How do you engage with community? You care

Posted on September 02, 2011 by Janet Coats

It happened to me again the other day.

I was at the YMCA when a stranger stopped me and asked, “Didn’t you used to be the editor of the Herald-Tribune?’’

I acknowledged that I had been the editor – eight years ago. He proceeded to quote some of my columns back to me and tell me how glad he was to see me back in Sarasota.

This has happened more than once in the year since I returned a year ago to live in Sarasota. It’s happened at restaurants and in the grocery store, at my daughter’s doctor’s office and at a baseball game. Each time, the stranger who has approached me with this question has quoted back something from a column I wrote when I was editor, or recalled a time when I spoke to her civic group.

Why do people remember me eight years after I left that job?

I don’t think it has a thing to do with anything I said or my sparkling personality or my memorably bad mug shot in the pages of the newspaper.

I think it has to do with the fact that I engaged, with our paper’s readers and with the larger community. And that was a distinctive enough act from a newspaper editor to make it memorable.

Engagement is an imprecise term, but figuring out how to get it and maintain it and build it is the prize smart journalists are chasing, whether from within traditional news organizations or from grassroots startups. That’s because smart journalists understand that, in a digital age with unlimited choices, it is not enough to write at readers. Listening, understanding, reflecting, letting the concerns and the voices of your community become the core of your coverage is the vital role of the journalist.

I would argue it has always been so. It is just that now, we have more ways than ever before to help us do this work.

My friend Joy Mayer, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, recently completed a year-long study of engagement as part of her fellowship at the Reynolds Journalism Institute.  Joy identified three ways journalists engage with their communities:

1)   Community outreach,  or “efforts to share ourselves, our expertise and our content.’’

2)   Conversation, which “means listening as well as talking, and adjusting what we do and cover based on what we hear.’’

3)   Collaboration, which means “we have a shared investment in and influence over our journalism.’’  It means soliciting and relying on user contributions and input about not just what we cover but how we cover it and how we use our resources.

In Sarasota, the community outreach and conversation parts came easily to me. I wrote a weekly column aimed at explaining coverage decisions and soliciting ideas from readers. We started the Reader Advocate Desk, a place where readers could reach a journalist each day to air complaints, offer ideas and give us feedback – and I required that every newsroom staffer spend a week on that desk.

I started a Reader Advisory Committee, and I invited our advisors into the newsroom to share their ideas and learn about how we did our work. And I spoke all around the community, to civic leagues and alumni groups and church groups and community associations.

I would be the first to catalog my many faults as an editor, but this was definitely my best self in that role, a feat of engagement I had not performed before. I’ve thought a lot about why I engaged so deeply in Sarasota, and I think the answer is this:

I didn’t do it because it was my job. I did it because I loved the community.

Journalists tended to be a rambling lot, chasing the next big job at the next big newspaper, and I certainly fit that mold. But something happened when I came to Sarasota. I came to a place where I fit, a community that truly became home.

It’s hard to avoid engaging when you really care about a place.

Later this month, at the Block by Block Community News Summit, we are going to spend a fair amount of time talking about engagement methods – what works, what doesn’t, and how to know if you are having impact. Joy, who is now putting what she learned into practice at the School of Journalism’s newspaper, The Missourian, will be there. I’m looking forward to learning more about how she sees this subject and how the Block by Block community news publishers are living it day in and day out.

I’m hoping to hear more about collaboration with community, a piece of the engagement puzzle I didn’t do so well in Sarasota and that I’d love to get the chance to try again.

I’ll listen and learn about tools and techniques. But at the core of it, I’ll remember this: Engagement means having a stake in the place you cover. Engagement means loving a community enough to show it, so much so that folks still remember eight years after the fact.

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