The role of local news has long included the power and function of convening, whether by design on the newsroom’s side or by demand on the community’s side. Today, journalists are more intentionally activating their roles as community convener, conversation facilitator and resource connector.

More than an audience to engage at the top of the funnel, news organizations are embracing a deliberate community engagement strategy. One that allows journalists to be equal parts reporter or storyteller or product developer and community member. This strategy has the potential to increase community capital at a time when our neighbors need to hear and see one another most — a time when we can visibly see the post-pandemic impact on our mental health and social connections.

On June 11 and 12, the American Press Institute convened a group of rural-serving news leaders and non-news experts for our Local News Summit on Rural Journalism, Community and Sustainability in Tulsa. They represented diverse news organizations such as The Haitian Times, Honolulu Civil Beat, Islandport Media, WITF in Pennsylvania and The Oklahoman as well as news-support partners such as Virginia Press Association, Institute for Rural Journalism and Oklahoma Media Center, to name a few.

From the participants, we learned so much about the art of convening, how it’s different from facilitating and how our communities need their local newsrooms to be practiced in both.

At our Rural Summit, news leaders spent time with a group of subject matter experts, learning how to level up the systems that support their community engagement work by applying research, tools and frameworks from outside the news industry. Contributions from psychology, public deliberation, facilitative leadership, organizing, anthropology and art encouraged the news leaders to use trust as their guide for community convening.

After these talks, our journalists noted one skill they had and could leverage more and one skill they needed to develop to be better conveners, facilitators and connectors. Four categories of skills stuck out that local journalists and news leaders need to better and more impactfully embrace these new roles:

  1. Establishing language around convening
  2. Developing proficiency in conversation types
  3. Pursuing people-centered motivations
  4. Embracing inclusive character traits

Establishing language around convening

There are three distinct opportunities to discuss a local news organization’s power to convene. Journalists and news leaders need trust-building language for internal buy-in, external financial support, external participant interest and holistic impact.

How are we explaining the why of our community engagement so the effort doesn’t fall on one person but is an eagerly shared responsibility across our news organizations? Shared responsibility can start with a common language:

  • What do we need to define?
  • What strategies do we need to create?
  • What moves will become our best practices?
  • What are the values that drive this work?
  • What is our foundational objective?
  • What will growth look and feel like?
  • What will success look like?

How are we talking about our new roles in a way that can interest local foundations and partners  to support this work, which often includes venue, catering, marketing and surveying expenses at a minimum — and honorariums, swag and expansion as it levels up? How are we inviting our community to experience journalists in this new way? How can we define impact and create a feedback loop as our convenings become a regular part of our journalism? What is our process for relaying this impact to those who participated and to those who may participate in the future?

Naming our work and framing our why will help at each level of the communication plan and process.

Developing proficiency in conversation types

During the rural summit, interpersonal conversations versus interviews surfaced across our expert-led talks. Is the “playbook for being a journalist” too rigid, not allowing room to pivot toward interpersonal or intergroup dynamics? Perhaps. The deadline-driven nature of our work is also a hindrance to using community engagement and interaction as unique opportunities to connect rather than as a single opportunity to produce a story.

We learned of several types of conversations that journalists as conveners could use in their work, including facilitative conversation, where a group comes together with a neutral third party to build trust and propose viable solutions, and constructive dialogue, where a group comes together across differences to understand and interact with each other.

Of particular note is the difference between debate, dialogue and deliberation, which Martín Carcasson, Ph.D., founder and director of the CSU Center for Public Deliberation (CPD) discussed during the summit. The purpose of debate is to evaluate the quality of arguments through the clash of ideas, deliberation is agreeing on tough decisions by weighing tradeoffs, while dialogue fosters understanding and respect through listening and storytelling. All three have value and interact. Journalists may find hosting one of these conversations the most constructive and impactful way to engage and convene their community.

We also highlighted three ways of listening, beyond the standard active listening that journalists are often trained in. We default to a standard set of behaviors, and to become effective in this expanded role of the journalist, we’ll need to know new behaviors and when best to put them into play. For listening, this includes the layered listening strategy of the Solutions Journalism Complicating the Narrative work, which encourages listening for values and looping back to the speaker to ensure understanding. It also includes listening to give momentum, i.e., listening like a trampoline. And finally, there’s constructivist listening, which allows the speaker to build their own meaning without affirmation in a specific direction by the speaker. It’s especially helpful when convening communities we’ve harmed or who are bringing historical and lived trauma into our engagement and reporting.

These types of conversations encourage the overarching skill set of facilitation. As news organizations further discover, practice and strengthen their convening power, the ability to manage group dynamics and facilitate difficult conversations as well as enjoyable ones will become easier.

Pursuing people-centered motivations

For journalists to prioritize the people they serve, they’ll need to become experts at centering people: their voices and experiences, their relationships and connections. This, of course, starts with establishing and cultivating trust. The rest of that challenging work is maintaining that trust.

People-centered motivation will look different for each of us, but as API listened to the news leaders in Tulsa, we heard several ways this motivation comes to fruition in our work. News-oriented community conveners are boldly curious and courageous. They are humble, knowing the difference between taking up and holding space, even when it means “keeping their best selves” at home, as Priya Parker notes in “The Art of Gathering.” They are empathetic in the way they think about the feelings of others, and they’re also compassionate in how this thinking moves them toward acting on others’ behalf.

A journalist in service to people is solutions-oriented and values-driven.

Embracing inclusive leadership

The leadership traits, both formal and influential, that we display in our journalism will change as we embrace the role of convener. No longer focused strictly on “speaking truth to power” or “holding the power to account,” for journalists to convene their community and facilitate healthy conversations, they must prioritize connection, collaboration, belonging and, most of all, hope.

They’ll let go of, deprioritize or resituate despair, frustration and hopelessness. They will no longer let the story stop there. Instead of being the heroes with the answers or the skills to find the answers, they’ll take up the call of “host leadership,” as Margaret Wheatley so aptly described in her essay “Leadership in the Age of Complexity.” As host leaders, journalists will hold space with their communities, empowering them to contribute, to find meaning, to engage in difficult work and even to solve problems.

Journalism and community engagement marked by inclusive leadership can “create substantive change by relying on everyone’s creativity, commitment and generosity.” Additionally, by co-creating experiences with our communities, journalists can unlock one of the many community benefits of hope — that is, finding common ground to resolve conflict and push toward cooperation and community growth/achievement, according to one of API’s expert guests at the summit, psychologist Andrew Abeyta.

The American Press Institute is committed to understanding this embrace of “journalist as convener,” so you can expect more to come. Each role — convener, facilitator and connector — requires journalists to step in front of their bylines, credits and products. Each requires sustained practice over time. So remember, creating community engagement skills and habits will require endurance and discipline, not speed.

If you are interested in helping your news organization embrace and expand its role as convener, please contact us to hear how we might help. And if you’re interested in partnering or financially supporting such efforts to help local news become the local infrastructure for connection and problem-solving it can be, please let us know that, too.

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