Learning ‘Engagement’ Can Be a Lonely Quest. It Doesn’t Have to Be.

We asked our steering committee why they’re excited for Gather’s launch. Here’s what they told us.

Engaged journalists,

I’ve been watching you for years now, and I’ve seen your struggles.

I’ve seen you trying to drag your newsroom into real engagement work without the support of more experienced colleagues. I’ve seen how lonely you sometimes feel, often working solo as the only person championing engagement work in your newsroom. I’ve seen you stumble over the same challenges others have because you don’t have access to established best practices in this emerging specialty.

But you know what? I’ve also seen what happens when you have the chance to ask direct questions of the people responsible for a project you admire.

I’ve seen the lightbulbs go off when you’ve heard of changes in another newsroom’s organizational culture and have figured out how to bring the same community-focused language, processes and values back to your own shop.

I’ve seen the magic happen when engaged journalists Skype into classrooms with eager college students, and a broader definition of journalism takes root with the next generation.

It’s those moments that have brought me to Gather, and to a belief that this emerging community of practice deserves a place to connect, learn, share and grow.

This week, I asked the members of the Gather steering committee (listed at the bottom of this post) to tell me why they’re eager for the platform to go live. I asked them to describe an idea or challenge that Gather will help them address in their own work. Here’s what I heard back.

(Oh, and we’re still asking you to suggest case studies for Gather. Tell us what engagement projects you think we should all know more about.)

Ashley Alvarado, manager of public engagement at Southern California Public Radio:

Despite the community-focused nature of engagement work, for too long many of us have been working without a community of practice. With Gather, I’m very much looking forward to bouncing ideas and best practices off of others, of learning what has worked and what hasn’t worked in their respective newsrooms.

Engagement work often involves what can be perceived as high-risk innovation or, for lack of a better word, crazy ideas. Within this emerging community of practice, we can learn from each other and lean on one another. We can also find, I hope, a shared vocabulary and understanding of engagement that we take back to our individual newsrooms and communities.

Chris Faraone, co-founder of Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism (BINJ) and editor of DigBoston:

At this time, other than at certain conferences, there are no great places I know of where journalism practitioners of all experience levels can have a productive dialogue about engagement. Certain Facebook and Google groups that I belong to scratch the surface, but as somebody from a relatively small outlet, I have found that peers are reluctant to talk it out in front of the crowd, and that editors from major newsrooms and funders from larger foundations get most of the attention for obvious reasons.

As a part of the team that is building Gather (and still representing my small community news operation, of course), I can already say that I see the platform as having the potential to be a great equalizer. People will know who they are interacting with while using it, but it will also be a place where legacy organizations can learn from younger radical engagers and vice-versa, and where users can hopefully connect without titles or status interfering too much.

Peggy Holman, co-founder of Journalism That Matters and author of Engaging Emergence: Turning Upheaval into Opportunity:

I see the community of practice as a great place to ask questions of peers. I got to put that to work recently after talking with a newspaper editor who was looking for a creative way to get reader feedback. Being able to pose a question and hear stories of what others have done gave me some options and ideas. More than that, it led me to look at the question differently.

What began as a search for a clever way to do something ultimately became a different way to think about the relationship between news organization and audience. What I realized was that rather than thinking in terms of reader feedback on a story, I could approach the situation through a model where conversation is informed by a story that leads to other stories that spark further conversation. That’s a terrific and productive way to build capacity for dialogue and to foster a healthy relationship between journalists and the public.

That’s the value of a community of practice.

Carrie Watters, contributions editor at the Arizona Republic:

Like most journalists, I work in a newsroom with many demands. Video! Watchdog journalism! Monitoring metrics! (All important things.) And somewhere in there is engagement. It sounds good. Who wouldn’t want to be engaging? But what does it mean and why should we make time to take it deeper, do it better, get more from it? Hearing what others have tried — the great successes and the that-didn’t-work-so-well lessons — will be helpful. With Gather, we’ll have a one-stop place to read what others are trying and seek feedback on our own projects.

In Phoenix, we recently launched a partnership with a successful Facebook group in one of our surrounding communities. My goals revolve around engagement, and I can clearly see that some engagement is happening based on page-view metrics. But that’s skimming the surface, and I don’t want to be content with just reaching new audiences. Engagement can be more transformative, by being responsive to a community’s needs, crowdsourcing to gain perspectives on issues and building trust. As this project unfolds, I hope Gather will be a place where I can turn to other engagement practitioners for advice, ideas or simple encouragement.

Subramaniam (Subbu) Vincent, project manager and technology anchor at the Trust Project, Santa Clara University. John S. Knight fellow ‘16:

When local public media does a callout asking for insights about a raging local issue, the core audience does respond. In the U.S., that’s usually white people. But if the question itself needs responses from diverse groups in the city, and it does not attract responses from black folks, asian american or latino folks, journalism suffers — and the problem perpetuates itself. Most of the callout-response scenario is itself a symptom of the deeper malaise of audience diversification efforts not panning out or not being sufficient.

This goes to the heart of community engagement practices. This is a shared problem, and there are success stories out there. Some local media like KPCC are better on this than others. I’d like Gather to offer information about the people, thinking, newsroom structure, tools and best practices that are helping solve this problem, and also foster conversations between practitioners on how to transfer learnings between newsrooms.

Pamela Behrsin, senior editor of audience and engagement at CALmatters:

Gather is a public engagement collaborative comprised of engagers from many different disciplines and skill levels. We’re all collaborating on projects just like yours, and forever learning from each other.

Join us if you’re looking for a test-and-learn idea for an open reporting project to be more transparent in your news gathering to establish trust and grow audience. Or, perhaps you need to build and submit an audience engagement plan with goals, strategies, tactics, and metrics so you can get sign-off and a budget from your higher ups. Maybe you’re looking for a specific set of strategies to increase a key metric such as owned audience, membership or event participation. Or, you’d just like to bounce ideas off of someone about how to build metrics dashboards for reporters, editors, your publisher or board. Whatever the reason, we’d love for you to help us grow this much-needed resource in the field.

Jake Batsell, associate professor at SMU and author of Engaged Journalism: Connecting with Digital Empowered News Audiences

College professors who teach and study digital media often find ourselves scrambling to update our syllabi before every semester. How can we best teach our students to apply the tools of the moment to practice timeless journalistic principles? How can we inspire student media leaders to not just publish content, but have a conversation with their audience? And how can we keep adding new skills to an already packed curriculum?

Gather will be a community of practice where digital media educators can share ideas with each other while also learning from — and interacting with — leading engagement professionals from around the media world. And from a research perspective, Gather will offer a gold mine of ideas for media scholars looking to delve more deeply into engagement.

Simon Nyi, program manager for media and journalism at Illinois Humanities:

“Engagement” is a big buzzword in the industry right now, and it means different things to different people. I’m excited by the possibility that Gather might help systematize “engagement” a little — not in the sense of establishing one “correct” definition of engagement, or a set of rules for doing it, but through creating a centralized space where a diverse range of approaches to engagement can be catalogued using a shared set of parameters.

It seems like that framework will be useful for helping practitioners structure their own thinking, and also for journalists trying to make a concrete case for the value of engagement to editors, funders, etc. What’s your goal, and how can a particular set of engagement tools/strategies/methodologies help you get there? I think Gather will make it easier to articulate an answer to that question in a way that’s compelling to folks outside the circle of engagement practitioners who already “get it.”

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.