Teaching community engagement

A few things we learned this spring

This spring I co-taught my first course at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, along with Jeff Jarvis: Community Engagement.

This class is one of four required of students in our new social journalism MA program in their first semester. It is essentially the core introductory foundation for our program.

Here are the course objectives:

  1. Understand the core ideas of social journalism — the philosophy of journalism as service
  2. Know how to identify, understand and listen to communities, both virtual and physical, in terms of how they come together, what they seek to do, how they manage themselves, and what tools they use
  3. Understand how the web and social media has made it easier and more efficient for communities and networks to form that can generate real world political and social change
  4. Know how to evaluate what a community needs with an eye toward how social journalists can meet those needs.
  5. Understand the basic principles of design thinking as one technique to understand and empathize with communities
  6. Be able to move past comfortable associations to learn how to understand people of diverse backgrounds and different perspectives and needs.
  7. Know how to cope with difficulty in communities, particularly online: trolls and troublemakers, fights and feuds.

We are increasingly seeing job ads that ask for skills like these. Even though many news organizations are obsessed with page views in an industry still primarily driven by advertising, the limitations of this model are increasingly evident, and the importance of building strong relationships and a loyal audience grow every day.

But how do you *teach* engagement? It’s not like there’s an easy set of one-size-fits-all rules.

Here’s what we tried. Suggestions always welcome.

We brought in a wide variety of guest speakers from outside of traditional journalism, exposing students to new perspectives on how to listen to and connect with communities. I think this enabled us to get beyond the buzzwords and dig deeper into how journalists can build trust and involve their audience, not just after their work is published, but throughout the reporting process.

Most importantly, it gave us some fresh ideas from people who haven’t been influenced by journalism norms and routines in school or on the job.

One of our most successful classes, for example, was when we brought in a qualitative methodologist from the University of Waterloo who is skilled in ethnography. She also happens to be a good friend of mine: Lisbeth Berbary. She showed students some different interviewing and observation techniques and introduced them to different ways of thinking about truth and evidence.

Students were then assigned to go to a community gathering place and just observe. [Each student in our program chooses a community to work with.] Instead of acting like a reporter hustling to get a specific kind of quote, they stopped to look at the physical space, document how people were interacting, etc. and often ended up in interesting, open-ended conversations with people there. I saw greater nuance in their work afterwards.

Student Erica Soto, who is serving the indie music community, wrote:

One technique that worked extremely well, and was a great jumping off point, was the ethnographic research by Dr. Berbary that we put into practice. I particularly found the observation and descriptive data useful.
I used both the non-participant and participant observation techniques while taking field notes and expanding on them later. It was an easy way to start paying more attention to what was going on in the community. It was also a great icebreaker. It’s amazing what a notebook, a camera and a badge can do. Most times the music artists, or their friends/managers would approach me. It made it easy to open up dialogue with them and start to develop relationships.
I was able to make connections so that I could partner with the artists later. This was great and although I found it tough to make time to do this I realize I NEED to do this more. It’s not just about communicating online, it’s really about connecting with this community in person.

Design thinking is a great way to teach how engagement feeds innovation

I was lucky enough to learn the basics of design thinking at one of the Memphis Innovation Bootcamps at my former university. I’m still not an expert, but I like the way this technique demystifies innovation by turning it into a process and offers a variety of ways to bring user feedback into any product or service you are creating.

Of course, the New School’s Heather Chaplin has a whole undergraduate program in journalism that uses this approach that I am a HUGE fan of, and I think we could expand on our efforts, too.

We started with an exercise developed by Stanford’s dSchool that I learned about at the bootcamp to introduce students to the process.

Next, we took design thinking into the real world with a small project we did in cooperation with NJ.com. They were interested in the following questions:

How do you improve the daily commute? We know that many commuters learn about the news by listening/reading on their way to school or work. How could we boost that number? How can we improve that experience for them?

Working in groups, the students were dispatched to nearby Penn Station and other places where New Jersey commuters do their thing to begin to identify how people experience their daily trips to and from work in Manhattan. They followed the design thinking process: Empathy — Define — Ideate — Prototype — Test and came up with ideas and rough sketches of prototypes to present to NJ.com.

