Tools enhance engagement, but an open attitude is vital

Posted on June 01, 2011 by Janet Coats

One of the skills most journalists develop early on is the ability to write a catchy first sentence, or lede, to their stories. Facebook and Twitter are great platforms for displaying that skill, and I am constantly seeing posts by my journalist friends that make me smile or think.

This week, I saw a couple of posts bemoaning the regular “morning after Memorial Day’’ phone calls from readers. And this time, I frowned a bit.

The gist of these posts was this: Editors can run pictures and stories about Memorial Day on the Sunday before the holiday and on the holiday itself. You can run schedules of events and write editorials and generally blanket the paper with Memorial Day coverage. But you’ll still get calls of complaint if the front page of Tuesday’s paper doesn’t have a picture from Memorial Day events on it.

The slightly exasperated tone was familiar to me, I admit. I know from my own days of lining up news coverage that it is easy to feel that you are overdoing it when it comes to covering annual occurrences such as Memorial Day.

But from my perch here outside a newsroom, that exasperation seems misplaced. News judgment and editorial experience have their place; understanding the values of your most devout readers should form the foundation of that judgment.

Part of the question of sustainability for all kinds of journalism – whether practiced by traditional news organizations or news startups – is how well you understand and reflect what is important to your community. All the business models and social media skills and technology savvy in the world isn’t worth much unless you know how to engage with your community.

Engaging means putting the interests of those you seek to serve before your own. It means recognizing that, even if you feel like you’ve written the same story about Memorial Day 100 times, you need to put just as much care and enthusiasm into the 101st telling of it, if that is what your community cares about.

There’s a difference between pandering to community interests and understanding them. Understanding your community – listening to it and reflecting back what you hear – helps make you part of it. And that makes it easier when you have to deliver news that is unpopular or difficult to hear.

I’ve mentioned before that one of my favorite descriptions of the role of journalism in a community is that of trusted friend. You’re most trusted friend is the one you want to share your good news with, the one you go to for comfort when you are sad or disappointed, the one whose advice you trust.

It’s hard to trust a friend who makes light of your interests and concerns. Journalists have been guilty of the “we know best’’ approach when it comes to community engagement. In a digital age, with a wondrous array of engagement tools at our disposal, it serves us all well to remember that in the end it isn’t about the tools – it is about the attitude.

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