Five essential ingredients to make your community-driven journalism more resilient

Resources and takeaways from Engagement Explained Live: Building resilience

Ben Whitelaw
Nov 14 · 8 min read
Engagement Explained Live: Building resilience in Budapest.

When baking a cake, it is vital you don’t forget any of the ingredients. That’s because all of the constituent parts — flour, butter, sugar, eggs, baking soda — fulfil specific and important jobs. Leaving one out makes it infinitely more difficult for the mixture to become the cake you want it to be.

We’ve found the same when it comes to engaged journalism. We — the team at the Engaged Journalism Accelerator— have been working with dozens of news organisations across Europe to support engaged journalism, connect practitioners and inspire them to try to reimagine their relationships with their communities.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned over 18 months of grant funding, coaching, hosting events, and creating resources, it’s this: there are certain commonalities among community-driven organisations that are growing, developing new revenue streams and adapting to new market opportunities. You could think of these shared attributes as key ingredients to build resilience.

Cătălina Albeanu, digital editor, DoR.

On 6 November, we put these five ingredients — leading resilient teams, instilling an internal culture of collaboration, creating pathways for participation, adopting a product mindset and exploring reader revenues — into the mix at our latest Engaged Journalism Accelerator event, held in beautiful Budapest, Hungary.

Three speakers gave lightning talks and five brilliant facilitators hosted three-hour masterclasses for 90 people from over 20 countries. The goal? Helping each of them identify practical steps for their organisation to become more resilient.

We’re sharing some of the takeaways and exercises from the event, as well as examples from European news organisations, to allow you to assess where the opportunities lie for your organisation.

Ingredient: building and leading resilient teams

Community-driven news organisations tend to be structured differently to traditional publications: they are more inclined to distribute responsibility, often have a flat hierarchy and regularly incorporate a broader range of skills (for example, community organising). This means a different style of leadership is needed, one that recognises the motivations of teams, and can play to people’s individual skills and strengths.

Lika Antadze, executive director, Chai Khana.

Example: Lightning speaker Lika Antadze joined Chai Khana as executive director in June 2019. One of the first things she did in her new role was to visualise the workflows of the team to emphasise the interdependencies between those working on content production across five languages, and those responsible for offline outreach. This, she explained, has helped the different teams work better with each other and collaborate with journalists in the South Caucasus.

Exercise for you to try: Plot where you are on this spectrum of present leaders from masterclass facilitator Przemek Gawrónski, partner at the Scherer Leadership Center. Review how often you are multitasking (up to 50% present) and how often you are fully engaged (100%). Ask yourself how this could affect the interactions you’re having with your team.

Ingredient: instilling an internal culture of collaboration

It’s not enough to have flexible and empathetic leaders and managers, though. We’ve also identified that an open, adaptive and collaborative environment at all levels is key to an organisation becoming more resilient. Any employee, regardless of seniority or expertise in a certain area, should feel able to contribute to the development and outputs of the organisation especially when they are part of a smaller team or publication.

Consider enacting “adaptive leadership” to work through challenges, enable individual ownership of projects or initiatives, and to strengthen cross-team collaboration and sharing of knowledge. This approach becomes doubly useful when difficult, or significant decision-making situations, arise.

Two participants work together during a masterclass.

Example: The Bristol Cable, a media co-operative based in the UK, has been experimenting with sociocracy, a framework designed to bring structure to teams, make people more autonomous and help speed up decision-making.

Exercise for you to try: This task from masterclass facilitator Zuzanna Ziomecka helps to turn people’s complaints into goals. Simply invite participants to write down one challenge they have in their work as a short sentence. Ask them to state the concern as a wish and then finally a goal. Ask them to present for 3–5 minutes about their new goal and why the reframing has helped them.

