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Lessons on Engagement from Public Media Camp

Katie Donnelly

Last weekend's Public Media Camp was full of energy and insights from several hundred public media staffers, researchers and enthusiasts. Developers worked away in one room, consultants offered up free services, and dozens of others spearheaded formal and informal sessions. Sessions covered a diverse array of topics, including gaming, policy, mobile apps and public media's response to the culture war. For insights on these topics and more, check out the #pubcamp hashtag on twitter. See pictures from the event here.

We were eager to share the research we've been doing on public media news experiments with pubcamp participants. Christopher Ali and I presented a session called "From Closed to Open: Public Participation in News Experiments," where we asked participants to provide feedback on our "spectrum of engagement" graphic that positions news projects on a continuum from "closed" (editor-driven) to "open" (user-driven).

We received some insightful feedback on our graphic. Some participants felt that the graphic reads too much like a timeline, and suggested that we change its presentation to be more of a scatter plot. Others suggested that we add multiple examples for clarity, including examples from some traditional on-air projects, where plenty of innovative work is happening as well. Interestingly enough, no one in the session could think of any entirely user-driven examples from the public broadcasting world. (As we've mentioned before, most of the examples of user-driven projects come from outside of public broadcasting.)

In the great discussion that followed, we were pressed to think about what exactly constitutes "meaningful" engagement -- it seems that definition varies from person to person, although most in the room agreed that "clicktivism" (most commonly exemplified by clicking "like" or "dislike" on a piece of content) is not enough. One of the most thought-provoking insights that came up was the fact that user-driven projects can actually end up being more exclusive than traditional, "closed" projects. Editor-driven projects typically try to be conscious about including diverse voices and multiple perspectives. Often, when projects are opened up, the users that participate end up representing a fairly narrow demographic (failing to reach beyond the people who interacted with the content before it was opened up). This fascinating point has definitely been missing in most of the discussion surrounding public participation in public media news.

How can we measure impact across this spectrum? Each strategy links up with particular impact measurement tools, but what about organizations with multiple projects that cross all of the levels of engagement? How do they negotiate their impact measurement strategies? Additionally, some participants found measuring the effects of open projects to be a little sticky, especially when projects could be linked to political action --  there was definitely discomfort at the idea public broadcasting projects being linked to any kind of policy change. Many participants wondered: where does the station's accountability end? This is clearly a tension that will exist for years to come.

Thanks to everyone who participated in our session. We are looking forward to seeing you again at next year's national Public Media Camp! If you have more feedback regarding our engagement graphic, please leave a comment below.