By Andrew Haeg, CEO of GroundSource.
This is the text of a keynote I gave to the Entrepreneurial Journalism Educators Summit at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism on July 15th, 2016.
First of all I fully embrace the irony of being invited to give a talk about listening.
It’s like being given an award for humility.
But I’ll take it, either way.
I’m going to talk today about why we need listening more than ever now in journalism, and provide some specific examples that I hope will inspire you and your students to build listening into your work
I came to this work of cultivating a culture of listening in news from my work in public media, and my own personal epiphany.
I was a reporter first. I covered business. I was constantly stymied by PR people, by minders, and I felt a gap between the stories I reported and what I felt they could be— what the real story was.
I remember doing one piece critical of 3M, a large Minnesota manufacturing company, and afterwards getting emails full of rich, sometimes strongly-worded detail about all the things I had missed.
Hmm, I thought, that was pretty cool — but wouldn’t it have been so much better if I heard from those people before the story ran?
And then once that bug was thoroughly implanted in my brain, I began looking with a critical eye at journalism of all kinds, and I began to suspect that much, if not most, of journalism was far short of the platonic ideal I’d imbibed in journalism school.
While these values of reaching out and listening to inform our reporting were suddenly obvious to me, I realized that the culture of the profession was deeply resistant to these ideas.
But along the way I also took a master class in organizational behavior and culture. For while these values of reaching out and listening to inform our reporting were suddenly obvious to me, I realized that the culture of the profession was deeply resistant to these ideas.
Because the routines of journalism, which were set in place when all we could do is call one person at a time, valued easily quoted expert voices over the often messy process of listening to many voices and making sense of what they were trying to say.
A report from a few years ago highlighted the stultifying effects ingrained routines and behaviors are having on newsrooms, specifically with the adoption of new digital tools.
But I also think the same cultural and workflow obstacles are preventing us from trying new ways of engaging our communities, and truly listening to them.
Our Businesses Need Us to Listen
But I’ve started to see a change, as more of us realize that our news organizations are in grave danger.
That we can no longer count on near monopolistic reach.
That clicks don’t equal loyal audience.
That we need to constantly tune our understanding of how audiences interact with our journalism, what information they need, what technologies they use, and how they relate to our brands.
The paradox here is that while media consumption has never been higher, trust has never been lower. Scale and trust are often inversely correlated.
Instead of strengthening social bonds, or creating an informed public, or the idea of news as a civic good, a democratic necessity, [news] creates gangs, which spread instant falsehoods that fit their views, reinforcing each other’s beliefs, driving each other deeper into shared opinions, rather than established facts.
– Katherine Viner, How Technology Disrupted the Truth, The Guardian 7.12.16
The ones who will win the race to scale are the social media giants, and their interests — and the design of their products — are often at least in tension with, if not antithetical to, the democratic and business aims of journalism, and the interests of our communities.
The broadcast mentality grafted onto Twitter and Facebook meanwhile too often treats social media primarily as a distribution channel, hoping for virality, even if it poisons the public well, and turns us all into news junkies constantly checking for updates.
I think we’re all beginning to feel that news is no longer always a force for good, and that changing that dynamic is essential to our survival.
Our Communities Require Us to Listen
And the events of the last couple of weeks and years, from Ferguson to Baltimore to Baton Rouge to St. Paul have underscored why we need to listen now more than ever.
The depth of the crisis in black communities has been a tragic daily reality for many, but as a popular hashtag puts it:
Mainstream media is by and large a white institution, and so when decisions are made to cover our increasingly diverse communities by a small cadre of journalists who look like each other, and often live in the same neighborhoods, we all lose out.
And it was in part to look beyond the parochialness and homogenity of where I spent much of my professional career that I moved to Macon, Georgia to join the Center for Collaborative Journalism.
I moved for a bunch of reasons. It was a stable platform and a fascinating place to incubate GroundSource, and it was a place where I felt I could broaden and deepen my view of America’s racial and cultural history.
