The Engagement Manifesto: Part III

Andrew Haeg
Feb 25, 2016 · 7 min read

On January 29th, 2016 a group of journalists, entrepreneurs, newsroom leaders and students gathered in Macon, Georgia for a summit sponsored by the Center for Collaborative Journalism and GroundSource focused on reimagining the relationships between news organizations and the communities they serve. The catalyst for the summit was twofold: The emergence of a community of practitioners within newsrooms advocating for deeper and more inclusive community engagement, and a growing recognition on their part of the entrenched cultures and habits within the news profession that are blocking meaningful change.

Journalists, editors, managers, teachers and students gather to write the Engagement Manifesto. Photo by Andrew Haeg.

The product of this summit was a manifesto in three parts each of which shines a light on the dissatisfaction with the current culture of journalism, articulates a vision for more genuine engagement, and suggests some concrete, simple first steps that can help break down resistance to change.

Part I: The audience’s perspective and Part II: Management’s perspective.

Part III: The newsroom’s perspective

We in the newsroom are dissatisfied.

We are expected to do everything. How?

We know there are tools out there, all kinds of tools, too many tools, and no training to use them. Even the tools we know we’d like to use, we can’t get our outlet to pay for. And we don’t feel we have control over the technology used in our newsroom.

We’re expected to “do more with less.” We’re expected to cover everything — but how? The rapid news cycle has us on a hamster wheel. There are too many demands on our time. And there’s an emphasis on quantity over quality.

A lot of that is driven by metrics. We’re told to “Be Buzzfeed,” and “make things go viral.” This takes the emphasis away from news judgement. And you’re not really measuring engagement if you’re just measuring page views.

Numbers can be manipulated, and the numbers we’re supposed to use typically aren’t meaningful — especially not to us.

Numbers can be manipulated, and the numbers we’re supposed to use typically aren’t meaningful — especially not to us. Real social conversations are more complicated. Engagement is much more than social media analytics — those are media centric, not community-centric. True measures of engagement may be unanswerable, at least right now.

Metrics are important, but we’re dissatisfied with the impact that the metrics we’ve been given are having on our work.

That said, when we look at the metrics on a long, substantive story about city council and we see that only a few hundred people read it, it’s demoralizing.

We lack a sense of security. Not just because we haven’t gotten raises. We feel that our expertise isn’t valued. We’re trying desperately to stay relevant. We know that our newsrooms aren’t diverse enough. And we’ve come to a realization that the way we’ve written stories for decades wasn’t really working after all.

Engagement is much more than social media analytics — those are media centric, not community-centric.

We might be willing to try this engagement stuff if it will help solve these problems. If it does work, here’s what it would look like. Here’s our vision.

We want people to respond, react, and engage with the news we produce. The key is engagement. So, if this type of work is to make that difference, here’s how it might help us: The work becomes a real conversation, rebuilding the broken relationship with our audience, and the metrics and tools can help us measure the extent to which we’re becoming closer to our community.

But: We need more resources for this work, and if we know how to use them, we believe they will add value to not only the newsroom but also to the community. We need time to think through these projects, to listen to the people we’re not only reporting on but living next to, and to dig into what is meaningful to them and to us.

We need a diversity of opinions. And the way to do that is to know what’s going on in the community. We want our work to be valued. We want the stories we tell to matter and to make a difference. We want to hear the unheard and hold the powerful accountable. And we want to feel empowered in our work.

We need time to think through these projects, to listen to the people we’re not only reporting on but living next to, and to dig into what is meaningful to them and to us.

Reporters need to be able to leave their desks and mix with the community. We as reporters need to be with and among the community to understand its needs.

But we obviously want to stay employed and keep the lights on in our organization. To break away from a traditional model of news, which we know is broken, we need to be entrepreneurial and empowered and encouraged to experiment. This starts with opening the newsroom up to what’s possible within this work. The community and reporters share a stake in one another’s future.

And the metrics would still be there; there is a need to measure and quantify our work, but wouldn’t drive everything. In addition to these more media-centric metrics, we should also be thinking about community-centric, engagement-centric metrics.

And then there is the question of impact. Engagement can help our work achieve the various forms of this — to make meaningful change, to help community take action, to change in policy, to elicit emotion in the community.

The metrics would still be there; there is a need to measure and quantify our work, but wouldn’t drive everything.

All-in-all, our stories must represent a community’s voice. And the community needs to trust us as a part of it, not an outsider: We are of the community and at the same time journalists they trust with their story. The news we produce should reveal something about the way they live, how they live, to tell the community about the community.

It’s interesting that some of the same points that constitute dissatisfaction — reasons to engage — are also points of resistance, excuses not to.

We’re worried that engagement will be just another thing we have to do with no time and no resources.

We worry that the work won’t be valued — by the public or by our bosses.

We worry that the work won’t have any impact. After all, we’ve already written so many of the stories that the public say they want, and no one seemed to pay any attention.

We worry we’ll be asked to do this with no training or resources to make it successful.

We don’t know how to manage the public’s expectations. And we’re worried about exposing ourselves to criticism. If engagement is anything like the comments section, the people who engage are the cranks and the crazy people. They don’t have anything useful to add.

If engagement is anything like the comments section, the people who engage are the cranks and the crazy people.

At the core of our resistance is a tacit assumption that engagement isn’t journalism. What do you mean “collaborate with the public”? What do you mean “let people tell their own stories”? That’s not what we do.

Yet if we’re honest with ourselves, we realize that we constantly rely on information from third party people that we deem authoritative, but somehow we demean input from “the public.” Perhaps that’s part of the reason our audience isn’t as diverse as we know it should be, and why our work isn’t relevant to many people.

Here are some first steps to overcoming resistance to engaging in the ways we envision:

  • Emphasize the ways engagement is really part of reporting — that it’s central to our work: listening, seeking out sources, finding leads, seeking out information, reporting back.
  • Come up with a specific project — or an existing story or beat — that would be well suited to engagement. Think about it. Pitch it. Talk it through. Some you’ll do, some you won’t. But making this part of the editorial process will help people think more about the audience and will make the journalism better.
  • Identify people in the newsroom who are interested and passionate, with an entrepreneurial and experimental spirit, who are up for this work and willing to try it.
  • Find ways to incorporate real-world examples of success, the tools people use and the methodology of using the tools. That way we can answer the skeptics that say, “Show me that it works.”
  • Reassure your newsroom that while paid-for tools can be helpful, they’re often not necessary, and there are many free tools (e.g. Google Forms, Facebook groups) available.
  • Join professional groups that are doing engagement work — CPNN, Coral Project, Engaging News Project, Experience Engagement Facebook group.
  • Get buy-in from leadership to support a culture that says it’s OK to experiment, try new things, and to fail. For this to work, you need a safe space to collaborate and fail. Institute an open-door policy on engagement projects to tell leadership what you need, what’s working and what’s not.
  • Have an internal forum to discuss the ethics around engagement — balancing giving voice to community while also vetting and verifying, maintaining integrity and independence while being “of” the community. Be open to that conversation about the ethics of community-based practices, and how to manage the public’s expectations. This conversation is essential both as training and for buy-in.

Examples of engaging news projects (add yours in the comments)

GroundSource: Notes

Thoughts & lessons on building inclusive, authentic community engagement through mobile messaging.

Andrew Haeg

Written by

Founder, GroundSource @groundsource. Crowdsourcing pioneer, design thinker, husband, father. http://about.me/andrewhaeg

GroundSource: Notes

Thoughts & lessons on building inclusive, authentic community engagement through mobile messaging.