Summary of Themes

From the developmental evaluation

Compiled by Yve Susskind, of Praxis Associates, for Journalism That Matters and the Agora Center for Journalism.

The themes listed in this document represent the collective wisdom of the 130 attendees at the May 2017 Elevate Engagement conference co-hosted by Journalism That Matters and the University of Oregon School of Journalism and held at the Agora Journalism Center in Portland.

The qualitative data from which these themes are distilled include two key sources:

Themes through Saturday  A team of seven students, working under the direction of Yve Susskind and Lori Shontz (U of O Journalism School faculty member), documented “nuggets of insight” that they heard in all conference activities, Thursday through Saturday. They focused their attention through a set of conceptual lenses, such as “reflections on the way things are now and what needs to change,” “emerging responses and aspirations,” and “areas of tension or uncertainty.” Each day, the team met a few times to cluster the “nuggets.” On Saturday night, Yve developed the clusters further into distinct themes with representative quotes. Yve also incorporated into the theming process data from several group “harvests” – activities that engaged participants in surfacing insights and emerging themes – as well as graphic recording posters by Nitya Wakhlu, and an analysis of the conference Twitter stream. These themes are presented in the Themes through Saturday document.

Manifesto: This document, authored by Joy Mayer, Kyle Bozentko and March Twisdale, captures the aspirations of the community of practice to “elevate engagement so that each of us and all of us thrive,” the forward-looking question for the last day of the conference. On Sunday, groups of participants each reviewed one set of artifacts from the conference to distill nutshell paragraphs capturing the essence of the story. Joy, Kyle and March incorporated these Nutgraphs, as well as Nitya Wakhlu’s graphic recordings from Sunday morning discussion notes and Generative images into the Manifesto.

In addition, the following artifacts were reviewed one final time to identify any other themes that might not have made it into the Themes through Saturday or the Manifesto:

Organization of the list of themes

As the themes became clear, six larger categories emerged that became the major headings:

  • The shared values and goals of the Community of Practice
  • Changes that are needed for the field of journalism
  • How journalism can truly serve communities
  • Challenges and questions about engagement
  • Inward looking questions about the Community of Practice
  • Next steps.

The list of themes with sub-themes, organized into these six categories, is color-coded to show the sources of each:

  • Themes from the Sunday Manifesto are in green
  • Themes that are not in the Manifesto but are in the Themes through Saturday are in red
  • Themes from other artifacts are in blue
  • Headings in black indicate that sub-points came from multiple sources.

Representative quotes, as captured by the student note-takes, are provided for many of the themes.



  • Shared values:
    • listening
    • collaborating
    • dialogue (putting people together across divides for conversation, for deep radical engagement)
    • reconciliation
    • curiosity
    • desire to be a force for good
    • love and heart
    • being relational, not transactional
    • empowerment
    • weaving
    • complexity
    • fluidity
    • subjectivity

“Engagement is human beings opening their hearts to one another”

“Doing Journalism in a way that lets people know we love them”

“People are not getting the kinds of relationships they want with journalists when they go online to try to engage with them.  People want more relational moments with journalists. And so do journalists.”

“Authenticity is what it really boils down to. People can tell when journalists do over-commercialization, and they hate it.”

“Journalism of past felt entitled to whatever info it wanted to take from community. Now has to build relationships”

“We want to see journalism be less transactional/extractive and more about partnerships.”

  • We are all in this together

“Let’s move away from ‘we talk, you listen’ to ‘we are all in this together.’”

“Imagine what they’ll say to you if they see you as a journalist. Now imagine what they’ll say to you if they see you as a citizen.”

  • Shared goals:
    • hearing from and reflecting people who go unheard
    • moving from debate to dialogue
    • enlisting the public to serve the public’s needs
    • seeking business models for sustainable, responsible, and accountable journalism
    • listening to what people are saying they want and need and responding to that, creating common vocabulary

“If you aren’t reporting what they need, it’s sales—not journalism”

“Focus on making things useful for people rather than flagrant demonstrations of our own intelligence.  Can someone under stress use this, is it what they need, not just I thought of this and it’s really shiny.”