I lived there for three years teaching some of these concepts of community and listening and outreach at Mercer University and developing one of what is becoming a series of “listening posts” designed to welcome in people who have been left out of the public conversation
My favorite moments were getting out into the community, just talking to people — people like Devontrez and Demariou, who are part of the Listening Post, and whose interview we broadcast on GPB. Listen here, it’s short and good!
But we didn’t approach them to talk about their problems, their victimhood. We just talked.
What I loved about this conversation and many others we had while in Macon, was that we went out into communities plagued by all sorts of issues, from third-world school dropout rates, Chicago levels of violence, racial disparities as stark as South Africa.
But we didn’t approach them to talk about their problems, their victimhood. We just talked.
And Devontrez especially, who would hardly say a word when we first started talking, after the conversation was over said he really enjoyed it, and had told us stuff he’d never really told anyone.
He told us that he dreamed one day of leaving, and moving to Japan.
And so, this idea of listening beyond the problems, reaching out to people whose stories aren’t being told, is not only important to our business, and to the people in our community, it’s also deeply gratifying and humanizing for everyone involved
And it’s always surprising, in ways that journalism too rarely was for me, or at least the way I was trained to practice it — the talk-to-three-experts-and-one-“real”-person approach to reporting.
And so recently I returned home, and just weeks later clicked on a Facebook live link in my twitter feed with the hashtag of a suburban neighborhood where I do some of my grocery shopping wondering why on earth #FalconHeights was trending.
And what I saw brought home how I need not look any further than my own backyard to understand the potency of racism, the crisis borne of slavery and the Civil War.
Because this man, Philando Castile, who served lunch to the kids of my neighborhood, was shot and killed just over a mile from my home.
By the Minnesota State Fair, which my grandpa — a farmer and radio man — led for a few years.
And right next to the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus, which serves the farmers of the region with new talent, new seeds.
In other words, Castile was killed right in the heart of what for generations has defined Minnesota.
But that’s not the Minnesota he experienced.
And so, while we find ourselves surrounded by opportunities to express ourselves, to broadcast our lives by text, video, emojis, etc., our profession is too rarely inclined to listened to people like Phil unless something’s going down.
So I believe we need to start teaching journalism as a more humble profession, one which seeks not to be the smartest person in the room, but the best listener. One that sees audiences as people, as teachers, as sources of inspiration and expertise.
That kind of culture begins with this question.
How can we possibly pretend to know?
How can we possibly pretend to know what it’s like to be pulled over 52 times, like Philando Castile was, and to fear for your safety and maybe even your life every time you get in the car?
How can we possibly pretend to know anything about our communities, about our audiences, if we continue to do journalism as we’ve always done it?
I believe this question begins to unfetter us from our narrow-minded ways, and open up new potential for highly relevant, engaged, collaborative journalism.
The Good News: Technology Enables Listening
The good news here — and the reason I think you as teachers of our young entrepreneurial journalists are so critical, is that we now have the means to listen at scale.
Every phone has the ability to receive as well as transmit and channels like SMS and FB Messenger and Whatsapp are true exchanges
The technology to listen at scale is here, but these are not purely broadcasting tools — they’re conversational interfaces in which audiences expect to communicate back to us..
In a few years, more than 2.5 billion people have a messaging app on their phone.
In 1926, playwright Bertolt Brecht envisioned a utopian future for the still-emergent technology of radio.
“Radio is one-sided when it should be two. It is purely an apparatus for distribution, for mere sharing out. So here is a positive suggestion: change this apparatus over from distribution to communication. The radio would be the finest possible communication apparatus in public life, a vast network of pipes. That is to say, it would be if it knew how to receive as well as transmit, how to let the listener speak as well as heaer, how to bring him into a relationship instead of isolating him. On this principle the radio should step out of the supply business and organise its listeners as suppliers.”
– Bertolt Brecht, The Radio as an Apparatus of Communication, 1926
We now have the opportunity to reimagine our relationship with audiences from a one-way transmission, to a two-way exchange, just as Bertolt Brecht envisioned 90 years ago.
But, I think we’ve made very little progress towards this ideal. The culture of journalism values talking and broadcasting over listening.
“It must follow the prime objective of turning the audience not only into pupils but into teachers.
