News Leadership 3.0

October 12, 2009

Civic engagement 2.0

As digital media change the way people engage with civic issues and causes, can traditional journalists take part and help the public conversation go well? I will use a Reynolds Journalism Institute fellowship to find out.

(This is a revised version of a draft posted earlier. There is new material throughout.)

I spend a lot of time these days talking with local foundations and nonprofit organizations that want to help fill information gaps in their communities. They’re building Web sites designed to engage their communities in news and information (often with funding from the Knight Foundation, which contracts with me to coach these start ups.). These enthusiastic conversations make a heartening counterpoint to the wrenching struggles of established news organizations.

imageThe optimism is not the most important difference, however. The biggest difference is this: Journalists are out to do good journalism. These community start ups put civic engagement first.

At its heart, journalism is about fostering civic engagement by providing news and information that empowers people to act as citizens in a democracy. At least, that’s what we mainstream journalists tell ourselves.

In traditional media, the journalism generally doesn’t look like that. For example, one recent study showed that more than half the coverage of the health care debate focused on political battles and less than 10 percent focused on policy.  That wasn’t exactly a surprise. “We don’t learn,” I wrote recently as I passed the a link to the information along on Twitter. In reply, Jay Rosen nailed it with this admonition: “Face it, @michelemclellan. If 55% of health care coverage is about the politics that’s a statement by our journalists: ‘this is what we do.’ “

Competitiveness, craft imperatives, professional goals and now, the revenue free fall—all important issues— trump the civic. When journalists gather in newsrooms, bars and at conferences, they talk about craft practices, tell war stories, and the shiny bright hopes for a scoop or job stability.

It is the rare conventional journalist - certainly never me in nearly 30 years in newspapers - who walks into the newsroom on any given day and asked “What can I do to engage my community in civic affairs?” “How can I help make the debate go better?” I wonder how journalism, its place in the hearts of citizens, and public debate itself—might be different if journalists had come to work each day with that goal in mind.

This may be changing. As traditional news organizations falter, new practitioners of journalism are emerging: Citizens, foundations and other donors who are experimenting with models of news and information that put civic engagement is front and center as a priority. At the same time, the Web and social media make some forms of civic engagement easier and more accessible—activities like ratings, commenting, earning points for action.

None of this leaves traditional news organizations out in the cold. I’ve championed the idea that big local news organizations partner with community news start ups rather than treating them like more competition. I was thrilled to see that J-Lab, with Knight Foundation funding, is sponsoring several of these partnerships. I think finding the right mix of craft skills and reach of the traditional organization with the energy and fresh approaches of non-professionals will be important to the future media landscape.

All of this brings me to the fellowship I have just begun at the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the Missouri School of Journalism. I’m calling my project “Civic engagement 2.0.”

Journalism must recapture its credibility and relevance if it has any hope of providing value to the public. To do this, it is critical that journalists adopt new practices that foster the civic debate we keep telling the public we are all about. The tools are emerging—social networks in particular can transport news and information that engages people in discussion and problem-solving. News organizations - some led by non-professionals and foundations, social activists, politicians, and even marketers are discovering creative ways to engage people online..

Digital media and emerging citizen-led news and information services promise to promote civic engagement in ways traditional media failed to do. But I think there is an important role that journalists can play and I want to catalog and foster tools and practices to help journalists take part in and add value to civic discussions online. I also want to work with journalists and citizens to create new ways to engage online. I’m convinced that the ability to engage and foster community is a strategy that journalism must pursue for the long term even if it cannot be readily monetized today.

Let’s consider three important traditional roles of journalists and the opportunity to recapture them online:
(Note: This list of roles borrows heavily from my friend and RJI colleague Michael Skoler.)

1. Journalism surfaces issues of public concern. The Web offers journalists the opportunity to tap into conversations where important issues first surface. Pre-Web we used to call these “listening posts” where people gathered informally to discuss their concerns. Journalists rarely spent time in these these places, instead opting to listen more regularly to institutional voices and their framing of the issues.

