Listening Without Prejudice

By John Crowley.

At this year’s International Journalism Festival in Perugia, there was a steep incline I would navigate each morning to get to the town centre. The steps of Sant’Ercolano bend around a Baroque church of the same name. It’s all about the ‘journey’ these days and, after I’d dragged my carcass to the top of the hill each morning, I would drink in the view, panting for breath, driven by one journalistic thought: “What in heaven’s name possessed me into having that extra glass of Grappa last night?”

From the outside looking in, Perugia might be seen as therapy for jaded journalists. Who fancies sitting atop a medieval Italian town, gazing into the middle distance and momentarily forgetting our industry’s woes? Sure, the spritzers slip down well, but the breadth and quality of IJF is astounding.

Hundreds of speakers tackled subjects such as trust in the media, migration, fact-checking, confronting trauma, local journalism, diversity and inclusion, business models, freedom of expression, philanthropy in the media, and much more. Up to 200 volunteers made such a massive undertaking run smoothly. All the events were live-streamed. Here are some of the best I saw on photojournalism, subscriptions and membership, Campbell Brown of Facebook’s no-show, what algorithms mean for the media industryautomation and AI in the newsroom, ethics in the hotseatdoing less better and, yes, much more – (NB: I missed some of these in person but caught up with them via the stream; you should too).

The power brokers from the big platforms sponsor IJF and were in attendance (some more than others) but no org or platform was beyond reproach. IJF is the utter antithesis of a corporate conference. Panels are held in the hot, sweaty confines of Renaissance palaces. And because it’s free, the public pour in, filling seats for what may frankly be slightly esoteric debates about our industry. They really give a stuff, and ask us tough questions. The debates don’t have the feel of internal workshops as a result. On the sidelines, there was business, hiring and, yes, gossip to be done. (The most popular whispered question this year was: ‘How much has your Facebook traffic dropped by?’)

The feeling abounds that the insights gleaned from Perugia are often transformed into deliverable, practical benefits for our industry. It was against this backdrop of conversation and endeavour that the European Journalism Centre organised its first meeting of its News Impact Network (itself supported by the Google News Initiative). By dint of luck I found myself in the company of 15 other journalists who have been asked to explore new ideas for journalism in Europe. With laser-guided focus, we are honing in on four aspects: community strategies and revenue models; organisational culture, workflows and processes; social impact via community engagement; and leadership, engagement and newsroom transformation. For the next eight months we are undertaking our own individual challenges with the hope of coming up with concrete, usable takeaways.

(Photo by Guido Baumhauer)

At Perugia, we broke up into groups of four where we were asked to bounce around our ideas and, using design thinking, shape our questions into something more concrete. For someone who has been committing journalism for 20 years, it was an eye-opener to come into contact with people, from a diverse range of backgrounds, crackling with energy, drive and a mission to put our industry on a sustainable footing. Having long-held assumptions challenged was an experience I came out the better for.

My own individual task is, like wishing for world peace, a massive ask but also something that has been gnawing away at me for some while: we are just listening far too much.

I spent years copy-tasting on newspapers where my eyes would glaze over at the stories I would have to select or bin. And then I would be bollocked the next day when I missed a story. At one outlet, I would take a day off and come back to be greeted by 1,000 emails – only around 10 of which were of any use to me. God forbid if I took a week off. By the time I left people had given up. Asked why we couldn’t come up with a better solution to communicate, you’d be met with a Gallic shrug and “this is just the way it is” response. At another we used three different chat apps to communicate with each other internally.

(Photo by Paula Montañà Tor)

We have a plethora of signals, nudges and notifications hurled at us 24/7. Of course, I’m not against newsgathering per se – it’s absolutely essential for journalists to communicate the information we receive. But how many dashboards do you have up because of FOMO? For me, it’s a tyranny of information. Perhaps, just by putting our ear to the ground for that little bit longer, we are stopping ourselves from committing better journalism? We often have to deal with graphic imagery but there is something to be said about how productivity is impacted first and foremost by a surfeit of noise.

Being bombarded with information is dizzying and confusing and is making our jobs harder to do. We are often told to deliver easily digestible content – but fail to acknowledge we have a bad case of indigestion ourselves.

Surely, with falling revenues and resources, we can filter and listen better?

To that end, I will be asking journalistic colleagues and newsrooms – how do you listen? Are you overwhelmed with the information you receive? And what processes do you use to streamline the input you receive?

If you’re a third-party outlet that provides information to news publishers, what suggestions do you have? To be clear, I don’t want this challenge to be a knocking piece on third-party dashboards. Could you join forces with other interested parties to offer solutions? I would love to hear from you.

Speaking to colleagues in the industry about this mission, they have pushed me and asked what success or change would represent? They have reminded me that digital journalism and the orgs that power it are in a state of constant evolution and should benefit “the lives of its users”.

This could ultimately be a report, a training framework, a new product or something completely different. I don’t know what I am going to come up with just yet. To me, at the moment, it’s a little like looking up at the steep incline of Sant’Ercolano each morning I spent in Perugia.

But I did get to the top each day. Eventually.

Top photo by John Crowley

Additional reading: Journalists under pressure: “We should be talking to a psychologist about this.”

John Crowley is a digital editor and consultant. Follow him on Twitter @mrjohncrowley This article was reprinted with permission.