How to teach journalists community engagement: Just do it

On Thursday, I spoke to graduate students in the journalism program at Georgetown University about how Gannett approaches community engagement (thanks for the invite Jen Chaney!). It sounds simple enough. We encourage engagement and have been working double-time to up our involvement in our communities in the past couple of years. Bam.

But sitting in a room with 13 aspiring journalists, I re-realized something that hadn’t necessarily been top of mind since I left my last newsroom nine months ago. Asking reporters, editors, producers and photographers to get out of their comfort zone and spend some one-on-one — or one-on-many — time with the public is not always an easy task. For a variety of reasons — shyness, stage-fright, a fear of criticism, heavy workloads — adding community engagement to a day’s work can be kind of a bewildering prospect.

And it can be difficult to communicate just how well community engagement works in academic terms.

It sounds trite, but seeing is believing. So, to teach community engagement, you have to give your students — be they actual students, your direct reports or colleagues— first-hand experience in engaging with the community, whether that’s at an in-real-life event or by encouraging reporters to jump into article comment threads.

That’s a lesson we’ve learned across the country, from my old Palm Springs, Calif., newsroom to Indianapolis, Nashville and Fort Myers and beyond. Not only does getting out and meeting our audience, and potential audience, change their perception of our local brands, but (just as important) it changes our own perception about our role and place in the community. So, often, when we head to a local site for a visit we’ll ask that site to host a coffee+news public news meeting. It’s usually a win-win situation.

I have sat in cities and seen firsthand and hesitant staff do a complete 180 after witnessing the power of in-real-life engagement. Not only are we able to get our message out more directly, but reporters and editors come into contact with sources and tips that never would have come their way had they remained at arm’s length behind their computers or even doing good, hard gumshoe beat work. They also get first-hand reaction to the difference they are making in the community. Yes, there are sometimes hecklers, but there’s a way of hearing them out and trying to win them over.

So, here’s a little advice I shared with the Georgetown class: Just do it.

Below is a copy of the presentation I worked from at Georgetown. Not as effective without the accompanying talk, but maybe useful for someone out there.

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