Community Engagement and Press Freedom: Building More Resilient and Sustainable Journalism

Next week I’ll be speaking at the Reynolds Journalism Institute for its five-year anniversary, which will focus on the next steps we need to take to sustain journalism.

The event organizers have outlined five critical areas for exploration, but there are two that I’ll focus the most attention on: press freedom and community engagement. For me, these two issues are deeply woven together in a participatory, networked fourth estate, and both are in a moment of terrific flux.

I have written previously that regardless of whether your business model relies on ads, paywalls or donors, journalism will rise and fall with its communities. Editor Melanie Sill argues that “we must reorder the fundamental processes of journalism toward the goal of serving communities.”

We need our communities to invest, fund and support our work, to share it and help it make an impact on the world. We need our communities to be sources, to give feedback, to help us report.

But we also need our communities to fight for our rights to gather and disseminate news, to access information, to assemble and speak freely. This has never been truer than it is now, when the threats to journalism are not just economic, but legal.

Recent months have been tumultuous ones for press freedom here in the U.S. and around the world. The changing landscape of journalism is challenging established ideas of who the press is and how it should be protected in a digital age in which more people than ever are participating in the newsgathering process.

Our communities can and must be collaborators in the work of journalism but also in the work of making journalism possible.

It’s not enough to ask what will make journalism financially sustainable; we must also find ways to make it resilient to a range of new threats, including legal battles, technological attacks and ongoing government surveillance.

All of these issues become even more critical in a journalism landscape that looks more like a network – small pieces loosely joined – than a collection of large institutions. C.W. Anderson put it this way: “Journalism may survive the death of its institutions, but the institutions that journalism used to cover aren’t going anywhere.”

How do we ensure that the hyperlocal blogger, the investigative nonprofit, and the freelancer covering international conflict enjoy the same protections and support as the New York Times journalist and the CNN reporter? How do we make sure that the new laws being written right now don’t define journalism so narrowly that they leave out journalism entrepreneurs, documentary filmmakers and citizen reporters?

It’s not enough for a few professional organizations and advocacy groups to fight this fight. We need to engage the public in these policy debates, to weigh in with their members of Congress with the understanding that we all have a stake in protecting press freedom and the First Amendment. Involving communities in this way will take a targeted campaign of organizing, education and coalition building. But it will also take a change in how newsrooms engage their publics on a daily basis, to rebuild trust and affinity.

Both sustainability and resilience are rooted in our communities’ willingness to support and defend us.

Community engagement is essential for all newsrooms. But most newsrooms are not equipped to do deep community engagement. By this I mean much more than the use of social media, crowdsourcing and moderating comments — I’m talking about the need for newsrooms to become integral civic hubs in their communities (I’ll say more about this at the RJI event).

So far new practices in newsrooms — like the use of programming, data journalism and editorial collaboration — have received far more attention. We need much more debate, training and resources to help journalists strategize about how to build meaningful and reciprocal relationships with their diverse publics. As we reorient journalism toward serving communities, we should look to other fields like community organizing and participatory community planning for lessons and models that can enrich our practices.


As a starting point, here are a few resources, examples and posts I’ll be mulling over before the RJI event:

Defining Community Engagement

Steve Buttry has a useful post in which he tries to define community engagement. The work of RJI Fellow Joy Mayer is also a must read. See these great resources on the RJI site: Introduction, Discussion Guide and Models from Outside Journalism.

In three posts I expand on a few of the themes discussed above:

Defining the Goals of Journalism

Jonathan Stray’s posts on the work of journalism and the digital public sphere are instructive:

Defining and Listening To Our Communities

The best community-organizing efforts are built on listening, not telling. Through listening we get to know our communities — not via dashboards and analytics, but through their stories and their own voices. Here are a few good resources on the value of listening:

  • The Public Is Still a Problem, and Other Lessons from ‘Rebuilding the News’, by C.W. Anderson: “I argue that, in a digital age, the journalism-public relationship is still paramount … rather than the public being eclipsed or forgotten, there are instead too many publics.”
  • A User-First Approach to Journalism, by Bill Mitchell: “The real advantage of a user‐first approach is the route it opens to maximizing journalism’s value to all its stakeholders — advertisers, communities and investors as well as news consumers.”
  • Hyperlocal Isn’t the Issue; Scale Is, by Dan Conover: “Local is relationships. Local is trust. Local is caring about the same things your readers care about, and helping local businesspeople make money. Local is about speaking in your own voice, all the time, even when that’s hard. Local is about feeling supported … and intensely vulnerable.”

Offline Community Engagement

Much has been written about engaging with readers and communities online via social networks and comments sections. Those are important tools, but I think we need to do a lot more work connecting with our communities offline. A few models I’m watching in this regard include:

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