Putting our listening ears on

Posted on March 09, 2011 by Janet Coats

My friend Joy Mayer at the University of Missouri has me thinking about analogies again.

Joy is an associate professor at Missouri’s School of Journalism and is currently serving as a fellow at the Reynolds Journalism Institute there. I’ve written about Joy before. In my 17 years as a newsroom manager, I hired a lot of good and smart people. If you forced me to name the best of that lot, Joy would be the one.

Anyway, Joy is like me in some key ways (which may be why I like her so much). She thinks in analogies, and she has provided me with a few very useful ones to add to my already large collection.

In her fellowship at RJI, she’s working on the issue of engagement. That’s a word that has become cliché in both the journalism and the philanthropic world; we all talk about the need to engage communities, but the word is mushy and means something different to everyone.

Like a good copy editor, Joy has been striving for precision. She wants us to understand what engagement looks like in practice, so that we can understand what we’re trying to achieve.

Joy participated in a Twitter chat on the topic of engagement for the Block by Block group of community news publishers Monday night. I was “lurking’’ on the chat, soaking up what I could learn about how these local new entrepreneurs view their need to connect more deeply with their communities.

The discussion was excellent, focused on very practical approaches to connecting in-person and offline with community. These are folks who are deeply connected to their communities and who are looking to share their own hard-won experience and expertise.

There was talk about a range of events publishers have put together for their audiences and their broader communities, and how to broaden the community that has developed online into offline connections. You can see this rich and interesting conversation here.

Joy piped up with a tweet that shifted my thinking away from the thread of conversation about how to create events and opportunities to connect. She got me thinking about parties again.

“I'm curious about meet-ups that have a focus other than the publication (issue, community event, etc.),’’ she tweeted. “Too often, it's all about us.’’

Here’s where the analogy comes in. Joy has talked to me about this idea, and she wrote a blog post about it at the beginning of her fellowship, last fall:

“Journalists are used to throwing their own parties,’’ she wrote. “What if we were to go to other peoples’ parties? Figure out where the conversation is happening in our communities, and go there? Enrich those conversations with information and context, making ourselves and the other participants smarter along the way?”

I think Joy would be the first to say that it isn’t an either/or thing: We should keep throwing parties, too, and finding ways to bring together the people who appreciate the news and information we provide is an important way to deepen connection – among those folks and with our content. The Block by Block folks have proven far more adapt at blending these two models than my old friends in traditional media ever were.

Still, it is good for all of us to remember – no matter our place in the journalism or philanthropic firmament – that when we think about engagement, the party can’t always be at our house.

Because I’m familiar with every analogy used to describe the changing role of journalism during the last 15 years, I can remember journalists describing themselves as the convener of conversations, or the conductor of the symphony. At the time, I thought those were very enlightened terms, as they were not focused on journalism as instructor and community as docile student.

But during the last year, as I’ve learned more and more from the Block by Block publishers, I’ve seen the condescension in those descriptors, too. They still put the journalist at the center, as the primary actor: We will convene. We will conduct. When the better role for journalist is this: We will listen. We will play our part in the music the larger community is making.

It’s an important lesson for those of us in journalism – and in philanthropy – to keep in mind. Providing solutions or prescriptives is the old model, and it is dying fast. Those of us invested in our communities, who care about things going well in them, should rejoice at that fact and celebrate our role as documenters of the better practices and ideas that will enrich public dialogue.

My husband and I tell our kids all the time that God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason. For those of us who are desperately trying to figure out what engagement really means and how to practice it, there is a lesson in that saying:

Go where people are talking. And listen with both ears.

Listening is the first – most important – tool of engagement.

  • Learn about these and other concepts used in TPF's approach to philanthropy.


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