Engagement Isn’t a Project, It’s a Way of Making News
It isn’t audiences that need to be more engaged, it’s newsrooms.
If newsrooms today are lacking trust from the people they are trying to serve, the answer is not adding an engagement project.
Engagement is not something you simply add to an organizational chart or a budget. If you want to be engaged with the people you are trying to serve, you have to change what you prioritize in your newsroom. It’s not about doing projects or hiring someone to connect with communities; it’s about changing the process by which you make news. It is about making your most engaged editors and reporters the senior-most people in your newsroom.
I’ve spent over a decade building new kinds of newsrooms and journalism practices, mostly as an editor in newsrooms. In 2019, I spent six months coaching newsrooms, working with two media organizations that sought resources from the Community Listening and Engagement Fund (CLEF) to be coached by the Listening Post Collective.
Ironic, I know. This program is about “engagement” in name, but in practice it might be better called the “improving journalism fund” or “serving audiences fund.”
Coaching with the Listening Post Collective was about changing the process, so that journalism comes from a process that engages — or more accurately, prioritizes — the people it covers and tries to serve. Several of the five news media organizations that received coaching from the Listening Post Collective through CLEF say that the program was not what they were expecting. The Listening Post Collective was one of six organizations in the CLEF program; the five others are technology tools, which when used well can help newsrooms better connect with communities. The Listening Post Collective, though, prescribed no software. It was aimed at aligning the core, the guts of organizations, with their service missions independent of any tools they used to do so.
Engagement isn’t its own category of journalism
The Listening Post Collective is best known for its Playbook, a framework for thinking about the process through which news decisions are made. The Collective is also known for the iconic image of its 2013 pilot project in New Orleans that involved people in a community speaking their stories into a large fish, a literal listening post and recording station. The toolkit and listening post, though, bely the depth of the Collective’s ethos. To even get to a point where people want to tell you what matters to them involves being part of a community, listening, and giving back to that community.
Jesse Hardman, who founded the Listening Post Collective, says the separation of working with communities from journalism itself was never his intention. “This ‘engagement’ term was never used in New Orleans,” he says. “I never did any of this for it to become its own category.”
Or as jesikah maria ross at Capital Public Radio put it: “Journalism is a product. Engagement is a process.” (Ross is working with the Listening Post Collective, though not as part of CLEF.)
Ross is the Senior Community Engagement Strategist at Capital Public Radio, a senior content position that is not part of the day-to-day decisions of the newsroom but influences projects and the directions the newsroom takes. Positions like hers, and the new generation of engagement producers and audience or community editors, are important. In fact, I had an early iteration of this kind of job with PRI, designing social media strategy for the company (now merged with PRX) and more specifically for its flagship program The World, and then working my way to senior editor, building its new immigration desk with the involvement of immigrants we wanted to serve.
The way the newest class of engagement-focused journalists and organizers has lifted and pushed journalism to be better is significant. And that they have some separation from regular news operations can be helpful to their longer-term work. Indeed, Ross’ methods of serving communities has been instructive to us all and is crucial to keeping public media relevant into the future.
Rather, what I’m saying is that newsrooms should lead with these positions. Those making the decisions about coverage and resources should be the ones who have the broadest knowledge and deepest ties to the constituents that a news organization is trying to serve. They should be the ones who are most connected to communities in their coverage areas. Those who live in those spaces, rather than dropping in for the purposes of a project or a story, should be empowered to make editorial decisions.
Bringing the people we serve into the editorial process is less an “engagement project,” and more just good journalism.
Carolyn Powers, the Listening Post Collective program manager, designed a survey to begin the coaching process. It did not ask about engagement at all. Instead, it looked at whole organizations and their workflows. It stepped back to the broader process to understand what resources were being used to connect with the people the organizations want to serve.
In the news media, it is easy to undervalue the process of making an honest assessment of the stakeholders and mission of an organization. It is however, both vitally important and very challenging. Ross talks about “journalism as a tool for community development” instead of journalists serving each other and their companies. We need to evaluate, in a literal way, where we spend our time and resources and if we are actually prioritizing the people who we want to serve and report on.
