Civility Can Flourish At The Intersection of News And Community Engagement

America needs civility.

Urgency was already sky-high before the Trump-Biden debate. It spiked again with the new negativity, fueled by heated reactions on social media.

I closed Twitter after reading an invitation for Russia to nuke the United States as a result of the debate disaster. When disagreements become toxic, nothing good can come from it.

Think Grand Canyon as the image for our civility deficit. It’s not just politics.

This crisis beckons someone to step in — and up — to model what civil, civic discourse is all about.

The Relevance Project remains steadfast that local newspapers must become the Community Forum, going beyond just producing a quality product. Instead, the pressing work is to reinvent the news business so community engagement comes first.

Let’s say at the outset that demonstrating civility, especially in politics and community service, is modeling strength.

There’s nothing weak about making a fact-based case, engaging someone who disagrees with you with respect, and producing lively arguments where an audience can better understand the issues and potential solutions. I t’s also based on thorough listening and creating the forum for effective dialogue.

There’s hope.

Encouragement for civility is coming from experiments and initiatives that behave like Community Forums. Some seek to bridge different sides by acknowledging and allowing passionate arguments without allowing them to shift into hate. Others are trying to use technology to lower the cost of new types of news operations to serve smaller communities in an era of newsroom cutbacks. And some are advocating that a moderator operate in the middle of community conversations — “a Next Door that cares” as one entrepreneur said.

A recent Knight Foundation webinar featured the Detroit Civility Project. Two award-winning journalists, Nolan Finley from the right and Stephen Henderson from the left, are demonstrating people can argue — often intensely — without losing their minds, because they insist on building relationships to establish trust. Note to Washington: Opponents can disagree and still respect — even like — each other.

However, “civility does not mean audience stays away from topics we see differently,” Henderson said.

The Civility Project’s October newsletter was headlined: “Be Brave Enough To Start A Conversation That Matters.” Creating that haven for civility is important given the risks and fears, but the upside is worth it, the organizers say. For news teams, it also would mean improving their standing in a community.

Meanwhile, the Local Media Association has started a series of informative programs to share knowledge from winners of the Google News Initiative that financially supports innovation and startups, especially new thinking for online journalism.

All are poised “to grow relationships with hyperlocal audiences.” That can be best done with civil discourse.

The first three prospects all based their launched innovations on purposeful conversations with their respective community to demonstrate quality engagement, hyperlocal inclusion and sustainable equity.

Crosstown from the University of Southern California Annenberg will engage all 110 neighborhoods of Los Angeles on community-level data collected on “traffic, crime, air quality, and more” — all important issues to residents. Crosstown’s mix of journalism, data collection and technology confronts its own contention there’s “no sustainable business model” for community-focused journalism.

Torstar in Canada is launching an app-first approach — “producing hyperlocal community content helps us reach audiences beyond our print footprint, showcase the diverse interests in each community, and connect local businesses with relevant audiences.”

Before each launch, extensive discussions were conducted with local officials and people who were “excited their local voice” would be heard.

The third winner, Wick Communications, has launched NABUR, a curated neighborhood social media platform for communities served by Wick newspapers. “Membership is growing at the two pilot program bureaus, where product managers coordinate discussions, conduct experiments in news coverage, and organize events across six communities,” LMA noted.

Sean Fitzpatrick, Wick’s director of digital, added another reason for community newspapers to become civil forums: “Technology companies have not generated trusting relationships….Hyperlocal social networks like Next Door create more questions than answers.”

All of these projects face the reality of having to pay for innovation to succeed.

But it’s inspirational to hear them say they are first guided by building new platform and organizations that better serve their communities, better seek to include all voices, and better installing the digital product in the middle of civic life to build out from there.

With a committed audience, selling comes next.

And if the distinct product solves a problem, it should attract people willing to pay to be a part of it.

One more thing about civility.

You can sleep at night knowing you did the right thing.

-TAS

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