In brief, students learned that commuters often experienced anxiety and frustration over delays and lacked an easy-to-use one-stop shop for the kinds of information that would make their journey more predictable and hassle-free. Among their ideas was finding ways to crowdsource information about delays and build a commuter community that could share information.

This exercise worked well, though I think we could have given it more time and offered more guidance to students as they went through each step of the process, possibly with the help of someone who has had more training in design thinking than I have, although I’m learning more all the time.

Community organizing and Brooklyn Deep

Mark Winston Griffith, a long-time community organizer, helped guide students through an exercise in which they talked to business owners in Central Brooklyn about their experiences with gentrification. Their work was used to inform an ongoing reporting project by Brooklyn Deep, a site dedicated to investigative reporting and in-depth storytelling Griffith leads. Student Pedro Burgos wrote more about what we did.

Although we were essentially “parachuting in” — something social journalists are trained never to do — we were able to get background on the neighborhood from Griffith before we began, and we learned a little bit about how to approach complex issues like gentrification that can prove divisive.

Community and ethnic media

Another class featured a panel of representatives from New York’s richly diverse community and ethnic media scene, with help from our awesome CUNY center that offers support and training to this group. These journalists had experience with the tensions involved in covering a community they themselves belong to and how to balance their ability to help their readers while also delivering unwanted but important truths.

Side note: I was completely amazed by sheer number of different media outlets in the city. Two Polish newspapers! It’s pretty incredible.


We were lucky enough to have Scott Heiferman, founder and CEO of Meetup.com, serve as one of our guest speakers. Scott has unique insight into what brings people together: He distills it simply as a human need for belonging and connection. Serving people and communities, he believes, means stepping back and realizing it is not about you, or even about a particular topic, but the connections between people that really matters.

Another interesting thing he shared with us is how much the drive for SIMPLICITY informs so much of the day-to-day work of his staff and engineers. Even the tiniest improvements that make creating or signing up for a Meetup easier has a profound effect. I think journalists need to think a lot about how to make consuming and understanding the news easier and simpler….it may matter more than most other things we do.

Best overall outcomes

We asked students to reflect and apply what they were learning from all these guests both on the class blog and in a final memo. Each took a turn writing a blog post re-capping each class/readings, and the rest were assigned to add comments. Those that did the most thoughtful work stand out for their ability to think critically about new forms of journalism and future possibilities.

I think I can say with confidence that our students are comfortable thinking about journalism in new ways and aren’t afraid to challenge conventions. They can grapple with the complexity of how journalists can serve communities and help them solve problems while still reporting on hard truths.

Although their work with these communities is ongoing, it’s fascinating to see what they’ve learned so far by applying these listening techniques.


Organizing lots of guest speakers, especially in very busy NYC, isn’t easy and means a syllabus that has to change often to accommodate their schedules. This means that it can be hard to offer a predictable and well-orchestrated flow and order to the class. As most people that have taught for years know, students also aren’t big fans of changing syllabi, although I’ve always thought that particularly in journalism, coping with and staying organized in the face of unpredictability is a huge professional asset. Overall, though, I don’t think this caused major issues for anyone. It will be easier the next go-around, too.

Some students said they didn’t particularly like commenting on a blog post as a way of thinking aloud through the issues we were reading and thinking about. I think I could do a lot better reiterating why we were doing this, and giving them quicker feedback to improve the comments and conversation. Many graduate classes I took required “thought papers” reflecting on ideas and readings, and although I never liked them much either at the time, looking back I think that’s how I learned and retained the most — by actively engaging with and not just passively consuming ideas.

Also, especially given that this is “social journalism,” I’m a big believer that very few things should be handed in for teacher’s eyes only — we do our learning in public, and in an ideal world, anyone can join us in this process. Learning how to collectively foster good conversation online is part and parcel of what we do. Also, I think we’ll definitely use Medium next time around for this, because our Wordpress site hosted by CUNY was buggy.

Finally — there is just *so much* to teach and learn when it comes to community engagement — I’m not sure we hit enough key areas, discussed enough strategies, or had the right priorities.