Journalism isn’t just about informing readers, it’s also about helping them take action

Most media outlets — both the traditional kind and the digital-first kind — still see themselves primarily as information engines, pulling in data and making sense of it and then telling readers or viewers about it. But there’s an equally important part of the job, especially when it comes to local journalism, and that is helping a community do something about the news events they are reading about.

There was a great example recently in Britain, as described by Trinity Mirror digital director David Higgerson on his blog. The Manchester Evening News was covering a fire at the historic Manchester Dogs Home, the kind of thing that local newspapers often do, and they started a live blog to post updates and photos of the action — again, a pretty typical thing for a newspaper or news website.

But then came something less typical: The newspaper decided to post a fund-raising link for those who wanted to contribute to the Home, for rebuilding and other costs. No doubt someone thought it would be a nice gesture, etc., but they probably didn’t expect what happened next — the paper, which had an initial target of five thousand pounds (about $8,000) raised more than $1.6 million in 24 hours.

Manchester Evening News fundraiser

As Higgerson notes in his post, there are a number of useful lessons here — and one is that if you are paying attention to what your community of readers are interested in, and what they care about, and you can give them a way of expressing that, it can be extremely powerful. Although it’s not clear how well Esquire a similar campaign has done with raising money for a fund in the name of murdered journalist James Foley, that was the idea behind its recent article-specific paywall experiment.

One of the skills that good journalists — particularly those who work in small communities — have always had is the ability to sense what issues are bubbling up in terms of interest in a community, and to connect with those readers who feel passionately about that topic.

Journalism professor Jeff Jarvis argues that this kind of skill is more important than ever now. At a time when there are more sources of information than there have ever been, and therefore more competition for the limited attention span of a news reader, connecting with a community and engaging with them as directly as possible (as opposed to just hoping they will redistribute your story to their friends) becomes a crucial factor in the survival of journalism as we know it.

Ironically perhaps, this is something that members of online communities like Reddit understand instinctively, and their ability to tap into and empower users who want to raise money for worthwhile causes can be seen in cases like the campaign for a Kenyan orphanage or a terminally ill cancer patient. Whether you agree with those specific goals isn’t really the point — the point is to recognize the value of that ability to connect with readers around an issue.

As Higgerson puts it, the newsroom of the future “needs to be full of people who spot communities forming on the spot, be it around an event or an issue. That could be outrage at the closure of a hospital, or it could be the reaction to a fire at a dogs home.” And those people need to do more than just tell readers about it — they need to help them do something about it.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Thinkstock / Mangostock