Newsroom experts

Real community engagement takes precious time; what’s the payoff?

Donald Trump’s continued attacks on the media as “enemies of the American people” won’t work. Here’s why.

Journalists are more accurately the voice of the American people. At our best, we stick up for the little guy, people who otherwise wouldn’t have a voice. When the government – local or national – proposes something, we remove the spin and tell people how it will affect them.

Here’s what is important, though. We can’t be the voice of the people if we don’t know what they are saying, if we don’t know their fears and their hopes, if we don’t listen to them.

That’s where community engagement comes in. No longer can editors sit in their offices, removed from the public. We must reach out to our communities in all of their diversity. We can’t just go to our clubs and talk to our friends and think we know what’s going on.

Three editors from GateHouse Media newspapers are examples of leaders in their community. They regularly reach out to their communities, and especially people who might be underserved and overlooked. They were all recipients recently of GateHouse awards for leadership.

Springfield State Journal-Register Executive Editor Angie Muhs just wrote an excellent piece for Nieman Reports that explains how to put together a reader advisory board and what to do with them once you’ve selected them.

Peoria Journal Star Executive Editor Dennis Anderson explained his outreach to Peoria’s South Side.

And Rockford Register Star’s Executive Editor Mark Baldwin took his editorial board on the road to engage readers.

But I still hear editors who don’t quite buy in to the concept of engagement. So, I asked these three champions of outreach what the payoff is. Why is this so important to these three?

DENNIS ANDERSON

“Editors don’t stop reporting. We’ll always be beat reporters. And our beat is growing engagement in our community, growing audience, being connected, and listening. The results of that engagement are increased interaction with readers, community leaders and others who have stories to tell.

“It’s a good feeling to see people I recognize, engage with them and learn what’s happening in their lives. The story ideas that come from these conversations often are some of the better ones we can bring back to the newsroom, because they come from real people who live in our community. What they are thinking about is what they want to be reading in their newspaper.”

ANGIE MUHS

“Part of growing and maintaining our audience is recognizing that we’re asking people to enter into a relationship with our news organization. Casual page views, for instance, are nice, but we all should be aiming for committed readers who view us as the source for local news and return with loyalty.

“But good relationships are two-way streets — not us talking AT the community. That extends to top editors, because we often are the face of the paper. When I attend events, speak to groups, hold reader boards or meet people for coffee just to chat, there may not be an instant payoff that day, but it is worth it in building the relationships.”

MARK BALDWIN

“Our engagement initiatives have connected us — or reconnected us — with parts of the community that sometimes fly under the radar. We’ve intentionally engaged people and groups at the margins of civic life — minorities and low-income folks, for example. Their stories have yielded some of our richest journalism over the past couple of years. Beyond that, getting out into the community humanizes us and provides us a chance to show people that we’re fundamentally on their side.

“There’s a further benefit: The structured conversations we’ve conducted help build civic capacity — the community’s ability to discuss tough issues in civil tones, to distinguish between facts and noise, and to make important decisions based on those facts. We think that’s an important contribution.”

From hearing readers’ stories, building loyalty and civility, and connecting with communities, these editors inspire us to reach out and listen. When our newspapers and websites reflect our communities, no one will be able to call us enemies and have that label stick.

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