A practical framework for newsrooms to connect with niche communities

You’ve decided to move forward. But who made that decision? And do you have the support needed to achieve success? For this to work you’ll need people in these roles: project manager, collaborator/producer, and a vested reporter and editor. I’ll describe their roles shortly. You’ll also need the following:

  • Support from the top. You know how your organization works and who makes the decisions. Do the people whose opinions really matter in your organization agree that this is worth pursuing? The answer needs to be yes. (If it’s not, contact me and I’ll try my best to help you make the case.)
  • Acknowledgment that this effort is a priority. Ask yourself and your team members, “What can we stop doing that isn’t working well so we can make room for this?” There is a significant time investment in taking on this engagement framework, especially if you’re overhauling your entire strategy. Pursuing this while keeping everything else dialed up to 100 will likely lead to burnout and an unsuccessful project or effort. Doing this with a half-hearted effort likely will not pan out either. Make room.
  • Baseline understanding of engagement tools. After you figure out which audience group you’re trying to reach, find out where they gather online. Are you part of that community already? Do you know how to use Twitter, Snapchat, Reddit or whatever tool you’ll need? Get a baseline understanding of the tool as a personal user before jumping in to connect to the community as a professional. However, don’t let lack of experience be a hindrance that stops the entire enterprise. If you get the absolute basics of a tool, you’ll be fine. You can always learn the rest as you go, ask someone who is doing this already or search on Google. Learn by doing. The whole point of this is to iterate and change what you’re doing on the fly based on what you’re learning.

Whose job is it to “do” engagement work?

The short answer is it’s everyone’s job. But in reality, the details might look a little something like this: Depending on the size of your organization and the goal you have in mind (to build/change your entire digital engagement strategy versus a specific project or story) the number of people will vary. However, I believe you need people in the following roles, perhaps simultaneously, for this process to be most successful. For either a strategy overhaul or project-based approach:

  • Project manager: Someone who really understands why your team is doing this and who is invested in its success. This person directs logistics, progress and communications between all team members and outside parties, if applicable. The project manager measures what’s working and what’s not. Also, he or she has the final say, when necessary, following team discussions. This person must be comfortable taking decisive action and knowing when to do so.
  • Collaborator/producer: This person implements the process with content as agreed upon with the project manager and other members of the team. The producer reports back to the project manager and others frequently, if informally.
  • Vested reporter and editor: These are content creators who are proven or willing champions of this thinking and who will serve as an instrument of experimentation in their work. These are the front-line, spaghetti-against-wall people who communicate frequently with the project manager and the collaborator/producer.

For a project-based approach, I’d suggest adding the following additional roles, if possible and appropriate:

  • Subject/beat reporter: Hopefully, this person is also the vested reporter, but we all know that’s not always the case. Reporters on important beats are not always those who are also most open to trying new things. For your first project as a staff using this framework, I’d suggest finding a project that allows a vested reporter and a subject/beat reporter to be the same person. The success of the project may help those who are less enthusiastic about this approach see its value and consider changing their ways for the next round. If that’s not possible, have the project manager serve as coach or “river guide” to the subject/beat reporter.
  • Community collaborator: Is there someone in the community who knows this issue or topic inside and out? This is your person. They can be as involved or uninvolved as you wish. This person can act as a sounding board for ideas, a collaborating producer, someone to help get the journalism out to people or someone to convene groups. Who knows? Maybe the collaborator can even act as a funder of your effort — with clear and transparent disclosure of their involvement everywhere. The possibilities are endless.

A final note on newsroom size: You may believe you’re too small to do a big project or an entire strategy overhaul with lots of people and moving parts. Maybe you are. But to adapt principles of this framework in your everyday process? Even an individual working alone can do that. (And I’d argue individuals working alone should do that.) The core here is asking a series of questions, which I’ll explain in the next post. Don’t say no to the whole concept because the first steps are unknown or it feels too big. Even consistent, incremental innovation is progress, and sometimes it’s the most important kind.

Kelsey Proud  
Institutional fellowship project lead


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