“Debate is the norm in our culture. It means to beat down.  What is here is dialogue.  It means flowing through.  It’s about curiosity, inquiry and making connections and that difference are source of creativity and information. Imagine journalism that is guided by dialogue.”


  • To accept how journalists are viewed by disenfranchised communities
    • Many people don’t trust journalists enough to engage and don’t perceive them as a solution
    • Realize ethnic media isn’t second class

“Don’t be afraid to acknowledge the pain that we caused, the voices that have been suppressed and ignored systemically for generations.”

“Stop looking at communities as “problems to fix” – start listening. No missionary journalism”

“We’re often the bearers of bad news for our community. And! We ask them to pay for it.”

“There are people who don’t think media is a solution—they think it’s a problem”

  • Realize that the identity(ies) of the journalist matters

“People had to go out and create their own papers because the people in the ethnic communities found that the other media were not competent to cover them.”

  • Journalism needs to get over itself. Change journalism so it’s not a priesthood instead of a distributed environment in which people can be heard

“Does anyone else feel excited about the crumbling of the traditional institution?” [a bunch of hands go up!]

  • Current professionalization of journalism preserves white supremacy and other forms of elitism

“There is elitism in writing that alienates people who otherwise might participate in conversation. (Good writing might mean good ideas, but bad writing doesn’t necessarily mean bad ideas)”

  • Get beyond the echo chamber

“Journalists need to acknowledge their own bubble.”

Just because journalists aren’t talking about something doesn’t mean no one is. Find the unheard stories.”

“We’re treating commentary like a higher form of journalism rather than talking to people and seeing facts.”

  • Journalists need to stop standing outside, they need to become part of communities and be like hosts (in the way that hosts are not “objective” facilitators).

“There is no reason that newsrooms couldn’t do this kind of engagement that JTM does in communities.  We have the model, it’s right here.”

  • Be guided by transparency rather than “objectivity”
  • Learn how not to commercializes people’s lives

“When I became a journalist my conversations changed. Every person became a potential source.”

  • Collaborate, not just compete; step outside our engagement silos as journalists, organizers, facilitators, artists, and actually engaged across the silos to make a bigger difference
  • Stop obsessing over married middle class people and not 100,000,000 low-income people


  • Community of practice must do work quickly, urgently, and passionately because democracy is in jeopardy and because engaged practice can be a catalyst toward community healing
    • However, the quickest way is not always the best way; engagement is not efficient, relationships are not efficient 
  • Communities need to be heard, what matters to them

“The opportunity to be vulnerable with someone in the room is transformational.”

“Relationships can be an encounter. They don’t have to be persistent. We may never see each other again but the experience will last.” “Aloha: We’ve met and we’re in each others lives forever.”

“As member of the media, we are often seen as the person telling people that their community is damaged and their deeply held views are wrong. Instead we can offer them the feeling of being listened to, that they matter. Otherwise, maybe we are part of the problem (and we expect people to pay for that?!)”

  • Focus on the community’s point of view, not the newsroom’s

“The newsroom has to forget its POV and appreciate the POV of the communities it serves.”

  • Ask about lived experiences, not opinions
  • Journalism that matters to communities
  • Engage first. Deep radical engagement implies engagement before the journalism. We must listen and engage and develop stories from there.

“What if you start thinking of the community as your newsroom when you need validation, feedback, when you need to know if you are on the right track, instead of going to your newsroom or your editor or your institution.”

What to listen for: “Information they need,” “Engagement gaps,” “Ways they’ve been hurt,” “What they care about,” “How they are being harmed,” “How they are amazing and resilient,” “How their stories inspire others ,” “What experiences they need.”

  • Bring people together and build understanding
  • Invest in people

“Invite people for lunch, work with libraries, ask people for their story.”

