Role reversal: How the audience informs the journalist at conference

By Alexandra Watts

A diverse audience gathered for a town hall at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center one evening this June. The event was “Renaissance or Gentrification: How Do We Discuss Redevelopment In
Newark?”

Panel members sat on stage in six teal chairs.

One of them was Merrill Brown, the moderator for the night, and director for The School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. Joining him on the panel were five people with diverse roles in the community and one thing in common – the city of Newark, New Jersey.

The media had a presence, but not in traditional coverage sense. Journalists were there to learn.

The town hall, in conjunction with the American Society of News Editors and other partners, was part of “Engage Local,” a two-day conference hosted by the Center of Cooperative Media at Montclair State University.

Twitter conversation about the Changing Newark event. (Screenshot courtesy of Alexandra Watts)

This event was part of teaching journalists about community engagement. Instead of traditional, staged workshops and speeches about what it means to connect with an audience, this was a real-world experience.

Fiona Morgan, journalism program director at Free Press, was at the conference.

“It was an opportunity to show not tell what we mean by community engagement,” Morgan said.

Engage Local was a conference focused on “using engagement to report the news, create brand loyalty, fund their enterprises and turn an active ear towards their communities.” The town hall was used to engage community members and provide training to those who work in news organizations.

Instead of isolating themselves from the audience,
journalists came together to tackle what community engagement means.

During the first day, audience members and participants were
encouraged to use #changingNewark.

During the second day, journalists led small-group discussions.

“The following day’s roundtables were illustrations of what it means to invite people to engage on local issue in the news and to dive into the complexity of it and to amplify many different voices,” Morgan explained via email.

Community engagement is not new, but it is blossoming in regards to what it means for journalists and their relation to their audiences.

“The current conversation about engagement is a forum for figuring out how to develop these new best practices,” Morgan wrote.

Once that barrier of press and public is broken down, the audience can play a vital role in coverage.

Dr. Carrie Brown is director of the newly launched social journalism master’s program at City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism. In an email, Brown, who was also at Engage Local, touched on social journalism and the role it plays with communities.

“We try to listen to communities and figure out what they need first, and then engage them throughout in the process of doing journalism,” Brown said.

Morgan said she hopes there is “more experimentation” with the roundtable and town hall formats.

Community engagement at conferences may be expanding, but no matter how the community is engaged, it’s important that the community is engaged.

As Morgan puts it, “Another part of engagement is understanding that your audience is more than an audience.”

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