Serving a community instead of an audience

Posted on July 06, 2010 by Janet Coats

Still pondering – and parsing – the questions of business models and what they mean for the shape of journalism.

If part of the successful business model means first building content that people feel passionate about, what does that say about the true role of journalists? Passion like that implies a devoted and engaged community behind it.

Creating that kind of community transcends our old model of journalism – that journalists report the news and then put it out there for the community to do with it what they will. It transcends our ideas of journalistic objectivity and distance. And it transcends the disdain with which most traditional journalists view user comments on their stories.

A passionate, engaged community for our content will come only from passionate, engaged journalists – people who, in the words of my friend Joy Mayer, see journalism as a conversation and not a lecture.

Joy is an assistant professor at the University of Missouri who will be spending the next year as a fellow at the Reynolds Journalism Institute thinking about the values and practice of journalism as a conversation. Her project has prompted me to think more about what would enable that to happen more regularly.

The starting point has to be the relationship between journalists and those they are trying to serve. When I was a baby newspaper reporter, we thought of those we served as the readers. As our world changed to include journalism on the Web, we began to think of those we served as the audience, to reflect the fact that they experienced content in more ways online than simply by reading.

I always hated the word audience in that context. It implies passivity when I always thought of journalism as a participatory act. At least reading required action; thinking of our community as an audience implied to me that the news and information just flowed out over people, with no response expected or required on their part.

Our future – I would argue, our present – requires an even more active imagining of the people we serve. In age when news is a commodity, engagement is the measuring stick for the success of our journalism. Journalism that connects, that is created in true partnership with the community and not simply through the voice of the journalist, is the journalism that has value – both in the traditional, First Amendment sense and in the financial sense.

Mike Fancher is a journalist I’ve always respected. He led a newsroom that I considered to be one of the nation’s best at The Seattle Times. Since his retirement from the Times, he has spent a year as a fellow at the Reynolds Journalism Institute and is now writing a white paper for the Knight Commission and the Aspen Institute on next steps for innovation in local journalism.

In an interview with Len Witt, the Robert D. Fowler Distinguished Chair in Communication at Kennesaw State University, Mike talks describes succinctly the need for community engagement if journalism is to thrive:

“I think the most important thing is to have the community at the center of everything you do. Think of your audience not as an audience but as a community. Bring people into your thought process. Get the benefit of finding out more precisely what their news information needs are, and be in a real partnership with them. And for Heaven’s sakes, take advantage of their intelligence, their knowledge of the community and their ability to help you create better journalism. I think that would be a very important starting point.”

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