As the new Community Engagement Editor for 100 Days in Appalachia, I've been tasked with creating a series of experiments in "engaged journalism" across the region - creative and often surprising things that journalists and newsrooms can do to involve local people in reporting about their community.
Order Of Business #1 has been to find out everything I can about what weird and excellent things brave folks were already doing in the field of engaged journalism. I'm a big believer in imitation as the sincerest form of flattery, and in kidnapping good ideas whenever and wherever I can find them.
And so over the past month I've spoken with dozens of reporters, editors and freelance producers working on the cutting edge of engaged journalism. I've learned a lot about what effective audience engagement looks like in the real world, and how working newsrooms make it a part of their everyday practice.
So, while our 100 Days in Appalachia projects are still in the design phase, here's a list of 6 things that any newsroom can do tomorrow to step into the weird and wonderful (but not really very weird) world of engaged journalism.
1. Make it easy for people to contact you.
As a communications director in the nonprofit world I spent a lot of time trying to find email addresses and phone numbers of reporters at specific papers. A chronic fear of the dreaded spam led many web managers to hide or bury reporter's direct email addresses, thus minimizing opportunities for people to contact those reporters (which seems to be the opposite of what journalism - particularly local reporting - is about).
So make sure your Contact Us button is front and center and plainly visible, and that it goes directly to the names, phone numbers and email addresses (and headshots, if you have them) for your reporters and editors.
Better yet, make a feature of it. Showing people that you are an organization of real human beings, with names and faces, that are interested in hearing from citizens in their community is a simple little PR improvement that most newsrooms would benefit from.
2. Ask your community something.
Most news websites love to scream at their readers "THIS IS WHAT WE HAVE TO TELL YOU ABOUT YOUR COMMUNITY!" but have no interest in getting off their bullhorn for a moment to ask "WHAT CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT YOUR COMMUNITY?"
I call that an emotionally abusive relationship. No wonder people have started tuning out.
So, something you can do tomorrow: Set aside a visible part of your website, or print edition, to ask the community what they think about a certain issue. Doesn't matter too much what it is, really. Just ask them something. Ask them what they want to ask you.
Give them a name, phone number, email address or twitter handle to contact, or a web contact form that you'll really check and respond to. (Take 2 minutes to set up an auto-responder - a stitch in time saves nine.)
It's engaged journalism at it's most basic, but it's free, easy to do, and you'll see an immediate impact. Without exception, every news organization I've spoken with that did this was pleasantly surprised by the quality and relevance of reader submissions.
3. Have an open editorial meeting.
Let's say your newsroom is planning some coverage of a particular topic area. Maybe Education Week is coming up, or Black History Month, or there's just a pressing local issue and you want to do a series of stories on a theme.
Rather than lock yourselves away in your news office, why not invite the general public and grab a few tables at a local restaurant, bar, church hall or park? Use your email and/or social media feeds to invite folks, post it on your website and in your paper, stick up some flyers.
Cast the net as far and wide as you can. Remember, what you're after is divergent perspectives and backgrounds. No point having a bunch of people in the room with the same ideas and experiences that you have.
Once you've got your crowd, invite them to contribute their questions, ideas and suggestions for reporting angles.
I can guarantee you that busting open your brainstorm in this way will gift you story leads, characters, conflicts and opportunities for fresh reporting that you will not be able to unlock by yourself.
4. Go sit somewhere else.
At my first newspaper job, a small country town Australia, the newspaper's office was in the middle of the main street, wedged between the bank and the pub. The door was always open. News and information flowed in and out all day, like foot traffic, like daily life. We heard everything, and everyone knew where to find us.
On the flip side, I worked for a chain of papers in the Pacific Northwest that thought the best place for a local newspaper office was in a business park on the outskirts of town where nobody ever went. Later, their business model "evolved" to moving the office to the next city over so they could share office space and save money. And ponder why it was so hard to become an integral part of the community in which they weren't.
Many hardworking reporters might find themselves in similar situations. A few that I have spoken with have solved that problem by setting up their own "office" somewhere else.
Pick a day or two a week and plonk yourself down in your local cafe, restaurant or library, and work from there. Any place with wi-fi oughta do.
A reporter I spoke with posts on social media where she's going to be the next day. "You can find me at Billy's Cafe. I'm working on a story about [whatever subject], so if you've got any useful insights, come and hang out."
It's also a great way to begin to improve your coverage of neighborhoods or regions you don't know much about. Pick a place you've never been before. Just sit there for a day, make your calls and do your work. You'll be amazed what you learn, and about the people that come your way.
5. Let someone take over your Instagram feed.
Instagram takeover. Genius. Shoe companies have been doing them for years. They have the potential to be hugely effective in expanding your newsroom's audience, too.
(Okay, maybe you don't have an Instagram feed. Many papers don't. But if you don't, here's a great way to start one.)
It's a simple concept. Pick an active person or organization in your community and let them manage your Instagram feed for a week. Be strategic about how the person or group you pick might connect to your reporting themes.
For example, if education is a focus of your reporting, have a high school student or class takeover your Instagram feed with photos about daily life for young people in your town.
How about a police officer, or someone from the parks and recreation department? Or someone involved with the annual homeless count? Or a mail delivery person? What would they see in the goings-on of their daily life in your community that would interest your audience?
The possibilities are endless. You can keep an eye on the feed to make sure nothing offensive gets posted, but apart from that it costs you nothing but a little imagination.
And, at the end of the day you've created a whole bunch of visual content that is always handy to have.
6. Find yourself a big wall.
I don't know about you, but most of the towns I've lived in have had an abundance of one dubious asset - abandoned buildings. Abandoned buildings mean large, blank walls. Those blank walls, artfully repurposed, can become flashpoints of community discussion.
Find a wall you can use, or a large shopfront window, or a blackboard in a willing local cafe - any public space will do - and ask your community a question.
What's the one thing you want the world to know about Jonesville?
Have you ever thought about leaving Smithtown? Why, and what stopped you?
What's the most important issue to you in the upcoming council elections?
Invite them to write or sticky-note their responses on the wall.
Sure, you'll probably get some wise guys. But I'll bet you'll learn something about your community, and in one fell swoop you've made a whole bunch of people understand that your paper wants them to be an active part of key local conversations. (And you'll have done another savvy piece of PR.)