2. Journalism provides facts and options that give citizens shared knowledge. The Web liberates information from print and enables wider sharing and discussion than ever before. Social networking tools in particular enable people to share information.

3. Journalism informs civic debate and solutions on issues of public concern. This brings it full circle; the journalist surfaces the issue and then helps guide the discussion toward solutions. It is a critical role for a trusted journalist, and one that seems to be slipping away in the 24/7 news cycle, if it ever really was being performed. Accomplishing this will take more then technology, it will require a shift in attitude or at least priorities. Some will complain that what I’m talking about sounds like advocacy journalism. But I am not talking about journalists expounding opinions. I am talking about what Jacqui Banaszynski, a friend and RJI fellow, calls “invested journalism,” which I see as a commitment to helping the community understand issue, see options and find a good path. For this, journalists may need to look to emerging citizen-led news organizations, social activists and even political causes for new tools and rules of engagement.

This all sounds very philosophical. But what I hope to produce are tools and best practices that journalists and other news providers can use to foster civic engagement in digital spaces, whether it’s on their own Web sites, in social spaces or all around the Web. I think much of this already exists and I’d like to help gather practitioners, learn from them and help spread the word.

For now, I have these questions (and I hope you will comment and feel free to make suggestions or ask more questions):
Is this the best way to be looking at this issue?
What best practices exist and who is developing them?
Do some of these practices exist outside journalism? Should I see if they can be adapted?
What is most missing in terms of tools and best practices that can help journalists engage in civic discourse online?


Hi Michele,
You are so right on. Much of civic engagement must come from a mindset of servicing a community and while journalism is a “calling-based profession”, it has not broadly defined itself as a listening organization. In order to serve a community, a listening posture is required.

These listening practices may come from a corporate America and companies that practiced a continuous improvement model to gain competitive advantage. Books like “Service America” help to define the actions of this service posture.

When I created for the Daytona Beach News-Journal, I created a service posture and philosophy. We were an organization/skunkworks designed to service the community. All our functions, content, tools, and actions were designed to foster community dialogue and build social capital (a way to measure the effects of your actions is by looking at social capital metrics).

That meant returning phone calls, getting that graduation photo scanned and up online and returned to grandma, going anywhere and everywhere to demonstrate how the site could be useful to the community. That service posture went a long way to developing a real following in the community.

But monetizing civic engagement is a difficult proposition for for-profit entities. The effects must build over time and unfortunately, the experiment called was shelved just as it had reached its tipping point. But the lessons learned are valuable for anyone venturing into fostering civic engagement in digital spaces.

P.S. Elaborated on above comment in blog post: Fostering civic engagement in digital spaces at:

Thanks for your comments, Michelle, and a great post. I recommend it.

I like this concept for a project a lot. I think news organizations may assume they’re civically engaged but their definition may differ significantly from that of their constituents.

To some degree, news organizations have always been civically active, such as when they sponsor debates between candidates. However, too often their definition of “engagement” has centered around politics or important referendums or other events that generated news. In other words, there was something in it for them.

Civic engagement is less about news than it is about helping a community and that is where news organizations have been too quiet. In my home town of Framingham, MA, for example, the dominant source of information about what’s going on in the community is an independent listserv administered by volunteers. It could be that the local newspaper is listening in to what’s happening, but there is no sign of active involvement on its part. This is a case of individuals taking into their own hands the job that a news organization could do.

Civic engagement is a process, not an event. Newspapers are event-oriented because that’s what creates news. It’s a big mindset shift for them to start thinking in terms of facilitating a process.

Michelle’s comments about monetization are important. Much of the local discussion will take place online where ad rates are lowest. It will be difficult to create economic models that support civically engaged news organizations. In my view, that needs to be core focus of your project.

Page 1 of 1 pages

Commenting is not available in this section entry.


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).

More Leadership at KDMC:
Leadership Seminars | Annual Leadership Reports

Support is provided by:

John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

USC Annenberg School for Communication

McCormick Foundation

Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute


@michelemclellan on Twitter

Recent Entries





Tag Cloud