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Community Engagement

Colleagues Working Together

What is the role of collaboration and community engagement in journalism? How does trust and relationship-building feed into news and content?

Alicia Bell, Organising Manager at Free Press; Cierra Hinton, Director of network-building and operations at Press On and executive director at Scalawag; and Fraser Nelson, vice-president of business innovation at The Salt Lake Tribune joined a group of UK-based independent news publishers to discuss the questions above.

Here we share some of their top tips and highlights from the discussion.

This blog reflects some of the key takeaways from the community engagement session of the summer 2020 PINF professional development programme. 

Relationship building is key

  • Alicia Bell of Free Press highlighted the need to transform power in journalism to address the lack of information equity between different communities. Ultimately, this makes newsrooms less sustainable in the long term, as they are not serving the communities as effectively as they could be - as a central tenet of community infrastructure.

  • Engagement is a process that helps create communities that are part of journalism and is a pathway to developing informed and strong communities.

  • In thinking about community engagement, newsrooms should be thinking about how to support their community/communities by really providing the accurate information that is vital for that community to be well informed, educated and ultimately, to be uplifted.

  • It’s important to remember that collaboration and community engagement are not just one-off things, but an ever-growing and developing relationship between journalists and their audience.

  • TIP: When it comes to relationship building, Alicia stressed the importance of considering the relationships you hold most dear, be that family, friends, work colleagues, existing subscribers. And then to figure out why you like those people and why those people like you.

"Those things are what we need to build upon in order to sustain community

engagement through our journalism. You already know how what

these inherent things are – just build on them to reach out to further within your community." 

Alicia Bell, Free Press

News and content can be part of a larger movement of change

  • Cierra Hinton shared her experience of working at Scalawag magazine, trying to fill a gap in the US national narrative about the South and negate stereotypes perpetuated in legacy and national media.

  • Cierra emphasised the idea that 'the news and content we deliver need to part of a larger movement of change to truly support the community.'

  • Community engagement is all encompassing, starting off with the team you work within and ensuring it is representative of under-served identities in the community you are trying to serve.

  • Events: Cierra highlighted how events can be engagement tools; and help build reciprocal relationships with the communities you serve by offering them the possibility of hearing more about what’s happening on the ground.

  • She also stressed the importance of working with community organisers and leaders of social movements as a very effective way of making roots into communities.

"Relationship building moves at the speed of trust. By speaking to individuals

already well respected and connected in these communities, this

helps to build trust quickly and fast-track your community engagement."

Cierra Hinton, Press On / Scalawag

To achieve sustainability, you need to be responsive

  • Fraser Nelson shared her experience re-shaping the Salt Lake Tribune, a 150 year-old newspaper that serves the state of Utah, and how the process of becoming a non-profit made this legacy paper accountable to the communities it serves.

  • Fraser emphasised the importance of journalists and newsrooms being responsive in order to sustain their publications - responsive to the communities they are serving.

  • In terms of identifying who that community is exactly, Fraser described how the Tribune is partnering with the Salt Lake Community Collegepaying young people to contribute to the paper, as well as working with inmates at correctional facilities across the state to share their stories and insights.

"Reporting on a community means amplifying the voices within that community

and showing both the strengths and problems faced by the community accurately." 

Fraser Nelson, Salt Lake Tribune

Meeting resistance and handling trolls

  • One problem publishers face in pursing community engagement is an outpouring of hate or negativity from members of a community confronted with new, alternative perspectives about their own communities they may not recognise or agree with.

  • In handling hate or trolling online, Alicia Bell recommended explaining to readers as a publisher why you are involved in a community engagement process and how that might transform the news and content you produce. 'This helps to build trust within the community you are working with and to rebut some of that resistance.'

  • The value of including historical analysis in reporting: all the speakers highlighted this as very important when it comes to explaining to negative readers that although they might not be familiar with a new perspective or have come across it before, these perspectives are not new and they have long existed.

  • CASE STUDY: Fraser Nelson explained how the Tribune is planning to use their “What We Got Wrong” series to address gaps in reporting and to help put issues and new emerging voices in a historic context this autumn. 


Achieving engagement during a global pandemic

  • In the present global context, with events being held mostly online, it is hard to achieve the same levels of engagement as when publishers are able to go out in their communities and meet the people in person.

  • Some alternatives:

    • Using breakout rooms on Zoom can help facilitate more intimate conversations. Plus, using chat groups, Google docs, or a digital whiteboard can help facilitate creative collaboration.

    • Using this opportunity to partner with storytellers and community conveners you might not normally think of.

    • Weekly online conversations, advertised on social media or local Facebook groups, can be effective. 

    • Making virtual gatherings a celebration of the community and the people within it, something exciting people want to be part of.

Questions? Comments? Contributions? If you'd like to share your views or experience on this topic with the PINF team, get in touch.

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