In a community of practice, make space for practice

By Max Resnik

Communities of practice were common as far back as ancient times. In classical Greece, for instance, “corporations” of metalworkers, potters, masons, and other craftsmen had both a social purpose (members worshiped the same deities and celebrated holidays together) and a business function (members trained apprentices and spread innovations). In the Middle Ages, guilds played similar roles for artisans throughout Europe.

— Etienne C. Wenger and William M. Snyder, Communities of Practice: The Organizational Frontier

The first community of practice (CoP) I joined, although I would not have known to call it one at the time, was at WRUV, the radio station at the University of Vermont. The station is unabashedly freeform, DJs had near total control over format and music, with one cardinal rule: don’t play music that could be heard on commercial radio stations. My first show, a graveyard shift from 4am-6am on Friday mornings during the summer of 2004, had few listeners, but introduced me to decades worth of CDs and vinyl (WRUV boasts the largest music library in the state of Vermont) and a community of DJs and listeners who saw the mission of the radio station as theirs to cultivate and protect. Monthly staff meetings, supplemented by regular encounters at the station, looking for music, reinforced relationships and created a culture of regular, passionate conversation and learning, with a healthy dose of chaos and anti-establishment tendencies. Student DJs would come and go from semester to semester, bringing new energy and ideas, while community members, some who have hosted shows for decades, guard station traditions and carry the torch from generation to generation.

Social scientists Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Trayner define communities of practice as “groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.” This definition perfectly described my experiences as a member of the radio station community, and has carried on in my work facilitating community conversations in service of journalism with public radio stations and nonprofit digital news startups and equipping newsrooms and community organizations to support their own communities in City Bureau’s Documenters Network

Imagine news and journalism that treats an audience as full members of a community. In ‘Communities of Practice, a Brief Introduction’ Etienne Wenger distinguishes CoPs from communities like neighborhoods with three characteristics

  1. The Domain: an area of interest special to the members of the community
  2. The Community: People (this is key!) who interact and learn together regularly
  3. The Practice: “a shared repertoire of resources: experiences, stories, tools, ways of addressing recurring problems”

Journalism and reporting that serves a civic mission has the unique opportunity to change neighbors, people living in proximity in a city or region, into a community with a passion for learning, through regular interaction, how to engage with more skill in the civic process.

At WRUV, our domain was music, the type of music specifically that would not be played on commercial radio. The design of the radio station necessitated interaction amongst the community of DJs, not only at the mandatory monthly staff meetings (pizza provided), but in the booth between shows. To avoid dead air, DJs needed to coordinate the use of the sound board, CD players/tape-decks/record players and the broadcast microphone. Nobody learned in isolation even though we spent hours alone in the booth. Our practice was providing a ‘better alternative’ to commercial radio for our listeners in the broadcast range and eventually online.

An increasing number of journalism and media organizations are supporting their audiences with opportunities to participate in communities of practice. Some, take the form of community editorial boards, where community members are paid and trained to submit opinion pieces and weigh in on sticky topics. At City Bureau, I work with news organizations, civic organizations and community members across the country on the Documenters network. Documenters is a network of newsrooms and community organizations committed to participatory civic media. In Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland, community members are equipped and paid to participate in the newsgathering process, reporting from public meetings, civic events and sharing news and information with their neighbors, family and community. Documenters create a new public record of underreported local democracy while improving their writing skills and understanding of local government.

We’re in a golden age of communities of practice in journalism. Where the pandemic threatened to keep us isolated from colleagues and community, around the world people were hungering for opportunities to connect, learn and contribute to their communities. When physical gathering became unsafe, journalists and community members found new (and more accessible) ways to convene and learn with people hungry for information about IEPs in school or local elections. In an early Gather blog post, Ben DeJarnette surfaced ‘seven principles for supporting existing communities of practice.’ Ben’s piece is a master class, but I’d like to draw attention to two of the seven principles

  • #2 — Open a dialogue between inside and outside perspectives
  • #3 — Invite different levels of participation

Journalists, as conveners, create spaces where inside and outside perspectives come into regular dialogue. A city acts as a network of networks, where individuals participate in civic life as neighbors, parents, students, laborers and members of religious and civic organizations. Journalism creates opportunities for individuals and groups who share interests to interact and learn to live better, in community. Community members are able to participate at different levels (some as readers, some as active participants in community dialogues, some actively reporting and contributing to journalism). Journalists, when they are able to experience a healthy community of practice, are better able to carry the experience back to their own communities. Luckily, in addition to Gather, there are a number of active CoPs for media makers.

Last month, Gather’s curator Lisa Heyamoto highlighted how journalism startups are building their businesses around a community-first approach, “embarking on listening tours and audience interviews from the jump, taking full advantage of the openness and agility that come with a startup mindset.” LION Publishers, where Lisa serves as Director of Teaching and Learning cultivates a community of practice for independent news entrepreneurs and publishers. The News Product Alliance, offers support and cultivates community among news product thinkers from around the world. The Center for Cooperative Media hosts a community of practice for people who manage collaborative journalism projects (read their excellent playbook here!).

If you’re starting or cultivating a community of practice within your newsroom or with members of your community, start with these two questions:

  1. Share a story of a time when you saw yourself in this community — Community organizer and professor Marshall Ganz, who started organizing during the Civic Rights Movement writes that stories “not only teach us how to act — they inspire us to act. Stories communicate our values through the language of the heart, our emotions. And it is what we feel — our hopes, our cares, our obligations — not simply what we know that can inspire us with the courage to act.” There are dozens of things pulling our attention every hour of the day and night. How can your news organization, your community media project, your listening series, leave people with a greater sense of those values, hopes, cares and obligations. What can an individual say, to a friend, to a family member, to a neighbor about what they learned from and with you that reflects how they are inspired to participate.
  2. How are you learning and improving your skills through participating in this work? — One key principle for communities of practice is focusing on value. When designing or building a news product for your community, how are you creating opportunities to reinforce learning goals for your colleagues and your community? jesikah maria ross describes participatory media as
  • Selecting and developing stories in conversation with the communities most affected
  • Designing a reporting process that generates understanding, connection, and trust
  • Strengthening existing networks and forging new alliances that build community resilience beyond reporting

Where in your work is there space for interested individuals to tap in, to contribute and learn in community?

I’ve been incredibly lucky with my experiences of community. I wish everyone was lucky enough to have a place like WRUV when they were growing up. A space to geek out, practice and learn in community and create something that brings value to your community. Communities of practice, and the principles that guide them, can support you, your colleagues and your community while fulfilling the expanded role of journalism in a world hungry for connection.

Max Resnik is the Documenters Network Manager at City Bureau. He also served as Gather’s Takeover Guest Curator for the month of October.