Editor’s note: This post was written before the recent protests at the University of Missouri. The author reports that the engagement strategies discussed below are being put to significant use as these student journalists face the biggest news of their lives so far.
Journalism educators have long faced the challenge of simulating or creating newsroom experiences. We send journalists out to the community. We train them how to identify what matters, gather information and package and produce the news.
To a large extent, traditional journalism tasks are declared completed when an editor or professor says the work is done. They don’t require that an audience actually consume or respond to the products.
But there’s a problem specific to teaching community engagement: It requires an audience. When the goal is interaction — a two-way experience involving talking and listening by both parties — there has to be someone on the other end.
Since 2010, I’ve been teaching Participatory Journalism at the Missouri School of Journalism. Because of the 107-year-old belief at Mizzou that journalism is best learned by doing, I have the benefit of a community (not campus) newsroom in which to instruct my students. When they enroll in my three-credit class, they become part of my staff, and the majority of their grade is based on their portfolio of newsroom work. (I also teach a one-credit version of my class that does not involve newsroom time, so I’ve experienced the challenge of trying to assess student learning without a newsroom to play with.)
In the newsroom and in the classroom, we cover the philosophies and strategies of:
- identifying audience
- web analytics and impact measurement
- audience invitations (online and in person)
- highlighting community voices and expertise
- user-generated stories
- joining and inviting community conversation (including comments)
- making the news more social (including traditional social media)
- identifying and assessing a social strategy
I believe strongly that the concepts of community engagement belong all over a journalism school curriculum, not just in a dedicated class. Here are seven tips for how to do that.
Talk about who the work is for
Who knows more about the topic than you do? How could community members be invited to share their expertise or opinion? Who most needs this piece of journalism or would enjoy it? What could it inspire people to learn or do? I have a list of questions I like to use with reporters to keep the focus of their work on the people they aim to serve. My colleague Katherine Reed, who teaches our newsroom’s large reporting class, has introduced a similar document with her staff this semester.
Pay attention to where story ideas and sources come from
Challenge your students to get ideas from their community. My team goes through a social listening routine with a goal of eavesdropping on the priorities and curiosities of our audience. We answer questions and send links to people talking about things we’ve covered. We invite people to join a conversation or contribute to our From Readers section. We pass tips on to the rest of the newsroom. How can we make sure journalists aren’t learning that good stories ideas come mostly from themselves?
Teach an expanded life cycle for your stories
Social journalism begins with ideas or conversation. It continues through a collaborative reporting process that invites community input and expertise. It means being involved in what happens post-publication, including feedback, more ideas and tracking consumption. (Here’s an example of a social life cycle from our sports department.) I go back over and over to this chart from The Guardian. It hangs on the wall of my newsroom and informs so much of what we do.
Assess consumption, reach and distribution as part of the core product
For any sort of published work — a legacy product, a website or a social channel — journalists should be studying who they’re reaching, what content is consumed in what ways and what impact the content seems to be having. For social media work, go beyond reach to talk about what the posts are designed to accomplish. For meaty work, talk about impact.
Journalists should also be talking about who they want to reach. Take flyers to a community meeting or around town. Find an email list of people who will be interested. Teach smart hashtag use. It has started to feel irresponsible to send journalists into the world who don’t pay attention to whether they’re making a difference or serving an audience.
Tap into industry case studies
In my experience, social journalists are extraordinarily generous with their time. Ask them to Skype or Hangout into your classroom for even just 15 minutes to describe a project. Focus your readings on practical work being done in newsrooms. For the first time this year, my Participatory Journalism class includes a textbook. “Engaged Journalism” by Jake Batsell addresses philosophy, strategy and logistics in a friendly way.
Find a newsroom to be in service of
If you don’t have a practical outlet for your students’ work, find one, and work their assignments around it. Ask for access to analytics and provide analysis that will help the newsroom and business side make decisions. Ask the newsroom what they wish they knew about their audience and help them find it out. Assess the newsroom’s social media use. Suggest social, two-way strategies for key coverage areas or topics. (Here’s an assignment that has worked well for me on that topic.)
Teach this to all journalism students
If you’re lucky enough to have an entire class or unit focused on audience, congratulations! (Also, hit me up so we can compare notes.) But these philosophies need to be baked into the whole curriculum (and entire newsrooms). All journalists need to care about their audience. The mindset of producing news in isolation, hitting publish and walking away is dangerously outdated. Journalism schools spend their time focused on the craft of storytelling with too little time spent on who the stories are for and whether they’ve had the desired effect. Newsrooms need journalists who care about and know how to assess whether they’re producing work that matters to someone.