Ingredient: creating pathways for participation

So you’re all set to start working alongside your community. Now you have to provide them with mechanisms that allow them to participate in, as well as advocate for, the work that you do. There are many ways to do this: you could create formalised bodies, such as community councils (like Global Voices did), host an annual general meeting (check out The Ferret) or design online conversation spaces such as forums (have a look at Civio). As masterclass facilitator Zahra Davidson, co-founder and director of Enrol Yourself, said, community participation helps you tell more compelling stories, can increase impact and can help your organisation grow in a financially sustainable and structurally resilient way.

Lois Kapila, managing editor, Dublin Inquirer.

Example: Lightning speaker Lois Kapila, managing editor of the Dublin Inquirer, invited community members to help shape the organisation’s citizens’ agenda in the run-up to this year’s local elections. Over 200 members suggested topics to put to the candidates while 11 members volunteered to spread the word in their local areas and pressured the candidates to respond about their position on certain issues. Over 100 candidates responded and there was a spike in subscriptions.

Exercise for you to try: Use Zahra’s advocate canvas to think about the needs of one segment of your community and the challenges they face in engaging with your work. Think about their motives, incentives and how their involvement can or should be sustained. Repeat for other segments.

Ingredient: adopting a product mindset

Community-driven news organisations tend to be more user-focused than most but can still struggle to listen to what their users really need. Product thinking, according to facilitator Rishad Patel, co-founder of Splice Media, can help news organisations dig deeper into the needs and expectations of their community. Are users motivated by a personal goal or collective aim? What holds them back from achieving that? Where does your news organisation fit, and how does that change what you do for and with people?

Sune Gudmundsson, co-founder, Koncentrat.

Example: Lightning speaker Sune Gudmundsson, co-founder and head of engagement at Koncentrat, decided to create specially-formatted stories for teachers and students after realising that school textbooks were often out of date, which made teaching difficult and lessons not that engaging. The publication’s “concentrate” articles come with lesson plans that make them more relevant to Koncentrat’s target audience: 12–17-year-old students.

Exercise for you to try: Get together with a small group of people (two to six colleagues and/or some of your community members) and fill in Rishad’s lean design canvas to solve a specific problem that your community has. Think about partners, success metrics and ways of validating your hypothesis.

Ingredient: exploring reader revenues

Having added the ingredients above should put you in a position where you can ask community members to contribute financially. Crowdfunding, membership, donations and subscriptions are all options but beware of diving in too quickly.

As facilitator Clare Cook, co-founder of Media Innovation Studio explained, the models for reader revenue depend on the relationship you have with your community. It also requires news organisations to think carefully about their value and consider the level of competition in the market.

Clare Cook, co-founder, Media Innovation Studio.

Example: GEDI Digital recently launched a membership programme across 13 of its local newspapers, and the offering includes community events and investigations carried out with users. Using the Reader Revenue Toolkit in the masterclass, Marianna Bruschi, head of GEDI’s Visual Lab and membership programme lead, identified that the organisation could afford to be more transparent with users about its mission and its internal processes.

Exercise for you to try: Use this Reader Revenue Toolkit developed by Media Innovation Studio (canvas, cards) to assess the opportunities for reader revenue in your organisation. Score yourself against audience, trust, ideals, value and content, making a note where the opportunities for improvement are, and which options for revenue you can explore, expand or exploit.

We believe the ingredients that we’ve identified will help news organisations investing in community-driven journalism to build resilience. We realise that no two dishes are the same — people add their ingredients in a different order or change the amount of each component— and we recommend that you use this as a guide rather than something to be followed precisely. We also recognise these five ingredients may not be the only ones and we will continue to develop this concept based on what we learn.

We’d love to hear if you have identified other key ingredients, and what you think about the five above, in the comments below.

Want more from the Accelerator?

The Engaged Journalism Accelerator is run by the European Journalism Centre and supported by the News Integrity Initiative and Civil.

European Journalism Centre

Interviews, insights and opportunities from the European Journalism Centre.

Thanks to Madalina Ciobanu

Ben Whitelaw

Written by

Journalist. Engagement lead, @EJC's engaged journalism accelerator. Co-founded @WannabeHacks.

European Journalism Centre

Interviews, insights and opportunities from the European Journalism Centre.

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