News Leadership 3.0

April 08, 2010

Engagement: A job for every journalist

Among emerging roles for journalists and news organizations, engaging online communities around news and information is vital. Here are some leads and encouragement for journalists and newsrooms who want to give it a try

There has been a lot of good writing and discussion lately about a new role for news providers: community engagement. I want to summarize key points and point to other posts about the topic and offer a few thoughts.

Voice of San Diego got the ball rolling last week when it posted an opening for an engagement editor:

“The pioneering news organization wants someone to revolutionize how it presents its content and engages the San Diego community. You will find creative ways—from e-mail to blogs to twitter and more—to deliver our service to San Diegans. You will also be a new age opinion editor, sparking dynamic debates and discussions on the site. And you will be a guide to our service, helping our users find the needed context to keep up with the complex local issues that determine San Diego’s quality of life.”

Steve Buttry then elaborated on his new role as Community Engagement Editor for Allbritton Communications’s soon-to-start local news site in Washington, D.C. Buttry said he hopes all of the journalists on the staff of this new organization will work on engagement. His team of six will help the newsroom up its game by coaching and performing jobs that don’t fit into more traditional news gathering and editing roles. “For instance, we will recruit and work with a network of bloggers in our metro area. On some community events that our staff won’t be covering, we will aggregate and curate content provided by the community or provide some platforms for the community to provide the coverage. Where our staff is covering an event, we will supplement that coverage by finding and soliciting community contributions,” Buttry said.

Finally, if you are interested in getting into the game, I recommend Angela Connor’s “18 Rules of Community Engagement.” Here is Angela’s presentation at KDMC’s recent Knight Community Information Challenge Boot Camp for Knight Foundation grantees who are developing news and engagement projects.

I have this additional advice for newsrooms that under take community engagement efforts:
- Be clear about your goals and how you will measure them. Be mindful that numbers may not tell the story. Often, engagement is not about drawing large numbers. It is about building a smaller community of loyal users, contributors and partners in your news endeavor.
- Don’t confused engagement editor with social media editor. Social media may be part of the engagement job but there’s a lot more to it, as Buttry notes.
- Assign or hire an engagement editor who will challenge staff and newsroom leaders alike. Let that person experiment even if it makes others uncomfortable. Help that person carry the message across the newsroom - help her articulate it and make it clear to everyone that you want the staff to listen and act.

December 08, 2009

Community info building blocks: What do you already have?

Communities need relevant, timely information in order to function well. Traditional narrative-format news is one way to package that information. News stories work great as snapshots, but generally not so well for gauging relevant issues on a daily basis. By publishing more structured information, news organizations might help people more clearly understand their world and make decisions about their lives and communities.

(I’m pleased to have digital provocateur extraordinaire Amy Gahran on board as a guest blogger. Today, Amy starts a series of weekly posts that look at how news organizations and other institutions can implement the findings of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, This joint project of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Aspen Institute Communications and Society program published its flagship report, “Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age” on Oct. 2. Read more articles in this series.)

By Amy Gahran

Knowledge is power—and knowledge springs from information. In any society, but especially in a democracy, people need current, relevant, and useful information in order to know how to exercise their power to make better decisions and build better, stronger communities.

imageThe Knight Commission report offered rich guidance for how news organizations, governments, schools, libraries, bloggers, and other leading players in the community information landscape could better manage the supply and flow of vital community information. The goal: to create robust local “information ecologies” that support local democracy and quality of community life.

In a new series of posts to the News Leadership 3.0 blog, we’ll explore opportunities to realize the Knight report’s recommendations—examples of what’s happening, what works (or not), and what’s possible. We’ll consider new kinds projects and collaboration, and suggest steps to take action.

Our starting point is the first question the report sought to answer: What are a community’s information needs?

The Knight report proposed 15 ways to to better manage the supply and flow of vital community information. However, it offered surprisingly little insight on which types of information communities need to support the goals outlined in the report: community coordination and problem-solving, public accountability, and a sense of connectedness.

According to the report, the tools to generate a specific list of vital community information types and measurements aren’t quite there yet. Information researchers are still working to develop them. But the executive summary did outline some general categories to consider:

“...In addition to the information necessary to participate in elections and civic affairs, people need access to information to better their lives. Where families struggle to make ends meet and many men and women work multiple jobs, free time is limited. Indeed the path to civic engagement may begin with fulfillment of basic information needs, including info about:

  • Jobs
  • Housing
  • Taxes
  • Safety
  • Education
  • Transportation
  • Recreation
  • Entertainment
  • Food and shopping
  • Utilities
  • Child care
  • Healthcare
  • Religious resources
  • Local news

News organizations traditionally have packaged these types of community and civic information in a narrative story format. In the narrative format, information is primarily communicated through a continuous flow of text, audio/video, or slideshow/photo gallery. Charts, interactive, or infographic components only play a supporting role.

