Community engagement evolving to center residents, not journalism

Community engagement wasn’t even a “thing” back in 2007, when I first began developing a hyperlocal news hub called MyTopiaCafe.com for the Daytona Beach News-Journal in Florida. At least it wasn’t in journalism, where many news organizations were struggling with the technological changes wrought by the Internet and grasping for new audiences online and off. While many news organizations raced to build online platforms to garner new digital revenue streams, they also experimented with community engagement strategies to keep those users engaged online and off — using commenting systems, physical space meet-ups, town halls and other practices to learn to listen better to residents’ needs.

However, we are in a terribly different place as a country than we were 10 years ago. Recent elections in the U.S. and partisan politics have put journalism on the defensive and created ideological divides at the local and national level. The heightened rhetoric around fake news has questioned the authenticity of journalism and called into risk the ability of journalism organizations to build trust.

And authentic engagement, we’ve learned must go beyond technological solutions to build trust and create inclusive dialogue at the local level. Engagement is relational, not transactional.

Ten years ago, I met Amy Gahran who was managing a group blog on Poynter.org called E-Media Tidbits. She asked me as the then managing editor for this new online community portal to contribute what I’d learned around community engagement. The site, designed and built by my team, was a contemporary of such hyperlocal newspaper projects like WickedLocal.com in Boston, YourHub.com and the growing number of hyperlocal online news sites built by independent journalists sprouting around the country.

As a community portal for user-generated content, our community portal operated separately from our online news portal. Our goal was to ground our residents in a sense of place and help them build social capital using the tool. We built a technology platform with robust user profiles, so our residents could get to know one another. We modeled our terms of service after open projects like Wikipedia, to provide an environment for sharing of information and resources. We built a Freecycle-like donation channel for residents and nonprofit organizations to share what they had or what they needed. I was out on the street, meeting with residents, religious and business groups and others, to tout the online community, bringing a face and a transparency to our work. As I managed the site, I wrote some of the first stories on community engagement for Poynter.org on using new technological tools, on managing comments to evangelizing the site, and on how I was doing community engagement like running a political campaign (Building an Online Community Like a Political Campaign”). While I touted the technology for generating a sense of community, it was my human touch activities and my connection to the community that brought users to share on MyTopiaCafe.com. Relationship building came first, through a personal column I wrote where I exposed my own vulnerabilities, then in meeting community residents and honoring their stories on the MyTopiaCafe.com platform.

Fast forward 10 years. Now I am at Elevate Engagement in Portland, Oregon, the second in a series of gatherings hosted by Journalism That Matters with the Agora Journalism Center at the University of Oregon that will bring together more than 130 diverse journalists, educators, deliberation and dialogue practitioners, students, technologists and artists to learn from each other about authentic, effective community engagement. And while community engagement has become the phrase of the day in journalism circles, the “how” of engagement has continued to evolve. And authentic engagement, we’ve learned must go beyond technological solutions to build trust and create inclusive dialogue at the local level. Engagement is relational, not transactional.

As president of Journalism That Matters, a nonprofit organization that has been hosting breakthrough gatherings at the intersection of journalism, community and technology, we have been exploring the issue of media innovation and community engagement for more than 15 years and 20 gatherings. We began to collect stories of community engagement projects at the Engagement Hub, our repository for new and best practices. In 2015, we culled insights from these learnings and our Experience Engagement gathering to create the Engagement Framework — three touchstones that we believe must lie at the heart of authentic, inclusive community engagement:

1. Nothing about us without us.

2. Listening is our superpower.

3. Speak truth to empower

Our own deep listening using the touchstones above has evolved into our collaborative work on Gather, the developing community of practice hosted at the Agora Journalism Center. And we have shifted our own thinking about our work, from a centering of journalism and how it can be done differently, better, and faster, to a centering of community, with journalists as a part of a larger communication ecosystem.

We’ve recently completed a draft of the Engagement Framework 2.0 that more fully explores the knowledge, skill, practices and motivations of people working in the in-between of journalism and community. Community is at the heart of our work. We are asking the question “What can we do to create sustainable communications ecosystems that cause communities to thrive?”

Our work this weekend with a diverse group of passionate people will help us chart a path for an inclusive communications ecosystem. We hope to vet the Framework 2.0 for the first time with participants who contributed nearly two years ago. (A summary can be found here.) The report is hosted on a wiki that invites editing and collaboration. Ultimately, we hope to articulate a new role and vision for inclusive community engagement that connects people in communities, that engages them in dialogue and that generates local solutions toward thriving communities.

Follow us at #pdxengage17.

Dr. Michelle Ferrier is president of Journalism That Matters and an associate professor at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University.