  • Determine whether a story is what community wants or needs

“If what we are here to do is meet community needs, what happens if the community doesn’t need content or story? If we’re in the business of meeting the needs of community, we might need to rethink what we do and how.”

“Take the story to the next step and facilitate actual change.”

  • Experiences that bring people together and build understanding. More information can actually create more splits between people.

“People today need experiences. Not more information. They are drowning in information”

“Go out to those who have the most to lose and center the stories on what they have to say.”

  • Cover grassroots movements
  • Embrace fear and vulnerability
  • Build and sustain democracy


  • Am I a “journalist”? How can we define the journalism baby that’s in the bathwater. Don’t throw it all out (e.g., The role of J is still to contribute to a healthy democracy; Engagement has been around for a long time-we didn’t invent it.)

“We don’t have to actually reinvent the wheel, we just have to remember where some of our foundations lie. We are public servants. That is our job, serving our communities.”

“We are essentially activists, people who give a shit, who serve the community and the way we do that should be responsible.”

  • Becoming trusted agents of engagement when to some degree some of the journalism we have done is criminal to underserved communities
  • Figuring out whether energy should be devoted to changing institutions
  • Are we ‘Columbus’ing engagement that ethnic media, embedded in communities, have been practicing all along?

“Community journalists, civic journalists, rural journalists, journalists of color etc. have been doing this work for a really long time, unacknowledged and unfunded. Now that this kind of work has caught the attention of schools, industry, funders, there is a movement around it that doesn’t include or acknowledge those people. The gentrification of community centered journalism.”

  • Let’s be honest about what we mean by community.

“Are we using “community” as an excuse to pretend that we talked to a whole population of people.  If 10 people show up, do we assume that that’s the people?”

“The word community makes me uncomfortable.  Communities don’t want to be communities. They want to be fractured, tribal and segregated. So what are communities exactly?  There is an ideal, but it does not reflect reality.”

  • Reflecting values of community without normalizing hate speech
  • Can media organizations embrace the idea of letting communities know we love them?
  • Recognizing that we didn’t create engagement and that there are still valuable resources in current institutional/mainstream media frameworks


  • Community of practice is remote and diverse, but necessary to be supported and emboldened to do sometimes lonely work; Hold on to this feeling of belonging
  • Know that it’s okay to be uncomfortable and trust anyway

“Commit to and trust the inspiration that’s guiding you in your life and work, and really trust it and step right into it.”

“It’s OK to be uncomfortable and the best stories come when you break past your own borders and definitions.”

“I need to always stay in a place where I don’t know what I am doing, because if I ever come out of this humble and scared place then I am not learning and that doesn’t do any good to anyone.”

 “Always experimenting and always learning from those experiments.”

  • This work requires a shared narrative, access to best practice and resources, support, crowdfunding, and conversation about the influence of money, the culture of the industry, and how we are getting this wrong, that invites all perspectives. It requires collaboration.

“Let’s conspire – meaning to breathe together. To breathe new life into our work, community, dreams.”

  • Learn together (e.g., about building an engaged newsroom, finding the questions and pain points people want to talk about, engaging across different ideologies, making journalism both democratically beneficial and commercially viable; ways to demonstrate impact and spreadability)
  • Collaborate to demonstrate impact but not necessarily scalability

“You have to give up the idea that this is going to go to a wider audience and scale.” “Making community engagement work means doing work that doesn’t fit traditional metric and funding goals.”

  • Create innovative ways to fund journalism/engagement because we can’t wait for the institutions to change their priorities

“New structures to enable these projects to live in communities, e.g., community information districts.”

“Work with funders to increase support for nonlinear ways to demonstrate impact when much is uncertain and unpredictable.”


  • The Gather platform
  • Supporting each other in community
  • Connecting over social media
  • Making industry networks and connections
  • Spreading Open Space technology
  • Tracking and sharing results
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