Looking for ways to join the party

Posted on September 16, 2010 by Janet Coats

One of the great pleasures of editing a newspaper was going to work every day with a room full of smart, funny, curious people.

I was fortunate to get the chance to give some of those very smart, curious people their first jobs in the business, and I’ve watched with more than a little pride as they’ve made their marks professionally.  One of the very best I ever hired was a young journalist out of the University of Oklahoma.

Joy Mathis Mayer was like lightning – whip-smart, funny, passionately committed to the ideals of journalism. In 20 years of job interviews, Joy’s is one that I can still play back in my head like a movie. I knew then that I had to have her in the newsroom of The Wichita Eagle. When I moved on to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, I recruited Joy to come along.

For the last several years, Joy has been the design editor at The Columbia Missourian and an associate professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. This year, she’s serving a fellowship at the school’s Reynolds Journalism Institute, where her project for the year is titled “Ditch the Lecture – Join the Conversation.’’ Joy is considering the issue of engagement as journalism moves into a more participatory media age.

I’m glad Joy is taking this subject on, because I think we need to better understand how to define successful engagement. We need to find ways to enable journalists to step from behind their barriers we’ve built between ourselves and the communities we intend to serve. We’ve operated at a distance for so long – because we believed it made us better able to be fair and objective – that we have sacrificed our relevance.

Joy is at the very beginning stages of work on her project, but she’s already writing about the subject in her usual thoughtful – and engaging – way. In her blog this week, she describes the standoffish, exclusionary nature of journalism as practiced by many traditional newsrooms – and why that has been such a problem for journalists in age that calls for a more conversational approach.

“Journalists are used to throwing their own parties,’’ Joy writes in her blog. “They work out how to cover something and put that coverage on their own websites. They’ll tease it from their own home page and using social media, which is the equivalent of putting a sign in their own yard. They try to keep out the crazies and dictate how the conversation will go and what the topics will be. Consider that like hiring a bouncer. They put out some chips and salsa and hope people – the right kind of people – show up and start dancing.

“What if we were to go to other people’s parties?’’

I love that image – the idea of joining conversations all over our communities, listening and asking questions and bringing some of the smart ideas we’ve heard at other parties to enliven the dialogue. That sounds like the kind of engagement I want to be part of.

As we think about our New Media Journalism initiative at The Patterson Foundation, we want our work to model that kind of connection. We want to build an innovators’ network to connect those who are working to build journalism’s future – to amplify all of those conversations and help create momentum for promising ideas.

There is one universal truth about journalism’s future: Journalism in the new age will be characterized by interaction among journalists and the communities they serve. Any effort to support innovation, therefore, must have interaction at its own core.

It’s time to start looking for ways to join the party.

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