Enthusiasm at ASNE-APME 2014 to grow audience through engaging communities

By Jacob Caggiano

There was a hint of trepidation on the planning call when we found out we would have to compete with a concurrent session at ASNE-APME 2014 called “How to Succeed at Mobile Before It’s Too Late.” We were not entirely sure if the crowd would choose ambition over pragmatism.

We ended up with a great turnout, with 60+ journalists and news editors pouring in to learn from our experience bringing communities together around difficult issues. More so, the room was buzzing with ideas and inspiration to take these lessons home and start their own experiments as agents for their communities.

Before sharing some of these, a quick primer on how we got here:

Journalism’s gnarly problem

Mike Fancher, former editor of The Seattle Times and current director of the Center for Journalism Innovation and Civic Engagement at the University of Oregon opened up the session by explaining that The Engagement Hub was born out of the need to address ASNE’s “gnarly problem” – the lack of diversity in the newsroom. The American Society of News Editors publishes an annual census that counts the percentage of women and minorities in the newsroom, and year after year it falls short of the goal to have ratios that match the actual population.

Journalism That Matters approached ASNE’s diversity committee with a proposal to address the lack of newsroom diversity by working with news organizations who were engaging with their community as part of the news gathering process. The intention was to help editors find ways to achieve newsroom diversity through community-based efforts at inclusion and connection.

The three newsroom pilots

We’ve had the privilege of partnering with three newsrooms that have dedicated time and resources into community engagement, and each produced a video to share their lessons and insights.

The Democrat & Chronicle’s ‘Unite Rochester‘ – Rochester, New York

The Gazette’s ‘We Create Here‘ – Cedar Rapids, Iowa

The Oakland Tribune’s ‘Oakland Voices‘ – Oakland, California

Using the videos as inspiration, the room broke into small groups and generated new ideas to bring back home to their newsrooms. The energy of the crowd was vibrant, palpable by the fact that moderator Peggy Holman (Journalism that Matters) had to try several times to get everyone to quiet back down.

Some of the illuminations that were shared:

It takes time.

This is stated directly in the videos by Martin Reynolds of Oakland Voices and Karen Magnuson of Unite Rochester, and is probably going to remain true for any other project of community scope. Reynolds explained the importance of treating your engagement efforts as a long term investment in “laying the masonry down” to build a foundation for the greater good.

It takes trust.

Not only from the community but from journalists as well. Quinn Pettifer of We Create Here explained that there was some skepticism in the beginning about what they were doing, but the trick is to be transparent about your role and let your authenticity shine through.

To help build this trust, the editors of Unite Rochester were personally involved and participated in the smaller discussion groups. Rather than sit on a panel looking down at the audience, they were there listening on the same level plane.

Go to where the people are.

As Magnuson stated in the closing of her video, don’t expect that people will subscribe to your platform and follow along. Find out where they post information online, where they gather face to face, and make yourself present.

Partnerships can help.

As the work they were doing began to catch on, We Create Here garnered the support of the regional economic development agency and the city’s civil rights commission. They were then approached by leaders in the arts and culture community who saw their experience as an asset for facilitating a public forum on the arts.

Karen Bordeleau from The Providence Journal stood up to share her work putting together the “Publick Occurrence” forums that bring hundreds together for civic and civil dialog on important topics like education reform, privacy in the digital age, and Obamacare. They partnered with a civics non-profit called Leadership Rhode Island, who handles the ticketing for them, as well as Rhode Island College, who provide the space. Both help with promoting the events.

After learning about the Unite Rochester “Listening Tours” model from our session, she vocalized her inspiration to seek a similar program in partnership with their local university.

Flip convention on its head

Kelly Fry, managing editor for The Oklahoman, has been working with her staff to connect more with their community. During the session she realized that their event ideas so far were more consistent with the dated one way model of putting out information. “We need to flip that” she said. “We’ve always been in the business of gathering information, organizing it, and presenting it. We need to listen. To involve people in a far deeper discussion.

In the words of Martin Reynolds from Oakland Voices – “Be bold, be daring…it’s the role a news organization should be playing, a convener of conversation and connector of perspectives.”

asne2014-wordcloud-768x476We wrapped up the session by asking the room to send a text message with their own takeaways. Using Poll Everywhere, the word cloud above was generated and projected in real time.

Want to see this work continue? We are looking for additional partners and funding so The Hub can continue to grow capacity. Please contact us if you are interested, and feel free to join our discussion group.

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