Newspaper engagers connect with the community
In today’s digital-first newsroom, staying connected has become a top priority. At many newspapers across the country, community engagement editors have taken on the role of liaison between journalists and the communities they serve.
For Steve Buttry, director of community engagement and social media for the Journal Register Company – and somewhat of an engagement specialist – connecting with a community is a two-way street. “We don’t have the staff to cover as many things as we used to,” said Buttry. “The community can fill some gaps in our coverage … at a micro-level.”
Tools like Facebook and Twitter, blogs and even digital cameras allow citizens to report what they see happening in their own neighborhoods. “It used to be that you needed a broadcast tower or a printing press to tell the news,” said Buttry. “[Now] the community has started to publish more news.”
Community reporting has become a valued source of news for many papers. For example, when readers in Dexter, Mich., submitted live video of tornadoes touching down in their neighborhoods last month, journalists at Heritage Media were able to use the footage in their coverage. In a similar vein, Shannon Murphy, community engagement specialist for the Saginaw News and the Bay City Times, said she encourages community members to submit photos of snowstorms and other events for online photo galleries.
While community engagement editors are eager to gather niche-news, Buttry said they are not willing to compromise accuracy. “We want trustworthy community bloggers,” he said. The Journal Register Company is even offering courses in its newsrooms across the country for local readers who want to learn to blog.
Just as local citizens keep engagement editors up to speed on what’s happening in their communities, editors are determined to bring their readers up-to-date coverage. “It’s always quicker to tweet than to post on your website,” said Buttry.
“Not everyone is sitting on a news site all day,” added Murphy in an email interview. “But most people check Facebook, Twitter, Reddit several times a day. If our information is there quickly, people will see it.”
Getting information out quickly requires the cooperation of an entire newsroom. “It’s not one person’s job,” said Buttry. Murphy said she encourages reporters to live tweet and hold live chat sessions whenever they’re covering an event most people in the community can’t attend. “We have access to leaders that the average resident may not,” she said. “So we bring those people in and invite readers to ask them questions live.” A recent hourlong live chat session with law enforcement officials in Saginaw, garnered more than 100 questions from the community.
The community engagement position is still a relatively new one in most newsrooms. Both Buttry and Murphy said helping to get other staff on board with community engagement is another important part of their job. “I’ve worked one-on-one with reporters and am still learning a lot myself,” Murphy said. Meanwhile, Buttry has conducted extended training sessions in Journal Register newsrooms. “Training is a significant part of what we do,” he said.
Ultimately, a community engagement editor’s goal is to involve readers in the reporting process and to give them what they’re looking for. For Murphy, it’s important her community knows the newspaper is there to serve their needs. “My primary goal … is to make sure our reporters and staff are visible to the community as more than just fact-tellers,” she said. “That they think of us as a neighbor they converse with on a daily basis.”
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