Narrative news stories work great as snapshots—but they can be less helpful for ongoing public awareness, analysis, and decision making.

Fortunately, most of the vital community info types above already exist at least partly in the form of structured information (data sets, regularly compiled statistics, lists, surveys, forms, etc.) The strength of structured information is that it works more easily and flexibly as a kind of radar screen or dashboard. This helps people gauge on a daily basis the state of issues affecting their lives—and how they (or their communities) “measure up.”

Adopting a more structured approach to providing community information, delivered at least partly via news media, can complement traditional news stories in order to support community-level democracy. We’ll examine this strategy in the next post in this series.


Before you start trying to do something new, it’s helpful to assess what you’re already doing. Your news organization may already have more structured information capacity than you realize.

So: Assess which types of information your news organization already publishes periodically in a structured format: tables, info graphics, charts, statistics, interactive tools, etc. Ideally this information is published daily or weekly—but don’t discount monthly, annual, or event-related reports.

Look for information that you publish primarily through tables, charts, form-style blurbs, or infographics (rather than stories).

This can include information with obvious civic or community impacts, such as election results and candidate positions, school report cards, water quality reports, sales tax receipts, crime rates, health statistics, housing or real estate statistics or transactions, unemployment figures, and more.

...But it also can include non-civic information such as weather forecasts, sports scores/statistics, death notices, or stock prices. Again, when compiling this list, pay attention to the format of reporting, not the substance of what’s reported.

Once you’ve created this list, consider: Which of your structured information reports are most popular with your community? You might gauge this through audience surveys. However, simply recalling the feedback you get about this information (especially when you move or change how or where it’s presented) can help you decide what’s working best.

Then consider: What are your existing resources and processes for publishing structured information? It can help to map out the basics of your processes with flow chart tool like, or to draw it all on a huge brainstorming pad.

For instance: Newspapers often run a local “weather box” on the front page. Where does that information come from? How much time did it take do design that weather box? How much time and effort does it take each day to update it? Who’s involved with each part of the process?

Similarly, if your news organization publishes a form-style or tabular guide to candidates’ positions for local elections: What’s your process for deciding which questions to ask the candidates? How do you gather that information? What’s your process for compiling, editing, and presenting that information? How much time/effort does each part of the process take? Which parts of the process work well, and which are problematic? Who’s involved?

...Once you’ve mapped out some of those regular processes, look for patterns. Which people in your organization have a flair or affinity for any part of this work? Which tasks are streamlined, and which are vague or convoluted? Which of these efforts feel rewarding, and which make you groan?

Publishing more structured information can support healthier communities—but you don’t have to do it all at once. Clarifying your existing strengths and resources can help you decide where to start and set yourself up for easy “wins.”

Next week: How to adopt a more structured approach to providing community information

December 01, 2009

The amazing chaos that is news

Here are five types of emerging news organizations. Help me refine this and build a list of examples.

Very little is certain about the online news experiments we’re seeing except their stunning diversity and verve.

imageLast month, I spent two days talking to start up owners in Seattle and another day at J-Lab‘s New Media Women Entrepreneur summit in Washington, DC. I also coach news startups as a consultant to the Knight Foundation and here at Knight Digital Media Center. All of this has spurred a lot of thinking on my part about how the Reynolds Journalism Institute, where I am a fellow, and others can help these start ups.

It might help to categorize them and build a list of them that may offer lessons in content, civic engagement, transparency and sustainability. I think it’s a good way to bring some order to a chaotic young universe and elevate a conversation that often pits old media against upstarts in the blogosphere. This lis may also help identify strengths and areas where news sites might need help.

So here’s a first run at five categories. I acknowledge the overlaps at the outset as well as the exceptions.  I hope you’ll help me identify gaps and suggest more examples.

1. The bigs. Although not typically as big as a major metro or regional newspaper, these sites tend to have multiple reporters and editors and their aim is to produce highly professional content. Examples: MinnPost, Voice of San Diego, and The Texas Tribune. Although not strictly a start up, the online-only Seattle Post Intelligencer might fall in this group.

