by Ben DeJarnette
In January 2016, the University of Oregon student magazine FLUX hosted a community conversation on race and identity, inviting participants to help shape the student magazine’s spring issue. The event drew about 60 students, professors, public officials and other community members, and spurred a lively conversation about racial issues on the University of Oregon’s predominately white campus. FLUX’s staff also hosted a release party in June to share and discuss their finished work.
Project Goals: According to faculty adviser Todd Milbourn, the project’s goals were to build relationships across campus, surface compelling story ideas, and engage with a critical and sensitive social issue in a more thoughtful and nuanced way.
Tools and Technology: FLUX’s staff used World Cafe principles to structure the event’s conversations.
Impact: FLUX greatly expanded its audience on campus and across the Eugene community, Milbourn says. FLUX also won the 2016 Pacemaker Award and the 2016 Columbia Scholastic Press Association Gold Crown Award for journalistic excellence.
Organization Background: FLUX is an award-winning student magazine at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication. Its staff in 2016 included 23 student designers, reporters, and editors who applied for positions and enrolled in winter- and spring-term FLUX production courses. The magazine has three faculty advisers.
Project Resources: Expenses for the release party in June included about $500 for the venue and $500 for refreshments. The initial event required fewer resources, in part because facilitator Mike Fancher volunteered his time.
Here’s what worked
1. Starting conversations in small groups to build rapport and encourage participation
Fancher, a former executive editor at the Seattle Times, began by asking attendees to split into groups of four to six people, with at least one FLUX reporter joining each group. These discussion groups gave participants a chance to share ideas in a more intimate setting before standing up in front of the entire crowd. “Breaking it down and making it very personal — I think that helped build trust, because people got to know each other a little bit,” Milbourn said. “We tried to make a big room feel as small as possible.”
This approach also helped minimize the kind of grandstanding that can plague public forums. “It’s kind of combustible,” Milbourn said. “You have all these people, who don’t really know each other, talking about a sensitive issue. You really want to think through how it’s going to play out.”
2. Working with an experienced moderator
Milbourn says it was important to have former Fancher on hand to moderate the event. “He has spent a career doing this kind of stuff,” Milbourn explained. “He’s really masterful in how he does it.” For example, when an event participant stood up and began “saying his piece” uninvited, Fancher found a way to gently steer the conversation back on track. “Mike was able to handle that and make him feel heard, but then also redirect that energy into those small groups.”
Here’s what could have worked better
1. Defining goals and managing expectations
One unexpected challenge was the expectation gap between some of the community members and journalists in the room. “A number of folks said, ‘Hey, you guys are embarking on this project, what we’d really like to see as a community is some concrete change,’” said Milbourn. “They were talking about concrete university policies, and we didn’t necessarily view that as our role.”
A similar tension arose when several community members asked for the opportunity to review stories prior to publication. Milbourn described the difficult conversations that followed as the “double-edged sword” of collaboration with non-journalists. “On the one hand, you had people who were really eager to share their personal experiences, and that led to these really rich stories,” he said. “On the other hand, you had people who felt really strongly that, ‘Hey, this is my story too,” and they wanted to review the story in its entirety before publication, which is something we traditionally frowned upon in journalism.”
Ultimately, FLUX’s staff agreed to let people preview the stories, with the disclaimer that reporters would retain final editorial judgement. In the future, Milbourn says he’d want to set clearer expectations up front.
Here’s what else you should know
- Ground game: The staff’s targeted email invites and personal outreach helped draw a much bigger crowd than Milbourn expected. “Our thinking was ‘Let’s cast as wide a net as possible,’” he said. “We reached out to student groups and faculty… and some staffers went up to their professors in different classes. There was a lot of personal network stuff that helped bring people into that room.”
- Messy metrics: Milbourn acknowledges that measuring impact is more difficult when the goal isn’t clicks, likes, and retweets. “There are such clear metrics online about who clicked on a story, how long they were there, how many eyeballs,” he said. “Our goal was to help forge relationships, which is a lot murkier than that.”
- Take two: When FLUX hosted a second community event to celebrate the magazine’s release, many of the same faces showed up. “There was a sense of ownership from the people who we engaged with in the community,” Milbourn said. “I was really heartened by that.”
- Next level: “Doing engagement once is one thing, but creating a community that endures, that has longevity to it, that’s another level of the game,” Milbourn said. “That would be really exciting to explore.”
Ben DeJarnette is the project and product manager for Gather and an engagement advocate at GroundSource.