Four Engaged Journalism Experiments in Four Very Different Appalachian Communities

In Rostraver, we wanted to meet people who might not otherwise show up at a media event or town hall. Photo: David Smith/Reed College of Media @ WVU

In Rostraver, we wanted to meet people who might not otherwise show up at a media event or town hall. Photo: David Smith/Reed College of Media @ WVU

Between January and June of this year I planned and hosted four engaged journalism projects in communities across Appalachia, designed to reimagine the relationship between local newsrooms and the communities they cover.

The goal of all four projects was to test engagement approaches that any newsroom could replicate, easily and cheaply.

Sustainability was a primary concern.

During several months studying the successes and failures of engaged journalism projects of all kinds, I saw that those which relied entirely on short-term, artificial increases in funding to pay for more reporters to cover a community for a limited period often ended up damaging the newsroom’s relationship with that community, in the long term, by building bridges that could not be maintained, and making promises that could not be kept.

For 100 Days in Appalachia’s engaged journalism series I wanted to explore solutions to this sustainability problem, engagement strategies that didn’t rely on finding the funding for additional reporting capacity, or asking a reporter to just work more hours.

The focus on diversity was also reflected in the mechanics of the projects. Some employed digital and software-based engagement techniques, while others involved face-to-face personal interaction in live community settings.

Having worked in small newsrooms before, I knew that if for an outlet to do better community engagement they had to spend money or additional time, then it probably wasn’t going to stick.

And so during the long and messy “drawing board” phase, every project idea had to pass the cheap and easy test — it had to cost no more than a few hundred dollars and a few hours for a newsroom to pull off.

The four projects that resulted all fit that bill. If local and regional newsrooms really are serious about doing a better job of making new friends and working with untapped audiences in their community, these are things they can do.

For the most part they are successful examples. I learned a lot from the things that didn’t work so well, and are happy to present those lessons to anyone eager to try something similar.

We approached every project willing to fail, if it at least pushed the envelope a little in terms of what is possible. We were very conscious of the great opportunity we had been given to try something new, and didn’t want to waste that opportunity by just copying what we had seen work elsewhere.

In addition to sustainability, diversity was a key consideration in where and how we staged projects.

Appalachia contains communities of all different kinds, and we wanted to test engagement principles for newsrooms working in large cities, smaller regional centers and even smaller rural areas.

The focus on diversity was also reflected in the mechanics of the projects. Some employed digital and software-based engagement techniques, while others involved face-to-face personal interaction in live community settings.

If you’re keen to learn more, here’s where you can find links to more info about all four projects, and some of my other work.