Engagement is Relational, not Transactional

    by Andrew DeVigal
    November 16, 2015
    A portion of the graphic recording from Experience Engagement by Nitya Wakhlu.

    My origin story is a tale of constant change. The most recent transition, from running the multimedia desk at the New York Times to chairing the University of Oregon’s Agora Journalism Center, is filled with many life lessons. I often describe this transformation as one of perspective: focusing less on how audiences interact with content on the screen but more about how, because of stories, we engage with each other as a community. Less transaction, more relation; less on audience, more on community.

    A few early insights from our recent Experience Engagement gathering, co-hosted with Journalism That Matters, last month in Portland, Oregon, added another connection between my practice in multimedia journalism and civic engagement. And in both cases, my role began/begins by supporting a community of practice propelling the evolving news industry.

    "Journalists must adapt to this new interconnected reality if it is to be relevant and trustworthy to the public."

    From Multimedia to Engagement

    This story begins in 2003 when I launched the initial version of Interactive Narratives. What started out as a need to organize my links of inspiring multimedia projects evolved into a searchable database for others to use. Beyond linking to compelling and innovative multimedia projects, the site also identified innovative individuals often relegated to a small corner of the newsroom. And as Interactive Narratives grew in popularity and traffic, one of the most frequent expressions of appreciation was one of connection. Finding inspiring multimedia work was one benefit. But finding “a tribe” across the industry doing similar work and facing the same challenges in advancing multimedia storytelling in their newsroom was even a bigger one.


    In the mid-90s, having an online presence was critical for any news organization. Today, multimedia journalism has become “table stakes” in the news industry. In other words, the telling and showing of our stories through multimedia is the minimum resource needed to compete in the market. In fact, one might argue that I worked myself out of a job at The New York Times as the multimedia desk was disbanded into other parts of the organization when I left in 2012. Relegating a specific group of journalists specializing in multimedia was moot as today’s journalists regularly need to create and collaborate on story forms beyond text.

    There’s a new pioneering “tribe” in today’s news organizations: those working on engagement. To be specific, I’m not focusing on those working in audience engagement but more on journalists who are engaging with and empowering the public to support communities to thrive. Less transaction, more relation; less on audience, more on community. One of the notions in defining community engagement is a role to purposefully put the public at the center of what we do, bring together the people who accurately represent all of the voices and then to authentically listen, facilitate and connect those conversations as a reflection of the whole story. I’m keenly interested in journalism in service to civic engagement that is thick, impactful and at scale, referencing Ethan Zuckerman’s Beyond “The Crisis in Civics.”

    At one of the sessions at Experience Engagement, we used a simple convening tool called the "Organizational Kaleidoscope" to explore complex reality through simultaneous exposure of real-life events to multiple points of view. Photo by Andrew DeVigal.

    At one of the sessions at Experience Engagement, we used a simple convening tool called the “Organizational Kaleidoscope” to explore complex reality through simultaneous exposure of real-life events to multiple points of view. Photo by Andrew DeVigal.


    Interdisciplinary Skills

    And like early multimedia entrepreneurs, those working on engagement in newsrooms today are often working in isolation and in need of connections and resources to not only support, but also make their journalism better. Many who attended Experience Engagement talked about a sense of belonging and of catalyzing a community of practice to master the craft of engagement.

    Like Interactive Narratives and many other online resources after it, a field guide is needed to aggregate and show how the industry is evolving, and how both media and community organizations are doing it. As we did in multimedia by learning from practitioners in other industries, we also need to collaborate with organizations that are already doing effective engagement work. Organizations such as NCDD (National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation) and IAP2 (International Association of Public Participation) have a variety of resources to help those new to active listening and public engagement. Our conference partner, Journalism That Matters specializes in working at the intersection of journalism and civic engagement. In fact, JTM’s Executive Director Peggy Holman has offered an extremely helpful chart to describe the levels of engagement: Forms of Engagement.

    Journalists and civic engagement practitioners share similar values. One of IAP2’s core values states that

    public participation provides participants with the information they need to participate in a meaningful way”

    Here is what American Press Institute has stated in their Journalism Essentials:

    “The purpose of journalism is thus to provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments.”

    Journalism is inextricably linked to the health of our democracy. We need to collaborate with and learn from each other and to hone our craft to do better engagement and better journalism.

    Timing is ripe

    If journalism didn’t exist today, it wouldn’t be created in the top-down distributed model it has used in the past. Journalism must adapt to this new interconnected reality if it is to be relevant and trustworthy to the public. The industry has invested resources in new business models and in finding ways to grow the audience by examining analytics. But very little attention has been paid to reimagining public engagement with the news.

    Breakout group using the classic card game "go fish" as a method to cluster ideas. Photo by Andrew DeVigal

    Breakout group using the classic card game “go fish” as a method to cluster ideas. Photo by Andrew DeVigal

    We’ve read plenty of reports stating that the public trust in the media is at an all-time low. Social media won’t fix this situation. But engaging with and empowering the public can provide an opportunity to help build the community, as opposed to tearing it down. In this recent Axiom News article, three Experience Engagement participants were interviewed about their experience. Amalia Alarcon Morris, a government administrator responsible for civic engagement, was moved by the possibilities:

    “To walk into a room filled with people who are journalists or students of journalism who were talking about how to engage with community and approach journalism from an assets-based perspective … to me, that was a completely new way of looking at journalism. It was amazing.”

    Listening is Essential

    Unlike Interactive Narratives, this new platform needs to focus more on the relationship than the transaction. And it starts with and continues with sustained listening as engagement takes time. The Sunday morning of Experience Engagement was focused on “Imagining an Interactive Field Guide for Engaging Communities.” As our program indicated, it was the initial invitation to listen and …

    “be part of shaping Version 1.0 of a community platform and living guide to allow participants to discover, use and contribute resources about what works to connect media professionals and communities. The platform will also catalyze the network of people working on the leading edge of journalism, communication and civic engagement. In essence, the Field Guide will be a digital agora of resources for storytellers and other media practitioners engaging with their communities to serve the public good.”

    You will undoubtedly hear more about this platform from Experience Engagement participants. If you are interested in being a part of the conversation and developmental process, please drop me a line. Transparency is critical to the success of this project. I look forward to both supporting and building this community of practice.

    Andrew DeVigal is an endowed chair in journalism innovation and civic engagement at the University of Oregon School of Journalism & Communication‘s Agora Journalism Center, the gathering place for innovation in communication and civic engagement. He is also co-founder of A Fourth Act, maker of Harvis. Agora Journalism Center is devoted to transformative advancements for better journalism and stronger democracy.

    Tagged: civic engagement civic innovation community engagement education pioneers experience engagement listening multimedia participation platform building university of oregon

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