What do they need most? A revenue model. Most started with help from philanthropists and foundations. They are strong players in journalism but their financial future is uncertain. What can we learn from them? The value of focus. Unlike general interest newspapers, these sites tend to focus heavily on just a few important topics rather than trying to cover the entire playing field. For example, Voice of San Diego stresses coverage of housing, education, environment, economy and local government and politics, science and public safety, and doesn’t spend much time on other topics.

2. The local news entrepreneurs.
Many of the online news start ups, large and small, are entrepreneurial. In my book, the local news entrepreneurs are small local start ups that are heavily focused on finding a workable business model for their news ventures. They often diversify, mixing tech services and platforms with their local and neighborhood news endeavors. A couple of examples from Seattle:  My Ballard, Capitol Hill Blog, Oakland Local is another highly entrepreneurial venture that also makes community-building a priority (which means it could fit in category #3 as well).

What they need most: Caffeine. What we can learn from them: The value of Web and tech expertise and business diversification. My money is on these folks to figure local news out for the rest of us.

3. The community lovers. These folks see news and information as a vehicle for strengthening their communities. They often fill gaps left by legacy media but they do not see themselves are a replacement. They are the most likely to have non-professional contributors, although many do hire journalists. Many have received start up funding from Knight Foundation and other foundations but are looking for revenue models. Example: TheRapidian. What they need most? Many need help learning best practices of accuracy and transparency and managing citizen contributors, as well as navigating the Web and social media. What can we learn from them? The value of listening to, understanding and engaging community as the right thing to do and make money.

4. The niches. I’m thinking here about topic or service niches as much or more than than geographic ones. Like the entrepreneurs, these are often focus heavily on developing a business model. Many are journalists who have left traditional news organizations in recent years. Examples: Julia Scott’s BargainBabe and Elaine Helm Norton’s NW Navy News, which is both local and niche.

What they need most: Business expertise. What we can learn from them: The power of depth, branding, and how to connect with users.

5. The personals. These are the persona-driven sites and blogs that typically do not have large followings or much expectation of impact (which is not saying they don’t have value). Most turn over quickly. What they need most: I’m probably over generalizing here but I think these sites will largely do what they’re going to do without much help. What we can learn from them: The power of branding.

You’ll notice I didn’t separate for-profit from nonprofit models and I didn’t separate those who use user content and those that don’t. Those are both important distinctions in the old world, but they will blur over time. Shared interests trump differences.

Have I got the right categories? Please suggest additional categories or distinctions in the comments. For example, should ethnic media be one category or do other site features matter more? (Many in the ethnic press are both entrepreneurial and community-loving, but are only now moving online.)

And please help me build a list of the best sites. I’ll write about criteria for the list later this week.



November 24, 2009

Online first? Four ways to show you mean it

Recent flare ups over the merger of The Washington Post’s print and online newsrooms leave out critical requirements for newsroom leaders who want their staffs to innovate online

I’ve been following a fascinating discussion about The Washington Post’s move to bring its well-regarded online news operation into the fold of the print newsroom. Since the announcement of the merger, talented top online managers have left the Post and this week came reports that a couple of award-winning multimedia journalists would be let go.

Mathew Ingram has a good roundup of the debate. He notes: “The recent cuts at the Washington Post (WPO)—as reported by Politico and Washington’s City Paper—have once again brought to the surface a culture clash that has been going on in mainstream newsrooms for most of the last decade, and one that shows no sign of ending any time soon.”

The online discussion tends to play out as a saga of good (new, online) vs. old (bad, print). The online folks, with some justification, usually say it’s better that online be separate lest it be co-opted by conservative print culture.

I’m not sure the structure of the newsroom(s) is as important as the leadership and how it demonstrates what it values. When I lead a newsroom training and change initiative sponsored by the Knight Foundation, we found that leadership communication was the most important factor in creating capacity for change. If top news executives really value online, they can do more to show it by:

1. Assigning all of the news gathering staff to report to an online editor with clout. The news gatherers might also fulfill assignments for the print newspaper, but their organizational allegiance would be to Web first.

2. Assuring that one of the top two newsroom executives comes out of online. The number 2 person, if not the top editor, would be an online expert and evangelist.  Sorry to have to say this, but most newsrooms are held back because their leaders - not matter how pro Web - come out of decades of print journalism. That’s the default.

3. Openly reward the online staff and print staff who make significant strides online. Even if pay raises aren’t possible, consistent praise and shows of approval will help.

4. Restructure the print production desk. Push down the number of people you need to produce the print newspaper until it hurts. More on that idea here.

How have you changed your newsroom or your attitude to promote online first? Please post tips and ideas in the comments.

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Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

Get in touch with Michele at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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