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    Building a Digital Platform to Support Engaged Journalism

    by Ben DeJarnette
    January 26, 2016
    Conference participants gather for a group photo on the last day of Experience Engagement. Photo by Emmalee McDonald.
    Click the image for the full series

    Click the image for the full series

    “Redefining Engagement” is a special 11-part series on the progress, promise and potential challenges of community engagement in journalism. The series, produced by the Agora Journalism Center, will be published in serial this month by MediaShift. Click here for the full series.

    “Listening to our community’s needs changed the whole scope of what we’re putting together." - Sheetal Agarwal

    When participants at the Experience Engagement “un-conference” in Portland, Oregon, were invited to share their main takeaways from the event, one of the common refrains went something like this: “In my newsroom, I have often felt alone doing this work. Now I’ve found my people.”

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    As I wrote at the outset of this series, community engagement practitioners share much in common with the pioneers of multimedia journalism a decade ago. By and large, they are experimenting with innovative, but unproven, forms of journalism, pushing against deeply rooted newsroom routines and cultures and working in jobs that barely existed even five years ago, let alone when their colleagues were in journalism school.

    Andrew DeVigal leads a breakout session at Experience Engagement to discuss ideas for a community engagement platform. Photo by Emmalee McDonald.

    Andrew DeVigal leads a breakout session at Experience Engagement to discuss ideas for a community engagement platform. Photo by Emmalee McDonald.

    This work often unfolds in disparate newsrooms separated by hundreds of miles. But at Experience Engagement last October, members of this emerging “community of practice” found themselves together for four days, able to exchange ideas, share inspiration and work together to imagine a new path forward for journalism and communities. By the end, many participants were left with the same question: How can we keep this going?

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    Beyond a ‘field guide’

    On Saturday morning at the event, Andrew DeVigal, SOJC chair of journalism innovation and civic engagement, convened a breakout session to begin imagining a living resource for community engagement practitioners. At first, the idea had been to create an “interactive field guide” — a web resource that would centralize and organize the growing body of knowledge about community engagement best practices — but the discussion at Experience Engagement surfaced other needs and interests. Practitioners wanted a way to strengthen existing relationships and create new ones; to collaborate on special projects and on solving newsroom challenges; and to share resources and ideas in an accessible, searchable and easy-to-use interface.

    In the three months since the conference, DeVigal and his project team have led a collaborative effort to design a “community engagement platform” that they hope will serve those core functions as well as others that emerge. Sheetal Agawal, a communication and community strategist for Kwilt Strategy and a project collaborator, says the ongoing process of soliciting stakeholder input has helped shape the platform into a more useful product.

    “Listening to our community’s needs changed the whole scope of what we’re putting together,” she says. “It has become something much bigger than we’d envisioned.”

    With support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Agora Journalism Center has put together a preliminary study identifying “what matters most” to the different stakeholders and developed a sense of the desired functional and thematic elements. Based on these findings, the platform will feature a range of functionalities, including:

    • A networking feature that allows practitioners to make contacts and develop connections
    • A platform for information exchange and collaborative problem-solving
    • A searchable database of resources, tools, how-to’s, articles and other information

    DeVigal and the Agora Journalism Center are exploring partnership and collaboration opportunities with other organizations working in the field of engagement.

    A prototype of the community engagement platform is scheduled to launch early this year, but project collaborators say they’ll continue making tweaks throughout the year based on user feedback.

    Sheetal Agarwal participates in a discussion at Experience Engagement. Photo by Emmalee McDonald.

    Sheetal Agarwal participates in a discussion at Experience Engagement. Photo by Emmalee McDonald.

    A networked problem-solving community

    While the platform’s launch is still a few months away, the vision for a networked problem-solving community has already enjoyed some successful test runs. One of them came last November, when Joy Mayer posted an invitation on Facebook for a Lightning Chat about media coverage of the racial tensions and protests at the University of Missouri.

    Mayer, whose students on The Missourian staff were among those denied access to the protestors on the quad, wondered how her team could distinguish itself from the hordes of “parachute journalists” on campus. After all, like the protestors themselves, The Missourian’s student reporters would continue to be part of the campus community for months, even years, to come. How could they help make that community a better place to live? And how could they do so in the face of so much resistance to “the media”?

    On Nov. 17, about a dozen Experience Engagement attendees and other community engagement practitioners across the country logged into a web chat to share ideas and help Mayer’s student team develop an engagement plan. For over an hour, the Lightning Chat team weighed in on what The Missourian had done well in its early coverage and how it could continue engaging the community in a conversation about race even after the dust settled and the national outlets left town.

    By the end of the call, Mayer and her students felt they were leaving with the foundations for a community engagement game plan.

    “We were in the middle of deciding how to cover the biggest story of the year for us, so it couldn’t have been better timing,” Mayer said. “It gave us a chance to ask questions about whether we were being true to our values as journalists.”

    Informed by a ‘developmental evaluation’

    The community engagement platform will also reflect the principles and values outlined in Experience Engagement’s “developmental evaluation,” a 27-page report [PDF] that distills key themes, definitions, takeaways and quotes from the conference in Portland.

    The report points the way toward a “civic communication ecosystem” that would “provide robust information, feedback, inclusive dialogue, strategy and action for serving community goals.”

    The evaluation also envisions a different kind of relationship between journalism and communities.

    “Beyond providing information, journalists must help people discover, create, share and utilize the information they need to be free and self-governing,” the report’s authors write. “Journalism must become a participatory, networked process with community engagement at its core.”

    “Redefining Engagement” is a special 11-part series on the progress, promise and potential challenges of community engagement in journalism. The series, produced by the Agora Journalism Center, will be published in serial this month by MediaShift. Click here for the full series.

    Ben DeJarnette is the associate editor at MediaShift. He is also a contributing writer for the University of Oregon School of Journalism & Communication’s Agora Journalism Center, the gathering place for innovation in communication and civic engagement. On Oct. 1-4, the Agora Journalism Center and Journalism That Matters partnered to host Experience Engagement, a four-day participatory “un-conference” in Portland, Oregon. Journalism That Matters has been hosting breakthrough conversations about the emerging media ecosystem for more than 15 years.

    Tagged: Agora Journalism Center andrew devigal community engagement experience engagement journalism that matters joy mayer sheetal agarwal university of missouri

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