– Bertolt Brecht, The Radio as an Apparatus of Communication, 1926
There is often a deep disdain for the audience, and comments on stories and social media flame wars only exacerbate that.
Three (Actually, Four) Principles for Listening
So I want to leave you with a few principles you can put to work in your classroom and your work tomorrow.
1. Get out of the building
Once we’ve accepted the premise that we don’t know everything, then we need to act like it.
The core premise to the Lean Startup, and to Steve Blank’s guidance for entrepreneurs, is to first get out of the building. The insights that will drive your business, and your journalism, are out there.
Getting out of the building means making yourself vulnerable, talking to strangers, asking why, listening to context as well as to what people say.
It also means gaining empathy for people. It means observing, listening for beliefs and not just quotes. It’s a different kind of listening than we’re used to doing as journalists — less focused on the transaction and more focused on understanding, sensing, feeling.
I’ve worked on one-off listening projects in Detroit, Phoenix, Cleveland, Brooklyn, South Africa, St. Paul and more. But the one place where I’ve seen this idea of listening as the operating premise for a new kind of journalism is in New Orleans.
Producer Jesse Hardman worked in developing countries helping get local radio stations established, and he brought his media development expertise back to the US. (Read the excellent two-part back story on the Listening Post here, and here.)
The idea of The Listening Post project is to meet people where they are, whether through public art recording devices, text messages, face-to-face meetings, etc. — and build a community-wide conversation where all voices are welcome.
2. Try New Things
The second directive is to get off the hamster wheel of our daily routines and try new things. Some may work, some will most definitely fail, but it’s in the effort that we expand our sense of what’s possible
We build trust when we make ourselves vulnerable. We grow as professionals and as human beings, and begin to feel connected to the communities we serve.
All of this takes effort, and failure, and new ways of working. We need to think creatively, and figure out what kinds of questions and what kinds of outreach will spur people to step forward, so we might be able to effectively listen.
In Macon we tried something new recently. A group that ran the soap box derby wanted to use our platform so people could text into a phone number and vote for the car they liked most
The derby is one of Macon’s most diverse events and we thought it might be a great way for people from around the community to start talking with us
And sure enough, in a few hours, more than 600 people had texted in, and now hundreds of them are part of the listening post, sharing their perspective on other important community issues like transportation or gun control.
As things work, as little pieces fit into place, you begin to see the shape of a process. The trick is moving from pieces that work to a routine that fits the modern workflow of newsrooms.
Because as much as we need to change journalism, we can only do so by fitting into existing flows.
3. Learn and repeat
We recently worked with Univision to build a Facebook Messenger bot for them for a soccer tournament. They simply turned the bot on, didn’t promote it, and more than 700 people began messaging in.
As they interacted with the bot, they began telling stories, sharing an intimate view of their lives through the lens of a sport they loved.
“We need to learn how to engage in a meaningful conversation with the audience instead of treating them as headline clickers. But we need to create a workflow where these things fit into the routine.”
– Carlos Martinez de la Serna, head of innovation, Univision Beta
Experiments like these are part of a larger strategy, which more newsrooms are beginning to embrace, of genuinely listening and responding to people instead of treating them like a mass audience
As more of us make that intellectual leap, then comes the really hard part, which is building systems to support that work, day in, day out.
Just as we have for more than 100 years built technologies and networks to support sending signals and text to the masses, just as we developed businesses to support that work, just as we developed culture and habits to feed those one-way transmissions.
So must we now create new routines, new habits and cultures around listening. That takes understanding how we work, how we want to work, and endless iteration and reiteration.
But all of that work starts with a word we’re not comfortable using in journalism. Love.
We’re trained, acculturated to be jaded, hard-bitten, world weary. We’re supposed to believe that when people are mad at us we’re doing our job. We’re supposed to keep the public at arm’s length, and by god, don’t read the comments!
But I truly believe, to quote the title of Jay Allison’s book on Story Corps, that listening is an act of love
If you love your community then you assume best intentions, even if they come packaged in ad hominem, anger, even what appears to be hate. You believe that there’s a kernel of humanity in everyone, that everyone has a story to tell.
And besides, listening is and will remain one of the few things that we do better than the robots, no matter how much they try and fake it.