Engagement Analysis

Project Proposal / Engagement Plan

This project aims to provide a critical analysis of the current state of CU-Citizen-Access’ community engagement efforts, focusing primarily on aspects of their online presence and its interaction with place-based communities and the existing information ecosystem. Further, it seeks to provide suggested tools and courses of action to improve CUCA’s online and offline community engagement work, with the goal of fostering equal partnerships with community members and groups, and producing collaborative, grassroots community journalism that benefits from the expertise of all parties and combines the offline and online spheres to best advantage.

1. Offline and Online Community Mirroring and Reinforcement

CU-Citizen-Access showed good instincts by seeking to embed reporters in community organizations and neighborhood social spaces, and even better instincts by primarily choosing spaces that are Community Technology Centers. Community Technology Centers have long been hubs for community organizing and digital literacy education, and are likely to become much more important and numerous in this particular community with the coming of the Urbana-Champaign Big Broadband Project, which targets many of the same neighborhoods that CUCA reports on.

Kavanaugh et al’s The impact of the internet on local and distant ties demonstrates how place-based online communities work best when they mirror and reinforce existing community structures, and for journalistic purposes, this aspect is even more crucial, as the information ecosystem being investigated by reporters is inextricably linked to physical places.

The key going forward here is capacity building combined with relationship building. CUCA discovered this fairly early on in its work, and the combination of in-person digital media literacy training and embedded professional presence should continue and expand if possible.This approach has the advantages of a) building the capacity of community members to engage with and create digital information, a key prerequisite to full partnership in any community journalism effort, b) providing an in-person example of a working journalist, increasing transparency about what journalists do and how they do it, and ultimately building media literacy and trusting relationships, and c) engaging community members at their level and in their areas of interest, and providing tangible value in return for their time and interest.

This approach also excels at combining bridging and bonding social capital, and thus creating value for both the journalists and the community members and organizations who participate. The journalists get the advantage of access to the community’s world and its inside information, while the community benefits from the journalists’ skills, connections, and access to outside sources of information. The combination of the two can add up to effective community engagement as well as effective community media over time.

2. Community Outreach and Coalition-Building

CU-Citizen Access also began well by constituting itself as a coalition and a collaborative effort, which can bring to bear the resources and connections of multiple local media outlets and institutions. However, more can be done in this area, especially at the community level. CUCA’s current partners are all large and institutional. While those partners and their resources and expertise are crucial to a project such as this, they also can create difficulties for engagement efforts, particularly in a university community such as this one with a history of contentious relations and distrust between the university and the marginalized communities surrounding it.

One way to overcome these issues would be to think more expansively about the coalition, and bring community-based organizations into equal partnership with the institutional partners. This is a big step, and obviously requires relationship building and trust before it could be undertaken. It could build off of the continued work from point #1, and with time and effort the community partners where CUCA wants to establish Community Media Centers could grow into full project partners and participants.

Another approach to consider grows out of Les Robinson’s work on the Theory of Innovation Diffusion. This approach focuses more on individuals, and in identifying leaders and evangelists who can help to spread the word in the community and spur interest and adoption of new ideas, initiatives, and technologies. By identifying and cultivating early adopters and opinion leaders, a project can gain a lot of traction even without many resources to spend on outreach and marketing. The recruitment section of this site shows a more fleshed-out version of this approach in action.

This Innovation Diffusion framework also works well to describe the necessity of the efforts described in both of these sections. Robinson identifies 5 qualities that are key to the adoption of new innovations in a community, and each is addressed by the suggestions outlined so far.

  1. Relative advantage – Community members must see how journalism and digital tools can improve their lives and situations. The embedded approach both demonstrates the work of a journalist and its value, and focuses that work around community needs. The digital literacy and capacity building components provide tangible value up front to prospective participants, especially if they’re focused towards areas of existing interest.
  2. Compatibility with existing values and practices – Embedding in a computer lab certainly helps on this front, as does cultivating early adopters and community leaders. The main obstacle in this area is the checkered past with institutional behavior and community engagement attempts in these communities, and demonstrating value as well as a more expansive coalition can help to address that over time
  3. Simplicity and ease of use – A working journalist demonstrating the contextual use of all of these practices and technologies helps to demystify them, and digital literacy instruction and capacity building lower the barrier to entry.
  4. Trialability – The embedded approach is all about demonstrating these technologies and practices and removing the barriers to trying them out.
  5. Observable results – This is the proof in the pudding. Participants need to see real quality of life gains from this work. They need to gain skills which help them personally and professionally, or see how CUCA’s reporting makes a real difference on issues of importance to the community. This is essentially the key metric for the success of the engagement work. If this isn’t happening, then it’s time to make adjustments until such time as it is.

3. Editorial Approach to Community Content.

This is probably the area with the most potential for conflict between the values and needs of CU-Citizen-Access and its institutional partners, and the values and needs of the communities they aim to serve.

This ultimately comes down to a question of: What do we mean when we say Citizen Journalism or Community Media? Is it being a voice for the voiceless? Giving a voice to the voiceless? Or empowering the voiceless to speak for themselves? Of course, in practice most projects will be a mix of these at different times and stages of development, but a successful community engagement approach should strive for the latter outcome as much as possible.

CUCA has binding and non-trivial obligations to granters, journalism students, its institutional partners, and professional norms, and must meet these. However, both journalism as a profession or practice and many of these institutions have historically failed the communities in question, and to the extent that CUCA reinscribes the values and practices of traditional journalism and these institutions in its work, it could have difficulty engaging the communities it seeks to serve.

This conflict presents itself primarily as a perceived bright line between CUCA-created content and community content on the website, though this situation has improved as efforts have been made to feature community contributions more prominently. However, articles are still articles and forums are still forums, and the former are not yet an open and collaborative process, or if they are, the process is not transparently revealed on the website. The conflict also presents more subtly in the form of high barriers to entry for potential community contributors, which will be detailed and addressed more fully in a later section.

In short, the conflicts involved here are between opening up and maintaining editorial control and journalistic standards. Are these really conflicts? In the short run, during the capacity building and coalition building phase of the project, they most likely are, and must be managed deftly to meet the needs of all the involved parties and still do effective reporting and engagement. In the longer run, they need not necessarily be, and the basis of this report is mapping out strategies to get closer to that point.

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