Get Ready to ‘Gather’

The engaged journalism collaborative we announced in February is almost beta-ready. Here’s what’s coming down the pipe.

Gather is almost beta-ready! (And these rocks couldn’t be more excited.)

“Gather is a collection of searchable resources. It’s a place to learn (and borrow) from existing projects. It’s a hub for collaboration. It’s an advanced how-to guide for engagement vets and an on-ramp for newbies. It’s a digital meeting space where engaged journalism’s budding community of practice can continue to grow and evolve.”

That broad-strokes vision is how we described Gather five months ago, before we knew exactly what the finished product would look like. The results from our initial stakeholder survey had provided a rough outline, but the details were almost entirely TBD.

Gather’s collaborative design process isn’t quite across the finish line, but thanks to the yeoman’s work of our steering committee and tech partner, FMYI, we plan to kick off a “closed beta” phase next week. (See below for the full launch timeline.) In the meantime, here’s a quick rundown of what we’ve been working on and what’s coming down the pipe.

Case Studies, Resources, and the Fruits of Collaborative Design

In February, we started hosting regular Zoom calls with our steering committee to shape the platform’s features, functionalities, and design. These conversations ranged from the big-picture (e.g. “Who are we building for?”) to the super specific (e.g. “What are we calling this thing?”), and they helped us turn FMYI’s intranet platform into something tailored to our community of practice’s specific needs.

One of the committee’s early priorities was to design a template and process for case studies that would be a) inviting for the people doing the reporting and writing, b) engaging and informative for the people doing the reading, and c) manageable for the admins doing the assigning and editing.

The feedback so far has been overwhelmingly positive, with 15 people already volunteering to report a case study, including one who wrote: “Count me in… It’s a good excuse to learn more about replicating something similar.”

That response was particularly exciting, because it’s exactly what we hoped Gather’s case studies would encourage — engagement practitioners connecting with each other, discussing what’s working (and not working) for their organizations, and then sharing the highlights of those conversations with a broader community of practice. (Want to give it a try yourself? Check out the instructions here. )

Another part of Gather that we’ve been building collaboratively is the Resources Directory, which features a tagged, searchable, and sortable library of engagement-related tools & technology, like Hearken and GroundSource; web trainings, like this Poynter webinar with Agnes Varnum; books & articles, from the seminal works to the latest Local News Lab gems; peer-reviewed research published in ISOJ and other top journals; reports, guides and surveys, like this awesome new report from the Democracy Fund; and other, more temporal resources, such as an upcoming events calendar and a list of current job, fellowship, and funding opportunities.

Our goal for this directory is not to publish reams of new content, but rather to round up the great resources that are currently scattered across the web and organize them in one place. During Gather’s beta phase (and beyond), we’ll be seeking input on what resources we’re missing, as well as pushing out new or timely resources via Gather’s weekly newsletter.

Lightning Chats, Newsletters, and Building a Gather Community

When we surveyed our community of practice about the needs Gather could help meet, people asked for not only case studies and resources, but also for opportunities to “make connections, exchange ideas, and collaborate.” As one respondent put it: “I’m amazed sometimes when I find the right person to ask a question of — how willing they are to share what they know. I wish there were an easier way for that to happen.”

One way Gather will facilitate this knowledge sharing is through 30-minute video “lightning chats,” where engagement practitioners can get together to discuss a common challenge or brainstorm ideas around a specific project. We started piloting this idea after the Elevate Engagement conference, and already we’ve hosted lightning chats about navigating the business side of engagement, developing a community conversation guide for journalists, expanding Spaceship Media’s cross-divide dialogues, and building newsroom cultures that support engagement. (For now, the invites for these chats only go out to Gather’s pre-beta users, but we plan to open them up publicly in September.)

We also recognize that vibrant online communities depend on consistent community management and communication. That’s why we’re developing a pair of weekly newsletters for Gather: (1) a round-up of upcoming events, featured case studies, new job listings, and other community updates, and (2) a Nuzzel aggregation of the engagement-related stories being shared most often by Gather members on Twitter. (You can opt-in for either or both of these newsletters when you request an invitation to register.)