First, ask questions about your own work.
At The Stand, the community newspaper of South Side Syracuse, the sense of mission is clear. It has for almost a decade been a service to a community that has been underrepresented and, worse, misrepresented by local and regional news organizations. And it has had at its helm a director, Ashley Kang, and board members who are committed to the neighborhood.
Kang is ambitious about this service mission, about telling the stories of the South Side and focusing on the ones that its residents value. I was fortunate to coach her and board member Greg Munno, who is faculty at the Newhouse School at Syracuse University.
Munno says he thought we were going to work on a one-off project, a “gee whiz” engagement tool. Instead we dug deep to identify the roots of The Stand itself, both in terms of its mission, editorial and funding structure. We first identified the stakeholders, the people for whom The Stand is made and who have power in its structure. Only once we were clear on whom The Stand wanted to serve did we move forward in surveying and connecting with those communities.
Munno is “glad we did work to reconnect the workflow to the mission.” Kang says she was surprised that a grant with “engagement” in its title actually helped The Stand to refocus on its mission, a mission on which its future growth is being planned.
Does your process prioritize the people you serve?
Mary Margaret White is the executive director of Mississippi Today, which was coached in the CLEF program by Hardman. Hardman helped reporters build communities into their process by creating paper and digital surveys around coverage areas, listening stations at local events, and even targeted door-knocking for reporting so that people affected by issues could drive the reporting. But these projects had limits.
“As we moved into the fall, I did feel like people weren’t utilizing the tools as much as they had over the summer,” White says. The engagement team at Mississippi Today, including those who run social media, marketing and audience development, called on Hardman to refine their process. Reporters and editors did not call on him as often, because engagement work was not part of their day-to-day process. Workflows weren’t amended to include targeting listening and surveying as a priority, and the Listening Post Collective methodology wasn’t fully adopted by reporters and editors.
Laura Herberg, community reporter at WDET in Detroit, worked with Hardman to bring more community perspectives into stories through coffee hours, and online and in-person information gathering. Asking people what they wanted to hear before pursuing stories allowed her to make choices in line with what listeners care about. She started presenting more material from community members to her news director as short interviews and news clips, outside her regular work on features. But she also saw a problem with process.
“I don’t think I’m the only reporter who has great tape from community members that ends up on the cutting room floor,” Herberg says. “I think maybe some of my colleagues just haven’t had that epiphany yet or in some cases they’re too busy to take the time to manage that content because they’re focused on daily news or other obligations.”
Shiraz Ahmed, digital and audience engagement editor at WDET, put it another way: “It was hard to translate the idea that we aren’t creating new products, it’s actually about process. We get so caught up in literal day-to-day jobs, that we don’t spend enough time getting people’s input on our coverage plans, on the direction we’re headed in.”
White says that initially she thought the Listening Post Collective is a tool for engagement teams. In fact, these tools are most powerful when they are woven into editorial processes and become a normal part of everyday work. And the potential for systems change is what WDET and Mississippi Today most appreciated about their coaching.
Who has power over your editorial decisions?
Thomas Brennan is the founder of The War Horse, a growing organization with a strong sense of mission to cover military service and conflicts, prioritizing those most affected by war, including active and veteran military and civilians. Our work together focused on veterans and their families who go through their impactful writing seminars, many of whom become contributors to The War Horse and other outlets.
The way I see it, the ultimate purpose of my coaching was to help harness this community’s strength and give them power in the editorial process of The War Horse. While we created surveys to gauge the impact and quality of the seminars, we also built a process to empower them over time in the editorial work of The War Horse.
And as a coach, it is this question of power that I find most compelling. Re-imagining who has power is not just an imperative for any organization seeking to be more inclusive, but I believe it is also how we can create the best journalism.
Brennan says he was expecting to create surveys with the Listening Post Collective because that is what he proposed in his application. He was not expecting for these surveys to be integrated into an entire process of building and empowering communities. Together we built a diagram of how veterans and their families can be engaged at every stage, and take a greater role in The War Horse overall going forward.
