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Participation gets professional

“There’s an endless list of ‘jobs to be done’ in a news organization that audience members can be trained to do — or might already do better than journalists.”

As we close out 2018, the idea of letting audience questions drive reporting has become mainstream. (There are even awards for it now!) From legacy metros to one-year-old startups, many of us are in agreement that it’s a no-brainer way to establish trust and create journalism that audience members will actually find useful, even if not all news organizations are doing it yet.

In 2019, we’ll see the industry invite audience members to make journalism with us.

Early successes will prompt journalists to start seeing audience involvement less as a liability to be managed and more as an asset to expand their scope and impact. And we’ll see a whole slew of new newsroom roles and re-imagined current ones emerge to support that work.

The boom in membership for news is one of the things driving this shift (interest in solutions, movement, and engaged journalism are others). Organizations know they need to offer members — who are buying into a mission, not purchasing a product — meaningful relationships.

That’s pushing them to be more creative about the ways they involve non-journalists — inviting them to help them comb complex databases, track disinformation and hate speech, and make improvements to their website. (At the Membership Puzzle Project, we’ve already seen more than a dozen proposals like this in applications for the Membership in News Fund.)

Movements like “citizen science” show experts finding ways to leverage passionate laypeople to expand their impact. I think journalists will similarly step back from the idea that only they can make journalism.

An asset, not a liability

Earlier this year, journalism entrepreneur Philip Smith asked what would happen to the local media landscape as legacy news organizations “faltered” and lean digital startups stepped in to fill the void. What would a network of “small is beautiful” news organizations sufficient to fill the widening gap in coverage look like?

One of the concerns you hear most often is about the size of those startups. (We heard this at The New Tropic, where I was the director until November.) With only a handful of reporters, can they really fill the void?

On their own, probably not. (And many aren’t trying to, anyway.) But if they figure out how to leverage their audience’s expertise and enthusiasm — something they’re primed to do because they’re often nailing the audience engagement element of it already — they will bring “wants but can’ts” — like event series, ambitious investigative projects, and searchable databases of municipal data — within their reach.

“What’s your superpower?”

What does leveraging that expertise and enthusiasm look like? At the Spanish fact-checking platform Maldita, they recently surveyed their several thousand “Malditos.” One of the questions they asked was, “What’s your superpower?”

“Maybe you are a great designer who can convince us to finally stop using Paint, or maybe you’re a handyman and you think it’s time that our office has a door and you are willing to help us build it.”

With that ask, Maldita stretched the concept of how someone can contribute to their work. (Also, if you happen to be a handyman in Madrid, they really do need a door.) Their next step will be adding respondents and their “superpowers” to a database that they can tap at any time.

Another creative approach comes from Newslaundry, a sassy digital news site in India. It has a handful of its superfans managing the daily maintenance of its website, which is written in a coding language that no one currently on their tech team knows well. Handing the keys to your website over to volunteers requires some serious trust.

There’s an endless list of “jobs to be done” in a news organization that audience members can be trained to do — or might already do better than journalists. To name a few:

  • curating
  • documenting
  • fact checking
  • technical proofreading
  • beta testing
  • collecting data
  • guiding

See our project’s examples of current collaborations and jobs you might task your own super fans with.

There’s one caveat to giving “jobs to be done” to audience members, though — they’re not signing on to be your labor. They’re signing on to share their passion with you. Treat their involvement accordingly.

Enter the community organizers

Managing an informal network of participants is totally different than managing a team of reporters. Being a really good interviewer doesn’t necessarily translate into the ability to command a room.

News organizations like The Bureau Local and The Bristol Cable in the U.K. have community managers, often non-journalists with backgrounds in community organizing. They bring skills that traditional journalists often don’t have, like the ability to excite and motivate large numbers of strangers toward a common goal and to connect across lines of difference in their community.

But for these audience involvement efforts to succeed, they need more than those soft skills. They need cash, organization, and newsroom-wide support — and a point person sitting at the nexus of editorial, revenue, and engagement.

Newsrooms will need to professionalize the practice of audience participation, and in 2019, we’ll see the emergence of new newsroom roles to that reflect that.

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