Journalism Lab Explores Reader Engagement

They just had an ‘Engaged Journalism’ meeting in Texas and invited an EPA representative. What I learned might change your approach to publishing.

By Mark A. Kellner

AUSTIN, Texas — “I hope you haven’t been too uncomfortable here,” one of the participants at the Engaged Journalism Lab, sponsored by the Democracy Fund, said to me. “You’re an evangelical in a room full of progressives.”

I’ll address that comment in a moment, but, first, some explanatory comments.

Thanks to the invitation of EPA Executive Director Lamar Keener, I attended the Sept. 11-12 event as a member of EPA, which had been invited to send a representative to the one and one-half day conference in Austin, TX. “Engaged Journalism” is a term covering the question of how newsrooms (and publications) can better respond to the felt needs of their constituencies. If this sounds like something people in the church world can relate to, you’re not off base.

The proceedings were held under what’s called the “Chatham House Rule," under which general themes can be discussed and reported, but individuals can only be quoted with their consent. While it may seem odd for a journalism-facing conference to impose such a restriction, there is some logic to it. Various elements of the discussion centered on plans and programs that various private organizations have, and broadcasting these to the world may not be helpful at this point. And when I asked two speakers about quoting them, there was no objection.

The presentations centered on a range of topics, but the unifying theme was on making better connections with the publics they serve. After the past two years or so of overheated rhetoric about the media — “Fake News” or “Enemies of the People” come to mind — it’s easy to understand why some in the room were feeling a bit tender.

In order to make those connections, more than one presenter emphasized the need to find out what communities need and help them get it. In Detroit, an enterprising young woman named Sarah Alvarez is doing journalism via text message. Her service helps people, many of whom are renting properties, find out details about the tax or utility status of their homes. In one instance, a renter found out the city was about to foreclose on the property because its owner was delinquent on property taxes. The tenant was able to negotiate an exit from their lease and avoid an eviction being on their record.

Now, that’s not the kind of journalism I did at my first newspaper, and it may not be the kind of journalism you do, or want to do, but I believe there’s a lesson here. Ms. Alvarez is doing what she’s doing because the market — inner-city Detroit — isn’t being given this information by traditional media, even though it’s something that can help a lot of people, albeit one-at-a-time.

It doesn’t seem too great a stretch to imagine a denominational magazine finding a similar niche and helping to fill it. Perhaps making a church locator service easily available by text or doing that same for a database of sermon resources.

The point, I believe, is not the technology, per se, but the commitment to finding a need in a community and meeting it.

I heard similar examples throughout the event. And in more than one instance, I was approached by people who said they want to work with evangelical churches and publications to survey members and learn what those members believe on various issues.

But, to me, the big thing really is the question of “engagement” and of trying to determine what people need in their everyday lives from a media outlet. Yes, publications can, and should, tell readers what they should know, and even what they need to know. But it’s also vital — more so now, perhaps, than ever before — that we talk to our audiences and find out what they want to know. There might be publishing gold therein!

Now about that “evangelical in a room full of progressives” thing. I’m mindful that there’s a wide range of political opinions among our EPA membership, so I emphasized to everyone who asked that I was not there to deliver a political message. But to my new progressive friend (and to several others), I emphasized that we all need to talk to each other, and we need to listen to each other. We’re not always going to agree, but if we have to live together on this blue marble in space, getting along is a very good place to start.

As an opportunity to exchange ideas and to learn, it was good for EPA to be represented at this event. As mentioned, it's important that we all listen to each other, and we can't do that sitting in our denominational (or ideological) "silos," nicely insulated from each other. It is only by going out into the world and being the salt and light Jesus referred to that we can make the connections necessary to hear and to be heard.

I did not marinate my comments in politics, but rather attempted to acknowledge the points we have in common, recognizing the differences with grace, and parting as friends.

EPA associate member Mark A. Kellner is a freelance reporter in Salt Lake City, Utah, who regularly contributes to Religion News Service. He was previously a faith-beat reporter for the Deseret News daily newspaper, and for seven years was news editor for Adventist Review and Adventist World magazines, official publications of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Posted Sept. 21, 2018