Engagement for journalists: Learning to tend a fire

Posted on May 10, 2011 by Janet Coats

I was following the Twitter stream from my friend Joy Mayer’s gathering at the Reynolds Journalism Institute of folks interested in thinking about what engagement means for journalism and, just as importantly, how to measure it.

One of the Tweets called out something that Meg Pickard, head of digital engagement at The Guardian in Great Britain, said about how journalists should approach their role in community.

“Don’t start a fire and walk away,’’ was her message.

I love this phrase and the thinking it reflects. I think it has application for any organization, institution or individual who is interested in deepening connection to community. It certainly is reflective of the thinking we are doing at The Patterson Foundation about building connective tissue and sustainability as part of our work through the investment not just of money but of intellectual capital.

But journalism is my area of expertise, and so the struggle to both define and then practice engagement in that field is of particular interest to me.

There has been a lot of debate among journalists about what engagement really means and whether it is even an acceptable posture for journalists to seek to engage with their communities. Joy has spent the last year at the University of Missouri’s Reynolds Journalism Institute working to better understand what engagement means for journalism.

Joy’s done some spectacular work on this question, beginning with defining terms since “engagement’’ is one of those words that means different things for different people. For journalists, Joy has identified three categories of engagement: outreach (invite people to come to you or find them where they are); conversation (talk to people and listen actively); collaboration (let your community help you.)

In her work, Joy has identified several examples of these kinds of engagement by journalists, and I commend her work to you (especially her presentation from a meeting of Reynolds fellows two weeks ago.)

But I’m not sure we can get to a better working definition of engagement than Meg Pickard’s admonition to journalists: Don’t start a fire and walk away.

Journalists – myself included – are notorious for their short attention span. I love a blank sheet of paper, a fire that needs to be put out. I have spent my entire adult life working on my follow-through. I recognize that anything of value is built over time, that the process of creating something powerful is usually an iterative one. I understand I have to temper my tendency to constantly ask “what’s next?”

In an age when, in Joy’s words, news is not a lecture but a conversation, that short attention span is not just a character flaw for journalists; it can be a relevance-killer.

That’s why, as important as developing business models for journalism is, I think it is every bit as important to focus on ways to deepen the connection between those who are reporting stories and those who are living them.

I’m eager to see Joy’s report from last week’s session and learn more about the methods and metrics we need to focus on to improve our understanding of engagement. There’s no question that we need to get more systematic about the intent behind our engagement efforts and the ways we track the results of that work.

I’m hoping what Joy has learned can help me in my own journey from firefighter to fire-tender.

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