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Some folks might think it’s a bit unusual for a print design professor to segue to a career researching and improving the relationships journalists have with their communities. Joy Mayer never gave it a second thought.

“I always felt as a designer that I was an advocate for the consumer,” says Mayer, who used to oversee the design desk for the Missourian, the community newspaper produced by the Missouri School of Journalism.

When making editorial decisions, her consumer-oriented mindset always led her to question whether they were making the paper easier to use, “whether people would recognize what they were getting and would make time for it. That was built into how I thought about design.”

Thinking about those kinds of questions led her, in 2010, to apply for a fellowship at the Reynolds Journalism Institute, which she received. She studied community engagement efforts at print newspapers.

Because of her experience as a consumer advocate, she was curious how other newsrooms approached their relationships with readers.

“I interviewed dozens of journalists about what engagement meant to them,” Mayer says. Afterward, using a list of the engagement strategies she had uncovered, she created an online tutorial, “Community Engagement: A Practical Conversation for Newsrooms.”

The report got a lot of traction, Mayer says. And the experience of researching and writing it propelled Mayer’s career in a new direction. When she finished her fellowship, she returned to the Missourian newsroom and put together an engagement team. She got the chance to implement the same advice she was giving.

Her team did web analytics, solicited user-generated content, held conversations with community members on social media and in coffee shops. They brought readers into the newsroom and asked for feedback. “It changed the way the newsroom did journalism,” Mayer says. “It meant there was a seat at every table for the audience.”

So Mayer’s community outreach team tackled that issue. They collected 100 short stories from 100 different people about how they experience everyday racism. “We saw really interesting conversations result,” Mayer says. “We were able to paint a picture of a perspective that people in the city were having trouble understanding.”

The new approach crystalized during her last semester at the paper, fall of 2015. Student protests and a boycotting football team at the University of Missouri made international news. The students were demanding action by the university to address what they termed overt and systemic racism on campus.

The story was at the center of the national conversation, and Mayer and her team turned their ear to the Columbia community to find what questions their readers had. They monitored social media conversations and checked in with their community sources.

The reaction they kept finding was skepticism, readers who hadn’t witnessed racism themselves and didn’t think it existed in their community.

So Mayer’s community outreach team tackled that issue. They collected 100 short stories from 100 different people about how they experience everyday racism. “We saw really interesting conversations result,” Mayer says. “We were able to paint a picture of a perspective that people in the city were having trouble understanding.”

Since leaving Mizzou, Mayer has joined the faculty at the University of Florida and is an adjunct instructor at the Poynter Institute. In conjunction with RJI, she has launched a new project that is gaining national recognition. It’s called Trusting News and its goal is to help newsrooms keep or regain their audience’s trust.

She has dozens of newsrooms across the country testing strategies for building community trust in local media. It’s an outgrowth of her engagement work at RJI. “Engagement doesn’t work if your audience doesn’t trust you, believe you and see you as a force for good in their communities,” Mayer says.

She and RJI Executive Director Randy Picht began finalizing the project in the fall of 2015, before “fake news” was a term. The work has only become more relevant since then.

Trusting News gives newsrooms a toolkit to pull from to increase the transparency and build community understanding and trust in their reporting process.

The strategies include explaining the decision-making process of how stories are identified and reported; clearly labeling stories as “news,” “analysis” or “opinion”; and calling attention to balanced voices within a story and, over time, between stories on the same topic.

Just as newsrooms can’t be passive in how they generate revenue, assuming money will find them if they put out a good product, neither can they be passive about how their community perceives them.

“We need to do better than that,” Mayer says.

Erik Potter  
   
Guest blogger



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