The Case for (Community) Engagement

    by Ben DeJarnette
    January 12, 2016
    Conference participants gather at 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.

    “I want engagement to become part of every reporter’s work.” - Meghann Farnsworth

    There perhaps was no journalistic buzzword more widely discussed in 2015 than “engagement.” The Columbia Journalism Review addressed the role of the audience engagement editor; a new book about engagement hit the bookshelves; the Online News Association announced an entire conference on engagement to be hosted in London; and journalism’s online thought leaders, including MediaShift, buzzed with articles, essays and even digital training sessions devoted to the topic.


    Amid this surge in scholarly attention last year, I waded into the world of engagement as a journalist, hosting a pair of public events pegged to my Forests & Economy reporting series for InvestigateWest. Journalism’s booming events sector has been touted as one of the most promising developments in audience engagement. But I have a confession to make: By the end of my experience, I wasn’t sure I wanted to try this engagement thing again.

    It’s not that the events were a flop. The symposium and town hall collectively drew more than 100 guests, featured panel discussions with 15 experts and public officials, and helped expand InvestigateWest’s profile in Oregon. One of the panel interviews even aired on Oregon Public Broadcasting.

    But despite those successes, I’ll remember the events mostly as a headache and a timesuck — the cause of countless hours spent drafting speaker agreements, arranging catering, hammering out agendas, designing promotional materials and inviting prospective guests, all while trying to report and write my stories. That workload wasn’t sustainable, and worse yet, I didn’t emerge with much sense of whether we’d truly engaged the community. Yes, we were able to strengthen InvestigateWest’s brand and push our reporting out to a wider audience. But did we deepen civic discourse and give voice to perspectives not often heard? I’m not so sure. For a project that took months to pull off, that’s not a rewarding conclusion.


    Over the last few years, I’ve heard other journalists share similar war stories from their experiences with “engagement.” For editors and publishers, planning community forums or other events can put the squeeze on already strained newsroom resources. And for reporters, so-called audience engagement — often defined in terms of social media metrics — can feel like a laundry list of unwanted distractions: Composing tweets. Responding to reader comments. Posting to Instagram. “Goddammit, I’m a reporter,” skeptical journalists will bark at their news organization’s engagement editor. “When do you expect me to do actual reporting?”

    The reaction is understandable. Newsrooms have widely treated engagement as an add-on — as something extra that reporters must do after their stories are published. Meanwhile, the fundamental practices and routines of journalism remain largely unchanged, leaving reporters with more to do but less time to do it.

    The following series — inspired by Experience Engagement, a four-day participatory “un-conference” hosted by Journalism That Matters and the Agora Journalism Center — makes the case for a fundamentally different way of understanding and practicing engagement in journalism. It’s an ideological pivot — from audience development to community engagement — that has me once again hitching my cart to the engagement wagon.

    Unlike the Forests & Economy experiment this spring, the goal here isn’t an isolated moment of interaction, such as a public event or Twitter exchange. Rather, it’s an authentic and sustained conversation, facilitated by journalists, amplified by news organizations, inclusive of diverse voices and responsive to the needs of communities.


    Experiencing Engagement from SOJC Agora Journalism Center. Video by Emmalee McDonald.

    Why reform can’t wait

    The specifics outlined in this series will call for some significant departures from the status quo, but the need for reform is apparent. In 2015, protestors in Missouri greeted journalists with hostile blockades, media-bashing became the strategy-du-jour for Republican presidential candidates looking for a boost in the polls, and a new Gallup poll found that only 40 percent of Americans trust the mass media, down from 55 percent less than two decades ago.

    Meanwhile, American democracy has experienced a deepening crisis of its own. Despite the media’s wall-to-wall election coverage and the $7 billion this country now spends on campaigns, only 54 percent of the voting-age population showed up to vote in 2012, which places the United States behind Turkey, South Korea and 28 other developed countries in voter turnout. The numbers were even worse for the 2014 midterm elections, when turnout dipped to 36.4 percent, a 72-year low.

    Two years ago, amid these troubling trends, the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication (SOJC) founded the Agora Journalism Center to examine how journalism could contribute to building a healthier democracy. The center, envisioned as the “gathering place for innovation in communications and civic engagement,” has since placed itself at the fore of a growing reform movement — one that is pushing for serious and sweeping changes to this country’s  “fourth estate.”

    Engaged journalism for a stronger democracy

    This reform movement is rooted in a belief that journalism strengthens democracy when it engages communities in meaningful, thoughtful and sustainable ways. Achieving this kind of engaged journalism will require some big changes in American newsrooms, but the Agora Journalism Center knows better than most that the industry has faced similar disruption before and learned to own it. It was only a decade ago, in the early 2000s, that newspapers were struggling to adapt to the rapid digital revolution, confronted with the scary reality that the old text-centric model that had worked in print was a poor fit on the Internet. There was resistance to the multimedia shift by some stalwart reporters and editors (sound familiar?), but eventually a consensus emerged that online journalism would have to look different from its paper-and-ink cousin to survive.

    Experience Engagement participants use "The World Cafe" method to discuss inclusive competitiveness with community members. Photo by Emmalee McDonald.

    Experience Engagement participants use “The World Cafe” method to discuss inclusive competitiveness with community members. Photo by Emmalee McDonald.

    In 2006, amid this uncertain period of transition, The New York Times hired Andrew DeVigal, now chair of innovation and civic engagement at the Agora Journalism Center, as its first multimedia editor. Over the subsequent six years, DeVigal and his desk collaborated with teams of reporters and editors to build innovative multimedia story forms into the newspaper’s daily operations. Those efforts were so effective that when DeVigal left the newspaper in 2012, The New York Times eliminated his position.

    “There was no longer a need for a separate multimedia team,” DeVigal said. “Pushing the boundaries in multiple forms and platforms is the responsibility of the desks across the newsroom.”

    It’s not hard to see the parallels between multimedia a decade ago and community engagement today. In the last five years, job listings for “engagement editors” and “community editors” have been popping up at radio stations, newspapers and online news sites across the country, including at big-time institutions like The Times, the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) and The Wall Street Journal. Meghann Farnsworth, CIR’s managing director of distribution, operations and engagement, says she’d like to steal a page from DeVigal’s playbook.

    “I want to work myself out of a job,” she explained at Experience Engagement. “I want engagement to become part of every reporter’s work.”

    This series will outline a vision for what journalism might look like if Farnsworth gets her wish. Over the next two weeks, I’ll write about reforming the “trollosphere” and reporting on tragedy and making the dollars and cents add up. I’ll introduce you to journalists and recovering journalists and not-at-all journalists who are experimenting with innovative ways to build stronger communities through their work. And I’ll detail the development of a “community engagement platform” — a dynamic resource that will strengthen this emerging community of practice and organize the best resources and knowledge around civic engagement, in hopes that we can collectively achieve that most aspirational of goals: putting Meghann Farnsworth out of a job.

    “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 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.

    Correction: This post has been updated to correct Meghann Farnsworth’s title at CIR.


    Tagged: Agora Journalism Center community engagement election coverage engagement editors experience engagement journalism events journalism that matters Meghann Farnsworth university of oregon

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