THE BLOG
04/05/2013 01:53 pm ET Updated Jun 05, 2013

Engagement Can Save Journalism

People in Denver are deeply worried about the future of journalism. This week, a couple thousand media thinkers and optimistic reformers are gathering to talk about topics ranging from "Killing Public Media to Save It" to "Are Geeks the new Guardians to our Civil Liberties?" Denver is important in all of this because four years ago, The Rocky Mountain News closed its doors, one of the early casualties in this current media transformation moment. But really, organizers of the National Conference on Media Reform could have selected any American city and had a similar backdrop. This week, I learned the local newspaper I read every day won't be on my driveway every morning. The simplistic version of the question everyone's asking is how are we going to save journalism? The better question is more complicated, but the answer, I think, is engagement.

It's a buzz word, I know, one that might be devoid of meaning by this point. I've given a talk to a group of marketing professionals called "Engagement is the new marketing," which probably didn't help the cause at all. Nevertheless, it's still a useful word because in this context it honors the mission of the enterprise. This all came up at Journalism That Matters in the days prior to NCMR, and what became apparent is that what we mean by engagement is at the heart of the impulse that drives hard news--to make the community a better place. That's the same motivation that drives people to read the news and participate in civic dialogue, to comment on news content (if they're not trolls), write letters to the editor, and show up to public meetings--in short, to care about what's happening and act like it.

So why, then, don't we put engagement at the center of journalism?

We don't, I think, because we like doing the journalism ourselves and, also, as journalists, we often don't know how to engage with the communities. For the last hundred years, the model has been something along the lines of "we report, you read it and if it really provokes you, you write a letter to the editor or post a comment." Online journalism has created a few new interactive opportunities--the odd civic game or searchable database--but it's still largely a "we produce, you consume" transaction. We can do better.

Last fall, I had a bit of an epiphany about this. At the height of the editorial endorsement season, Atlanta Journal Constitution editor Kevin Riley described to On the Media's Bob Garfield why that paper stopped writing political endorsements. What readers want from their paper, he said, "is a thoughtful, insightful experience that helps them make their decisions." He concluded, "Our readers do not want us to pick sides," which got me thinking, if you're not picking sides on issues, what's the editorial doing? And then, if you're not doing that with the editorial pages, what else could you do with them?

Josh Stearns of Free Press has some great ideas of what editorial boards could be doing in lieu of endorsements:

What if editorial boards opened up the meetings in which they debate who they will endorse and turned them into something akin to a town hall? What if papers produced in-depth explainers for the issues the editorial board based their decision on? What if newspapers mine their own archives to help put the current race and their endorsement in a uniquely local and historical perspective? What if editorial boards judged candidates by some transparent criteria like the "citizens agenda" which Jay Rosen has been developing?

Let's take it further: Imagine we alter the mission and work of an editorial board. Its job is no longer to offer considered opinions on important community issues in an attempt to persuade voters or policy makers. Instead, it's an engagement board with the job is convening and hosting community dialogue about the same issues on which it would have opined. It would, as Stearns suggests, gather together all the best reporting and public documents on the issue, provide the tools, the information and the space for the kind of informed conversation and deliberation that could help communities make up their own mind and chart their own future. What if the engagement board had members of the community on it, people who weren't trained journalists and weren't advocates but cared about the future of the community? As many news organizations begin to implement strategies based on events, what if those events actually had an impact on policy making and did the work of connecting citizens to the government they pay taxes to support? Could an engagement strategy like this change the coverage a newsroom produced, bringing the news closer to the community, making it more relevant to more people?

The answer is obviously yes to all of these questions, and when we do this, we might be able to make a stronger case to communities in support of the fourth estate kind of journalism that, on its best days, forces government to be better. As large journalistic institutions (the ones capable of playing this role on a significant community-wide scale) do this successfully and strengthen their relationships with the communities they serve, the revenue should follow, whether it's advertising, sponsorship, underwriting, philanthropy, subscriptions or individual contributions. After all, when you're more important to the community, you're more important to the people who want to reach the community.

This being a business, of course, there are risks, and being journalism, there are ethical considerations. Poynter Institute's Kelly McBride said at Journalism That Matters that if we think about the word "engagement" and how we use it broadly (engagement proposals, for instance) it reminds us of the commitment and the trust we build by promising to be in a relationship in an authentic way. Authenticity and transparency must go both ways. If audiences are engaged, she said at the JTM event, they are more valuable to advertisers, and we must be clear about this dynamic. But building relationships in every direction is of value to the community. So the proposition for sponsors and advertisers is really this: Help us make our communities better and stronger, but don't ask us to advocate for the outcome you desire--just help us help the community determine its own way.

I'm sure I'm hopelessly idealistic about this. I'm sure there are a million things I'm not considering, but I really do believe this is a way forward for legacy media outfits that are wringing their hands and slashing staff. There may as well be no product if the communities we serve don't care about what we produce. And the community is asking us for opportunities to engage in meaningful ways. We should give that to them, in the information-rich and context-rich way that journalists are really good at.