Social journalism: Back to the future

Engagement — one of three legs needed to support successful social media projects. (The others are inclusion and aggregation.) What does this mean for journalists, for news organizations?

Paul Gillin, a social media consultant and former technology journalist, says journalists have to play “to people’s particular interests” if we hope to engage the public. I know, that doesn’t sound very new or different. But think on it for a moment:

… the special interests that they have in what’s going on in their town, on their block, in their school system, in their local businesses, at the chamber of commerce, in the park system, in their local museums, that’s what gets people really excited, that which touches them at a very personal level (source).

Some newspapers still put these things front and center, focus their resources on these, and perhaps hold their circulation numbers steady. It used to be the way newspapers were structured, and it’s part of what changed as newspapers were bought up by big corporations and clumped into feedlots like so many over-doped beef cattle. Newspapers stopped covering the day-to-day factual matters that concern people — the details about where they work, live, attend schools and churches/mosques/temples. As circulation numbers were pumped up by expanding the supposed “coverage area,” what really happened was that less and less of what matters to people was, in fact, covered.

Then the public no longer experienced a sense of engagement with the newspaper.

Over the weekend, Mark Glaser tweeted a list of 10 steps to help local newspapers to survive and thrive. His No. 4 is: “Find out what the community wants in real face to face meetings, not focus groups. Then do what they want.”

That struck a chord with me, because every time I have watched a newspaper focus group, I felt like it never got at what people truly think and feel. The artificiality of the focus group affects what the participants say, and in the end, it’s just not the real deal. It isn’t that they’re lying, but they are trying to make a good impression — not only on the people asking the questions but also on the other participants, who are strangers to them. Also, the questions asked lead the results into places that the newspaper already wants to go — or already does go. The potential for hearing something actually new in a focus group is, in my opinion, pretty minuscule.

So, back to this idea of engagement. How should journalists really and truly engage with members of the public?

  1. Talk to people whom you really don’t know. And not just poor people, or criminals, or addicts. Make an effort to find a regular, run-of-the-mill working or professional person who is quite different from you in some distinctive way — maybe an immigrant (your M.D. maybe, or your dentist); the woman who rings up your groceries at the giant supermarket; some guy in a bar whose boots are white with cement dust; a teacher in a public school that your kids have never attended. Don’t talk to them about their job — ask them about their life. What is the city doing wrong, or right? What would they change if they could? What have they been curious about lately? What has frustrated them like crazy?
  2. Ask the public to contribute ideas. Then let the public vote on the best ones. John Robinson of the Greensboro, N.C., News & Record tweeted that when he asked readers for suggestions for investigative stories, he received six within a day. He didn’t say whether they were good ideas, but I’ll bet that at least a couple had some potential. And even if they aren’t suitable for a full investigative treatment, they let him know what people are concerned about.
  3. Be more humble. I don’t know what it is about journalists, but as a group we seem to have a kind of arrogance/insecurity aspect to our personality. We come off as arrogant and kind of know-it-all and even brusque to many others who are not journalists. Among ourselves, we are comfortable with this personality and tend to overlook it. (We’re used to it.) I think even some of the best interviewers can strike their subjects as somewhat uncaring, some of the time. After all, we are doing a job, we have a deadline, we need to finish this thing and get on to the next one. But if you want to learn something new and unexpected, you’ve got to be less in a hurry, less focused on the short-term goal, the finish line, and more open to randomness. You have to honestly believe that the average person you’re chatting up might be able to tell you something you don’t already know — and you need to have the patience to allow that something to come out on its own.

Journalists can do some of this online more easily than they could have in the pre-Internet days, and some of them are doing it already, through blogs and other means. But I think it might help a lot of news organizations if they made a serious commitment to engagement, if they swallowed some of their professional “we know what news is” attitude and said, instead, “We need to find out what people really want to know about their communities.”

6 Comments on “Social journalism: Back to the future

  1. Three were good ideas and one had potential. The other two may have been good, but they would have required us to have bureaus far from Greensboro.

    Whatever. You’re absolutely correct that it let us know a few things that people were thinking about that we weren’t (and should have been).

  2. I absolutely agree with you. It seems that the best journalist is going to be an “embedded” one, as it were. She or he is going to have a living presence within the community they serve. It is dangerous to think that people “in general” have given interests independent of their particular lives and concerns.

    I have found some interesting interviews and discussions touching upon these issues at:,com_sectionex/Itemid,200076/id,8/view,category/#catid69

    Their attempt to get into sight journalism’s future, including the importance of the specificity of community, has been helpful to me in much of my reflection upon these issues.

  3. Think globally act locally…
    Great ideas to survive during hard days but not only.
    A source of inspiration, great stories are near you waiting to be discovered.

  4. Pingback: Strange Attractor » Blog Archive » links for 2009-06-12

  5. Pingback: Links for the weekend | Links para o fim de semana « O Lago | The Lake

  6. I love number 1. You should talk to people you don’t know, you never know what kind of interesting story they may have to tell. And journalists really need to listen to their audience, so that they can report on stories important to their readers. The future of journalism is the same as past journalism- report important facts for your community. The only part that has changed is the medium in which it is written.

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