Highlights from Engaging Communities

posted by Jared Brey

First, thank you to everyone who came to the Engaging Communities conference hosted by the Center for Public Interest Journalism at Temple University this past Saturday. An impressive number of you braved early morning hours and SEPTA to find your way to our fair campus here in North Philadelphia. Many of you stayed all day. More importantly, you brought sincere ideas and challenges, and sustained a very vibrant conversation.

For me, the most surprising aspect of the conference should’ve been the least surprising. Namely, while Twitter and other social media are powerful tools that keep important conversations going—browse our Back Channel to read the Twitter comments about the conference—they don’t touch what happens when you put lots of people in the same room and make them talk about things they care about. Even when it’s a weekend, and that room has no windows. The Internet is good, but the human body is still the best technology I know about.

What follows is a summary of some thoughts I’ve had in response to our conference on Saturday. I’m writing here only as myself; I don’t pretend to represent the point of view of the Center for Public Interest Journalism.

1) There’s a series of holes in the notion of engaging communities. What communities are we trying to engage, and, more importantly, are they even willing to be engaged? I’ve often feared that more media outlets might only mean more ways for the same people to get news. That fear was somewhat tempered by the number of earnest people I met on Saturday, people with good ideas using media in new ways to reach wider communities. But it was not assuaged. At the very least, we still have a lot more arguing and a lot more trial-and-error to do.

2) There is nothing approaching a consensus on the proper roles of traditional journalism outlets and start-up media. Lew Friedland began our session by describing the “new media ecology,” in which all variety of news and information sources interact and feed on each other. But some people instead see what’s happening in journalism as a distinct break from the past, the onslaught of a new and wholly different future.

Chris Harper, a Temple professor and creator of Philadelphia Neighborhoods, spoke on our Building Audiences panel. He suggested that any hope of a viable future for “legacy media” should be shaken off like a bad dream. He tells his students that they shouldn’t even consider going to work for major newspapers or network news stations. But when he asked who still reads a newspaper every day, about half the conference attendees raised their hands. And it wasn’t just the oldest half of the room.

So it’s an open question: are traditional media dead, or moribund, or merely adjusting? The most avid new media flag-wavers say triumphantly that they’re dead, but many others seem more interested in trying to make them better.

3) Gentrification and racial disparities are flashpoints tied in with every discussion about local news and community engagement. Mike Lyons, editor of West Philly Local, admitted that his site is used primarily by a more affluent, mostly white West Philadelphia audience. Jim Smiley admitted that his Frankford Gazette has not done a particularly good job of engaging the non-white half of his community. Seeking to tread lightly, Lyons said that gentrification is “a complicated issue.” Temple Professor Maida Odom, who moderated the conference’s second panel, on the topic of citizen-produced media, said that the issue is anything but complicated. She said gentrification is simple economics: people with more money move into neighborhoods occupied mostly by people with less money, and change the character of the community. News sites that serve under-represented areas of the city sometimes struggle to serve the particularly under-represented elements of those areas: poor people and minority populations. Predictably, discussions about those issues did not reach satisfying conclusions on Saturday, and those threads will  need to be picked up again. And again.

4) It occurs to me that when we talk about engaging communities with public interest news and information, we’re talking about two things. Public interest news is both a vital democratic mechanism and a commodity in a capitalist economy. So at the same time that we talk high-mindedly about giving our audiences tools to make responsible decisions, we also talk about marketing a product. How and for whom we do that was the source of more than a few lively debates during the conference.

5) Small, start-up news blogs can do a good job of covering stories that would traditionally be ignored by major news organizations, but some people still can’t be reached online. At their best, new media widen the reportorial field of coverage, but not necessarily the field of access. Vince Thompson, a former communications director with the School District of Philadelphia, raised this point a number of times during the day. 40 percent of Philadelphia households have no Internet access, and you can’t engage a community you don’t reach. Jim Smiley, who co-created the hyperlocal Frankford Gazette blog with his father, said he’s all but abandoned social media because it doesn’t reach current Frankford residents. To do that, he’s started a print publication. Several others of the conference’s panelists are involved in innovative projects aimed at empowering communities to create their own media, but the problem of unequal Internet access has to be regarded as both major and unresolved.

Feel free to agree or disagree with anything I’ve said here in the forum of your choosing. And please keep your eye out for upcoming CPIJ activities; our next scheduled event is a chat with Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Jim Risen at Temple University on November 29th.

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