study was that invitation and guidance for community engagement has a lot of room for improvement. Thinking back to my purposeful ways, I can relate to them. A major reason why I wouldn’t take action on something would be either if I wasn’t asked or guided to do so, or if the topic wasn’t my current priority.

I spent the next 5 months learning if and how these factors (invitation and guidance) are correlated to local news engagement and where exactly they fell short. During this time, I kept 3 hypotheses in mind:

  1. Our willingness to participate in our community depends on how we’re invited and guided to do so.
  2. Our role and general interest in our community depends on how we’re held accountable to support, participate, or contribute.
  3. Our interest in local news is based on our understanding and acceptance of our role as a member in the community.

Therefore, the higher the level of encouragement to participate in communities, the higher the interest and engagement residents will give to its local news.

To further support these hypotheses, a 2016 Pew Research study points out that there’s a strong relation “between personal connection to these areas [their community] and a desire to stay more informed about current issues and events.”

Pew Research Study: Civic Engagement Strongly Tied to Local News Habits

So, shouldn’t it be in the journalist’s best interest to support community engagement? Where does it fall short today?

Publisher accountability and the fine line for activism

I’ve seen many community engagement efforts rising in newsrooms thanks to strategies like Hearken that make it easier for residents to have a voice and improve editorial decisions. However, it’s important to understand that this effort is happening before the publication, community engagement after the publication is just as critical and is where I’m seeing a lack of attention for.

To better understand exactly how invitation and guidance are currently handled in local news, I took it upon myself to begin a handful of experiments as you’ll see here and further below.

Early this year, I gathered just over 100 news articles from around the U.S. and analyzed them to identify their approach for community engagement. When I finished reading an article — I would ask myself two simple questions: “With this information, why is this important to my community? and, what can I do about it?”

For a vast majority of the articles, I could not find answers.

The journalist did fantastic job at telling me all about a problem or topic in the community, but seemed to make absolutely no effort in stating why exactly it’s important to the community and what my responsibility is as a resident. With this, it was left entirely up to me to think of how I could engage.

“…our communities need more than an official transcript of local government. At times, they need a firm, but benevolent friend.” — Pulitzer Prize-winning editor, Tim Gallagher.

Here are 3 examples of news where I saw a lack of invitation and guidance, even when I explicitly asked for it…

  1. Popville (DC): Suspicious package on G between 12th and 13th. Block cordoned off and waiting for bomb squad
    No guidance for readers to engage. So I, being a DC resident, asked a simple question in the comments: “Can you provide safety tips or local regulations that we should know about in a situation like this?” What was the response from Popville? …absolutely nothing.
  2. QNS (Queens, NY): Gun-toting crook gets away with $10,000 in cash from a Long Island City bank
    Again, no guidance for readers to engage. I may want to “Submit a police tip” or “Learn safety tips if you’re a witness to a bank robbery.”
  3. WJLA (DC / VA): Sheriff’s office says rain may have led to crash that killed missing Va. mom and children
    You guessed it, no guidance for readers to engage. I may want to “Learn safety tips for driving on stormy nights,” “See what roads in northern Virginia to avoid during storms,” or “Share tips with neighbors.”

Adding some type of action could be used to hold the reader accountable to get more involved or better understand their community. As seen, this action could be as simple as an explainer, it doesn’t necessarily have to advocate for volunteering, donating, or supporting organizations. Letting the reader know that there’s a possibility to move forward with the news can be a powerful factor that sparks their engagement.

The common context of these articles is what Peter Block has defined as “Stuck Community.”

“[A] context that markets fear, assigns fault, and worships self-interest. This context supports the belief that the future will be improved with new laws, more oversight, and stronger leadership [no need for residents to get involved]…”

What I concluded with after this analysis is that there is indeed a widespread lack of invitation and guidance for engagement in local news. However, it’s important not to blame journalists… entirely.

My point about Stuck Community is clearly a disrespectful editorial approach that’s linked to damaging effects on society so shame on you, journalist. But the idea of advocating for engagement (some say “activism”) is actually not a responsibility of a traditional journalist and journalists fight against it.

So, who is accountable?

Well… it seems no one has an answer to that. This has put the future of local news in such an awkward position —it’s like having a skydiving school with instructors that are afraid of heights, the business becomes hands-off for critical tasks that its existence relies on. Without any source of invitation or guidance for engagement, local journalism is basically cannibalizing itself and its communities.

Furthermore, overtime, residents have become more independent and local communities have become more fragmented. Our instincts and habits have drifted farther away from engagement with neighbors and local resources. Pulling residents back into communal interdependence is another deeper challenge that must be overcome. The invitation to engage meets this challenge face-to-face and must be stronger than the average.

These factors are turning out to be absolutely necessary. To help sustain local news engagement, invitation and guidance must be present at all times — and not just for elections and other popular topics but for every-day news.

