The following opinion piece is a guest post and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of this publication.
After reading the flood of soul-searching think pieces on the media that followed the 2016 presidential election, it’d be easy to come away with the impression of an industry in crisis. While there’s no question that news organizations need to start spending more time in rural communities, and listening more carefully to the people who live there, there’s also reason for optimism: those pieces also highlight a wealth of journalism projects that put listening, dialogue, and collaboration front and center.
One particularly encouraging theme that’s emerged is an emphasis on the importance of pre-existing media ecosystems in rural communities. As Josh Stearns of the Democracy Fund and Stanford University Knight Fellow Heather Bryant have written, news organizations grounded in the communities they’re covering are better-positioned to build credibility and trust than “parachute” reporters dropping in temporarily, with scant knowledge of local history and culture. National news organizations, they suggest, should draw on these pre-existing resources through partnerships rather than trying to start from scratch.
Local-national partnerships will be absolutely critical for revitalizing the civic information infrastructures of rural communities. But local newsrooms shouldn’t simply wait for partnerships with well-resourced national organizations to materialize: if they want to serve and engage their communities better, local newsrooms – and the nonprofits and civic organizations in their communities – can also start building capacity and experimenting with new approaches to engagement at home.
First, let’s define our terms: journalism jobs with the word “engagement” in the title have been on the rise since before the election, and that word means different things to different people. When we talk about engagement, we mean more than activity in the comments section or likes on social media (though those things can be part of it) – we’re talking about real listening, relationship-building, and collaboration with communities. As Andrew Losowsky wrote on Poynter the week after the election:
“The issue isn’t just around asking people for information before writing a story or asking them to comment after the story is over. It’s about creating a sustainable community around a particular beat or interest, one that shares ideas and experiences, provides questions and corrections, one that is involved and seeing a return for the time and energy put into supporting the journalism.
We hear this over and over: People want to trust and connect with journalism. But if journalists don’t listen to what people say, why should they listen to us?”
Engagement is fundamentally about building with communities, and local outlets have an obvious leg up simply because they’re in the community longer than a few days or weeks at a time.
Engagement as an old-school approach
This isn’t an entirely new idea. Historically, it’s been a key part of the way many local papers have worked.
But that’s not to say that local newsrooms don’t need to start doing something differently – and the barriers to doing things differently shouldn’t be underestimated. For a small rural paper facing editorial staff cuts or fighting for its very existence (if it hasn’t already been bought out by a conglomerate,) the idea of taking the time and resources to build deep relationships with communities, and devise new ways of working with them throughout the reporting process, might sound like an unrealistic luxury.
To be sure, most local newsrooms probably can’t do it alone – and we’re not suggesting that they try to. But the knowledge of local and regional context that makes them such valuable partners to national organizations also puts local newsrooms in a unique position to drive experimentation and collaboration within their own communities.
Even in rural areas, newsrooms don’t exist in a vacuum; they’re part of an information ecosystem that also includes libraries, community colleges, neighborhood organizations, civic nonprofits, and other community institutions. It’s not hard to find overlapping objectives between these organizations and a newsroom that values engagement. And, although potential local partner organizations may face their own financial challenges, that’s all the more reason to collaborate. Working around shared goals, cross-sector partnerships can maximize the impact of limited resources, leveraging them into more than the sum of their parts.
A small size and local focus can also lend these collaborations agility, making it possible to try new things without having to dedicate staff time to a lengthy grant proposal, or wait for a prospective national partner to staff up its new bureau. By collaborating locally across sectors, small newsrooms and their partners can experiment, iterate, and learn, before the “parachute” journalist can even jump out of the plane.
The ability to experiment and iterate is especially critical because nobody knows everything about what works just yet. We’ve seen some exciting, successful models, and there are growing communities of practice where engagement journalists nationwide are sharing findings and resources. We know that, for the future of journalism and for our shared civic life, news organizations need to get serious about listening to and working with communities – but to figure out how to do that well, we still need to try new things.
A new approach
At Illinois Humanities and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, we’re working together to try something new.
Starting this summer, we’ll have an Engagement Fellow in full-time residence at the Center’s newsroom, dedicated to integrating engagement into the Center’s editorial workflow. By helping build the Center’s capacity to deepen their own community relationships, Illinois Humanities will also broaden our own base of stakeholders – and, together, we’ll hopefully generate some valuable lessons about how engagement can advance public-interest journalism, and enrich the civic life of communities outside major metro areas.
Local-national partnerships are incredibly important, and we hope to see more of them. But we’re not waiting for national outlets to show up in central Illinois – and when or if they do, we hope they’ll be pleasantly surprised by what’s already happening.
Simon Nyi is the Program Manager for Media and Journalism at Illinois Humanities, a private nonprofit state-level affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. His work focuses on strengthening connections and building collaboration between journalists and the publics they cover.