Models for community engagement

From coast to coast, newspapers are testing out new models for engaging with their surrounding communities. A group of newspaper representatives discussed how they are making a difference in their local communities and engaging with readers, both online and in person, during a panel discussion at the recent INK+BEYOND newspaper conference in Ottawa.

In Toronto, Duncan Clark heads a project for the National Post called Gastropost. It entails readers accepting a weekly food mission and documenting their experience using social media.

Out west, Barb Wilkinson runs a weekly section called Capital Ideas in the Edmonton Journal’s business section. The section asks members of the business community who’ve made themselves available to respond to questions – with those responses being the content for the section. Members of the community initiative also attend one event per month.

In Manitoba, Bob Cox talked about the Winnipeg Free Press launching their $100,000 news café; a location where readers can come to watch and participate in journalism. Free Press journalists do live interviews, engage in debates and participate in discussions with readers at the café.

“We often think of a newspaper as only journalism,” said Wilkinson. “This content, this package they get is what they really care about.” She explained that these community projects are promotional, with the end goal of earning revenue. “

Clark went on to discuss the importance of crowd-sourcing content from readers – particularly now with so many social media platforms available. “You want to remain the most relevant way to get people’s messages out there,” he said, echoing that the bottom line is these projects can generate money. “You can’t do serious journalism unless you have a successful business model.”

Cox spoke against soliciting reader-generated content, highlighting the news café as a good way to involve community members without hindering the journalists’ process.

Clark and Wilkinson, whose projects rely on reader-generated content, felt differently.
Wilkinson cited opinion pieces that were the result of soliciting perspectives from readers – perspectives that reporters would never have been able to find previously. While for Clark, the key is to never expect the reader to be a journalist but listen to their likes and dislikes. “The public will tell us what’s important to them and what they’re willing to pay for.”