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2020
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Engaged journalism: It’s finally happening

“As news organizations become increasingly dependent on subscriptions or memberships and the kinds of trusting relationships those require, engaged journalism becomes more and more of an economic imperative as well as a moral one.”

After years of making predictions about what I hoped would happen in journalism, I think I can finally offer a positive prediction that engaged journalism really is on the rise in U.S. newsrooms, and that it will continue to grow in 2020.

I hesitated to write this because I feared it might sound self-serving, given that I direct a master’s program at the Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY that’s focused on engaged journalism. We call it “social journalism,” but it’s the same thing: doing journalism with and not for communities. But here’s the thing: I’ve been laser-focused on engagement since I took this job five years ago, and after a long slog of explaining over and over again to skeptics what it is we actually do, I’m starting to see the tide turning.

More job descriptions are popping up that require engagement skills — and by that I don’t mean just growing audience, although that can be part of it. I mean listening to and understanding people’s needs and working with the community to produce impactful journalism. And these job openings are showing up not just in the major nonprofit newsrooms like ProPublica or The Texas Tribune, but in local outlets as well. The Charleston Gazette-Mail is hiring an engagement reporter as part of its Report for America corps; the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle is hiring a “community impact” reporter.

I’ve been contacted several times this month alone to help craft job descriptions for other news employers interested in finding people with engagement skills; the Gather community of practice for engaged journalists has a bustling Slack team with multiple channels talking over all of the various challenges and lessons learned; the Online Journalism Awards had a category for engaged journalism for the first time this year (disclosure: as a member of the Gather steering committee, I helped develop the initial proposal for this award).

And my students give my colleague Jeff Jarvis and me tremendous hope through the creative and inclusive ways they create new forms of journalism during their time with the program. We believe they show the value of this approach better than any number of definitions or manifestos ever could. They’re joined by students at the University of Oregon, the University of Missouri, the University of Wisconsin, and others that also offer coursework in this area.

Look, I’m not naive. Journalists and academics have been talking seriously about people-powered journalism since at least the 1990s; that’s what I wrote my master’s thesis on almost 20 years ago (eek), and at the time, it had largely failed to take hold in most newsrooms. We’ve faced plenty of disdain and even outright hostility, and that won’t go away completely any time soon. But as news organizations become increasingly dependent on subscriptions or memberships and the kinds of trusting relationships those require, engaged journalism becomes more and more of an economic imperative as well as a moral one.

Jay Rosen, one of the early proponents of public journalism, which eventually led to where we are now, put it this way on Twitter in November: “Engagement journalism, solutions journalism, less extractive journalism, a more agile, iterative newsroom. Nothing I have seen while watching these emerge suggests they are going away soon. The shocks to the system have been so many that the culture of the press is evolving.”

Carrie Brown is the social journalism director at the Newmark School of Journalism at CUNY.

After years of making predictions about what I hoped would happen in journalism, I think I can finally offer a positive prediction that engaged journalism really is on the rise in U.S. newsrooms, and that it will continue to grow in 2020.

I hesitated to write this because I feared it might sound self-serving, given that I direct a master’s program at the Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY that’s focused on engaged journalism. We call it “social journalism,” but it’s the same thing: doing journalism with and not for communities. But here’s the thing: I’ve been laser-focused on engagement since I took this job five years ago, and after a long slog of explaining over and over again to skeptics what it is we actually do, I’m starting to see the tide turning.

More job descriptions are popping up that require engagement skills — and by that I don’t mean just growing audience, although that can be part of it. I mean listening to and understanding people’s needs and working with the community to produce impactful journalism. And these job openings are showing up not just in the major nonprofit newsrooms like ProPublica or The Texas Tribune, but in local outlets as well. The Charleston Gazette-Mail is hiring an engagement reporter as part of its Report for America corps; the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle is hiring a “community impact” reporter.

I’ve been contacted several times this month alone to help craft job descriptions for other news employers interested in finding people with engagement skills; the Gather community of practice for engaged journalists has a bustling Slack team with multiple channels talking over all of the various challenges and lessons learned; the Online Journalism Awards had a category for engaged journalism for the first time this year (disclosure: as a member of the Gather steering committee, I helped develop the initial proposal for this award).

And my students give my colleague Jeff Jarvis and me tremendous hope through the creative and inclusive ways they create new forms of journalism during their time with the program. We believe they show the value of this approach better than any number of definitions or manifestos ever could. They’re joined by students at the University of Oregon, the University of Missouri, the University of Wisconsin, and others that also offer coursework in this area.

Look, I’m not naive. Journalists and academics have been talking seriously about people-powered journalism since at least the 1990s; that’s what I wrote my master’s thesis on almost 20 years ago (eek), and at the time, it had largely failed to take hold in most newsrooms. We’ve faced plenty of disdain and even outright hostility, and that won’t go away completely any time soon. But as news organizations become increasingly dependent on subscriptions or memberships and the kinds of trusting relationships those require, engaged journalism becomes more and more of an economic imperative as well as a moral one.

Jay Rosen, one of the early proponents of public journalism, which eventually led to where we are now, put it this way on Twitter in November: “Engagement journalism, solutions journalism, less extractive journalism, a more agile, iterative newsroom. Nothing I have seen while watching these emerge suggests they are going away soon. The shocks to the system have been so many that the culture of the press is evolving.”

Carrie Brown is the social journalism director at the Newmark School of Journalism at CUNY.

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