As an outsider with only a visitor’s-bureau-brochure-level understanding of Columbia’s heritage and character, I knew I had an uphill climb to live up to my title as “director of community outreach.”
So, after less than a month in my role, I pledged I would meet 100 Columbians in 100 Days.
“I want to meet community leaders, business owners, pastors, nonprofit organizers and civic association board members. I want to meet bankers as well as farmers, educators and social workers, artisans and lawyers, bricklayers and janitors, retirees and teenagers,” I wrote in my announcement in the Missourian on May 27. “As long as you call Columbia home, and feel you have a stake to claim, I want to hear from you.”
And I did. I received recommendations on Facebook, Reddit, through email, by phone, by colleagues and even by students who were more well versed in the town than I was. I kept score on my office window, a countdown of “days left” and “people met” that became a conversation piece in the newsroom. As I met people, they recommended three or four others; in a short span of time it was easy to meet 100. I kept track of gender and ethnic backgrounds and can report that I had an evenly split gender demographic, and the ethnic backgrounds fairly closely matched Columbia’s proportions overall.
I published my findings in two columns, “Columbia, it’s nice to meet you. Let’s keep talking” and “The six kinds of people you meet in Columbia”. It was important to report out what I found, but I was also very explicit with most of my subjects that my meetings with them weren’t interviews. I took some notes to help me remember things, but my goal was not to construct a grand narrative or use the meeting for any other purpose but to share conversations with people in the community.
Aside from meeting the goal, which was important only in a symbolic way, I learned a ton about the city. I also began to understand how the Missourian was valued and perceived by different people. I also began to understand the great challenges facing the Missourian as a community-oriented newspaper with a large daily competitor already dominating the market.
In retrospect, I wish I had done a few things differently. I wish I had shot photos of everyone I met — imagine a photo gallery with 100 selfies. I wish I had intentionally collected story ideas from each person and shared them with the newsroom. I wish I had intentionally followed up with as many as possible just to check in after a few months passed. Perhaps this summer, I can reconnect and continue the conversation.
Bottom line: I hit the ground running, and this initial outreach effort helped me get plugged into community sources, history, events and traditions very quickly.