But if the journalist is hands-off, how can this be accomplished?

Guiding news audiences to engagement, sans journalist

I’ve identified two changes to local news could help create and emphasize the invitation for readers to engage with the topic at hand, either online or offline.

#1: A shift in context

Shifting the context of the local news narrative from problems to possibilities is the main exit out of the Stuck Community. It’s an opportunity to transform news from information into one of influence and inspiration. To honestly state that the article does not have all of the answers, and explicitly list where there are opportunities for readers to become a participant or contributor. I believe it would help bring readers, across labels and deficiencies, together as one to be accountable for their community’s stability. (I have more recommendations for this implementation but will leave them for another article soon.)

“The context that restores community is one of possibility, generosity, gifts, and restoration, rather than one of problem solving, fear, and retribution. It is not that the current community-as-problems-to-be-solved context is wrong; it just does not have the power to bring something new into the world.” — Peter Block

#2: Community-driven CTAs (call-to-actions)

We’re all a bit open-minded and creative these days but, for the past decade, we’ve been bowing down to the same CTAs — the “like” button, “share,” “read more,” and “comment.” It’s about time that changed. Local news has the opportunity to have unique CTAs that are relevant to its topic and are mission-driven for those purpose-demanding readers.

CTAs have the potential to capture the reader’s engagement at their highest point of interest. From the research mentioned above, engagement is the stage that people currently hesitate at — meaning the CTAs are somehow faulty. If they were more impactful, personal, and prominent, there’s a big chance we could see an improvement.

I believe both of these changes are equally valuable and, however, controversial. With strict protocols and ethics currently embedded in each newsroom, it seems absurd to advocate for this type of change — at least on my own. I began to research what type of resources were already out there that took this approach with local news but, aside from those with promising mission statements, I couldn’t find any organization that was actually doing it.

So, I continued experimenting with my own resources to see how a change in context, invitation, and guidance could be accomplished.

  • In February, I began testing a translation of CTAs on Bloom’s website and local newsletter with residents in D.C. and NYC. The simple “Read more” was manually updated for each article based on its topic — such as “Make a fire prevention checklist” for news about an apartment fire. This was most useful for identifying a formula to quickly create effective CTAs.
  • In March, with a small group of friends, I built a website that showcased a combination of recent local news in D.C. and related engagement opportunities that I manually gathered each week. This allowed me to better understand different ways to connect these two types of content and how to naturally encourage residents to take action — using gamification, for example.
An experiment to combine community engagement opportunities with local news.
  • In April, I organized two grassroots community events inspired by recent local news to see how I could bring residents together and discuss the topics at hand. The first event was related to National Poetry Month, which invited residents to write inspiring poetry with chalk in a popular local park (residents loved this!). The second event was related to an environmental report card of the Potomac River, which invited residents to create a mural of the river. With these, I learned how open residents were to collaborate with strangers and talk about the news if they were invited to play a role.
A bucket of chalk and poetry books invited residents to learn more about National Poetry Month and share their favorite poetry lines with one another. About 50 residents participated and hundreds admired.

ACT: A solution starting to form

What all of this insight combined into was magical. In between the two events in April, I entered into Techstars’ Startup Weekend Competition whose theme was, coincidentally, Social Impact. As 3 fantastic team members joined me during the work-packed weekend, we powered overtop 40 ideas to proudly place 3rd and decide on an official name, ACT.

A victory photo with my team members at Techstars’ Startup Weekend competition. From left-to-right, Mychal, Catherine, Kevin, and myself!

ACT has adopted the mission I’ve been after these past months — a solution to bridge local news and community engagement. It allows newsrooms to remain safely hands-off from advocating community engagement, yet provides invitation and guidance for residents to take action, build their role in the community, and become more interested in local news happening nearby. ACT focuses on showcasing purposeful and personalized opportunities for readers to volunteer, attend events, collaborate with neighbors, and donate to causes that are closely related to recent news. As future generations of readers are sought out more from journalists, we believe ACT will serve their needs by fueling more purpose into local news and help inspire them to become a loyal member of their community.

Three members of our team are still active and dedicated toward the project today. I’m truly grateful to have had the opportunity to meet them. Since the competition we’ve continued to research, experiment, and have even launched our first prototype in June to test with our friends and family.

This week, we’ve launched ACT’s website (act.bloom.li) that provides more information about what we’re working on and how readers can get involved. In September, we’re scheduled to launch our product to the public. If you’re interested in learning more, helping out, or being the first to try out our finished work, I encourage you to sign-up!

I hope our experiences and insights so far have helped you better understand this critical gap and make you more aware of the possibilities for engagement in your newsroom or community.

I would love to hear your opinion or experience on this approach, and I’m happy to answer any questions you have as well. Please share in the comments below.

Thank you for reading!