“The community flow — every new person that comes on to the team can have access to something like that,” Brennan says. “It was a home run I wasn’t expecting.”
This kind of systems work pays off, though not immediately. Jerome Vaughn, WDET’s news director, says that the station has made big strides in changing how it works over the past few years, and is now seeing the rewards of those changes.
“I think we were too introspective,” he says. “We were picking stories that appealed to us in this building, or that appealed to people that we thought were our listeners, but not really getting out there and listening to what people were thinking about.”
Changing the process is critical to the relevance of the station going forward, he says. “I have really felt a big difference with how we do it, it’s making a difference not just for us but in the community.”
During their Listening Post Collective coaching, Vaughn had open office hours at a coffee shop in a neighborhood where WDET wanted to increase its coverage.
“One high school kid heard about it, was a listener, got his dad to bring him back to the coffee house again, and then got him to bring him here. He spent a day at the station,” Vaughn says. “That’s all I needed for it to be a success.”
Don’t just cover communities, join them.
André Natta, reporting collaborative editor for Resolve Philadelphia, gave one of the keynote talks at the November 2019 SRCCON:LEAD conference in Philadelphia. He challenged newsroom leaders to stop being afraid, to join community projects, attend events among those who are you are trying to serve. He didn’t use the word “engagement,” but what he described was a powerful and obvious way to better understand the people you want to serve: Be part of their communities. It’s hard to work without nuance when you know the people you are covering.
“Go ahead and say ‘yes’ whenever you can, go ahead and look for opportunities to plug in. Get outside of your comfort zone,” he told the room full of news leaders. “In this age where we don’t always like to go ahead and plug in places, become a part of your community. Find ways to go ahead and do cleanups. You can go out there without the notepad.”
He laid bare what journalism in service to a community, whether large or small, can be to a news organization.
“You can go ahead and be their friend. At some point they will remember that. And that may not sound like a lot if you’re in leadership, but whether you are a reporter or you’re the editor, it goes a long way in terms of tapping into those folks later on,” he said.
Even when a newsroom is small, and cannot possibly know all of its constituents deeply, having an awareness of the work that needs to be done before the breaking news, before the big project, before making decisions about how to represent that community, is essential. That is also when hiring people from the communities you want to cover is so important. And that’s when the Playbook and so many other excellent engagement tools can help to extend this work.
Adding listening, adding engagement into your process is about not parachuting into your own backyard. It’s about bringing your backyard into the newsroom.
But if engagement is an add-on, a tool or technology, rather than a process to make the news, than your journalism will be missing crucial perspectives. Whether you hire coaches, conduct surveys, give reporters time to walk their neighborhoods, set up coffees with readers or listeners — or most importantly hire people who know deeply the people you want to serve — being engaged means telling fresh, important and relevant stories.
And that is what great journalism is all about.
“Learning to Listen” is a review of the CLEF program focusing on Hearken and Groundsource, two other services that were offered to news outlets.
Two writings by P. Kim Bui: “Redistributing Power” in the Membership Puzzle Project and “How to create a newsroom culture that supports empathy“ are essential in thinking about how we make news.
A handy reference to keep close is the Listening Post Collective Playbook.
And it’s great to lean back and read in full André Natta’s keynote at SRCCON:Lead in 2019 about being unafraid to be part of communities.
The author wrote this with discussion of her colleagues, Carolyn Powers and Jesse Hardman, and permission from the people at the news organizations that are cited. She is grateful for the openness and support of Listening Post Collective and journalists who shared their struggles and successes.
The Listening Post Collective is powered by Internews, an international non-profit organization that supports freedom of expression and protects access to information.
Angilee Shah is an editor, reporter and teacher who builds great teams and great content. Recently, she spent six years in public media, establishing US immigration coverage for The World and building a community to support it. There, she ran a successful campaign to bring 50 new contributors into public media — in a year. Now she is a coach and the founder of a media company that will launch in 2020.