Profiles, Topics of the Month, and Lessons From ‘Elevate Engagement’

When we kicked off the project’s collaborative design process in February, we had high hopes of launching Gather’s beta in time for the Elevate Engagement conference in May. However, neither collaboration nor coding are quick tasks, so the platform we shared with attendees in Portland was more of an M.V.P. Still, this limited release gave us valuable feedback about what people liked, what they really couldn’t stand, and what development items we needed to prioritize over the summer.

The pain point that was most apparent at Elevate Engagement was the process for creating user profiles, a feature that we believe is critical to building community on Gather and helping members discover professional colleagues (and potential collaborators) across the country. In response to user feedback, we worked with FMYI to come up with a cleaner, more robust solution for profiles, which we expect to be ready before Gather’s public beta launch in September.

Another outcome from Elevate Engagement was the idea to organize the platform’s editorial schedule around rotating “Topics of the Month.” The process will work something like this: Each month, our team will select a theme (say, live storytelling events) based on challenges and needs identified by the community — and then we’ll use Gather’s newsletter and Medium publication to invite members to tell us what’s working (or not) for their organization’s live storytelling events; share favorite articles, reports, and other resources about storytelling events; seek input or advice about storytelling events they’re currently working on; or nominate a storytelling event they’d like to see reported as a case study.

Public vs. Private Access

At this point, perhaps you’re thinking: “Gather sounds really helpful, but do I really need to create a new account to check it out?” The answer: Yes and no.

In the short run, yes, you’ll need to request an invitation to register before accessing any of the site’s content. Eventually, however, most of the content on Gather — including job listings, upcoming events, case studies, and resources — will be viewable without an account.

(Sign up here to receive an invite as soon as Gather’s public beta launches in September.)

We think this is the best way to spread best practices and insights across the profession, and we’re confident there will still be plenty of other reasons to register for the platform, including the ability to post comments, suggest lightning chats, nominate case studies, and create profile pages.

Timeline 2.0

Here’s the latest timeline for Gather’s launch, as well as details on how you can get involved.

July-August 2017: Closed beta. This will include steering and advisory committee members and Elevate Engagement participants who created accounts in May.

September 2017: Public beta launch. This is when we plan to release the new-and-improved profile functionality, kick off Topics of the Month, and open the platform to new users. Want to participate in the public beta? Sign up here, and we’ll send you an invitation to register as soon as it launches.

Early 2018: Non-member access. Once we’ve ironed out the beta-phase kinks, we will make parts of the Gather platform visible without an account. However, if you want to create a profile page, contribute to a Topics of the Month thread, nominate a Lightning Chat, or do other cool, members-only stuff, you will still need to register.

Got other questions about Gather’s launch? Shoot community manager Joy Mayer a note at joy@joymayer.com.

Special Thanks and Acknowledgements

This project simply would not be possible without the dedication and collective wisdom of Gather’s stellar steering committee. Special thanks to Andrew Rockway, Heather Bryant, Peggy Holman, and Simon Nyi for spearheading development of Gather’s resources directory; Ashley Alvarado and Pamela Behrsin for kickstarting the list of jobs, fellowships, and funding opportunities; Ashley Alvarado and Jake Batsell for developing the platform’s tagging structure; Carrie Watters, Chris Faraone, and Peggy Holman for designing the case study process and template; Jake Batsell and Keegan Clements-Housser for compiling an excellent set of research listings; Jeanne Brooks for contributing a super-handy template for developing user personas; Rodney Gibbs for offering input on the design of Gather’s newsletter; Simon Nyi for taking the lead on Gather’s code of conduct; and Subbu Vincent for lending expertise on everything under the sun, from UX design to platform nomenclature.

The Community of Practice Platform for Engaged Journalism (aka Gather) is a collaborative project led by the Agora Journalism Center, the gathering place for innovation in communication and civic engagement. Project funders include the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Democracy Fund.