“Not only have the digital dimes not added up, but our addiction to scale and its primary fuel, social media, have created the illusion of expanding reach while actually eroding what made us indispensable in the first place: our role as trusted guides to a rapidly changing world.”
In order to earn the trust of the public, he urged newsrooms to start by listening — by “tuning into the concerns and voices of the whole community.”
Turns out that Andrew was off by a year. 2018 is actually “The Year of Listening.”
With the smoke bomb of 2017 now clearing, newsrooms can see that better listening and engagement are no longer “nice to have,” but are absolutely critical priorities for making good on their democratic obligations, as well as for their financial well-being.
Throughout 2018, then, the News Integrity Initiative is hosting a celebration of innovative community journalism. We will highlight creative, inspiring examples of newsrooms listening to and engaging with their communities, as well as civic dialogue projects that are fostering understanding and respect between people from diverse backgrounds. You will hear from a variety of innovative and just plain awesome folks about how they think about listening in their work and lives, as well as what we’re learning from research on bridging divides, and the science of change.
We also will host events and workshops throughout the year to help imagine and bring to fruition the opportunities for our communities when we commit to listening and learning from one another.
We’ve gotten a head start by supporting a number of tools and guides for better listening and engagement, and we will be sharing brand new ones with you, too. We also will be offering some special opportunities for you to experiment with them and get expert help.
On top of all of that, we’ve got a few tricks up our sleeves that will be both inspirational and fun.
Join us for The Year of Listening, won’t you? Send us your thoughts and tips on listening, cool projects you think we should know about, ideas for events, or other activities you think we should consider this year. We’re all ears.
Last year, 25 newsrooms that cover New Jersey joined the collaborative reporting initiative Voting Block. Together, we pioneered a new way to cover elections that brought together newsrooms to use the same engagement framework to inform their reporting. The goal: to spark political dialogue in New Jersey, amplify local priorities from the public for the next governor’s agenda and deepen engagement between communities and newsrooms.
To do this, each Voting Block newsroom chose a neighborhood, convened neighbors for a meal, facilitated a discussion using our “Political Potluck” guide and reported on the gubernatorial election through the lens of these neighborhood conversations.
Coordinated by The Center for Cooperative Media, The Center for Investigative Reporting and New America Media, Voting Block brought together a diverse cohort of media organizations, including WNYC, WHYY, NJ Spotlight, The Record, Route 40, Zaman Amerika and Reporte Hispano, to collectively pilot this reporting method. The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation provided critical funding to support the project.
In the end, Voting Block newsrooms talked with more than 100 neighbors about their political priorities, produced over 70 local stories and together provided statewide coverage of the election as a network.
“Voting Block was a great series for NJ Spotlight because it both helped us understand what issues were important to readers and how they were thinking about the election,” NJ Spotlight Editor Lee Keough said.
“It was gratifying for both us and our group (of neighbors) because by the time the series ended, there was better communication and a much deeper understanding of one another. The group started out very angry and defensive of their positions, with an overall antipathy against one another,” said Keough. “Six months later, they were talking about meeting to discuss issues without NJ Spotlight because they didn’t want it to end.”
We hope other newsrooms will adopt the Voting Block model for the upcoming 2018 midterm elections, so we want to share how we we did it and what we learned in New Jersey.
1) Pick an election that is important to, or will have an impact on, your community.
We chose New Jersey’s gubernatorial race because it was one of the first gubernatorial elections since the Trump presidency began and an election with very little civic engagement.
Voting Block’s reporting methodology, which sparks conversations about politics across the political divide, is particularly apt for covering both divisive elections and races with low voter turnout because it gets people engaged.
For instance, Trenton artist Khalilah Sabree was apathetic about the election. After participating in a Voting Block dinner, she reflected on how the conversation affected her, saying, “I am not inspired to vote, but I am determined.”
That said, the Voting Block approach is incredibly flexible and can be applied to any election in your area.
2) Forge partnerships with newsrooms and community organizations.
No newsroom alone has the resources to fan out across a state and go deep with neighbors in dozens of communities. Collaboration takes hard work and time, but participating newsrooms found the investment worthwhile. You can see a map of the New Jersey neighborhoods we focused on here.
With support from CCM, CIR and NAM, Voting Block newsrooms collectively amplified their coverage of the election by cross-publishing each other’s stories, pooling resources and coordinating story publication dates.
We worked with non-English language media and hyperlocal news outlets to ensure the project reflected diverse communities around the state. In order to maximize our reach we also worked with local public libraries, arts organizations such as ArtWorks Trenton and other civically engaged groups such as Creative New Jersey, Free Press and Media Mobilizing Project to reach communities that we might not have otherwise.
3) Find individuals in prospective neighborhoods to participate.
Recruiting residents to participate was the most difficult part of Voting Block. All participants had to agree to meet their neighbors over a meal to talk about politics on the record – and that’s a big ask, especially for folks who might not want their name attached to their political views. We found that being able to clearly articulate what we were asking neighbors to do helped put people at ease and more amenable to participating.
Voting Block reporters conducted outreach by going into the community and meeting people where they were already gathering and organizing. We got in touch with local neighborhood and business associations and asked for their input in recommending potential participants. We kept an eye on local events in the neighborhood that could connect us to potential participants.
“I found the ‘mayor’ of the block, the person who knows how to get a streetlight fixed, the person who people ask about who to vote for on the school board and the person who hosts lots of parties at her house,” said WNYC managing editor Nancy Solomon. “She was the perfect person to take me around and introduce me to others.”
We also used online groups such as Facebook, NextDoor and other local email listservs to conduct outreach. And we made sure to knock on doors and perform in-person outreach to connect with folks who aren’t online.
4) Write a profile of each community that is part of the reporting.
The first round of stories that participating newsrooms published helped set the scene for each community, highlighting the demographics, political and social leanings and history. Reporters also focused on the core participants that we followed on each block and how they viewed the gubernatorial race and the current political climate overall. These community profiles were published in coordination with each other and helped launch the Voting Block project to the greater public.
5) Break bread with neighbors in each featured community.
We harnessed the power of food to bring people together to talk about potentially divisive issues, such as property taxes, marijuana legalization and education funding. For example, Route 40 recapped a discussion among community members in Pleasantville that stressed the state’s need for a strong leader and WHYY spotlighted how residents in Paulsboro felt left behind by politicians.
Using our guide, several New Jerseyans hosted their own potlucks and reported back to us with their results. Some enjoyed the conversation so much that they plan to host more potlucks around other issues. Gil Issacs of Scotch Plains told us, “I would love to do it again. Everyone was really positive and everyone said they were glad they came out and it was a good dialogue.”
6) Leverage the power of the collaborative network to engage the greater public.
We created several opportunities for voters beyond core Voting Block participants to inform newsrooms’ election reporting.
For example, WNYC invited its broader audience to submit questions about the gubernatorial candidates, which garnered more than 400 responses. Voting Block reporters grouped questions by topic and collectively answered them.
We also created a text-message campaign through GroundSource asking New Jerseyans to text us and share their priorities for the next governor’s first 100 days. We received more than 300 submissions, which we turned into a “People’s Agenda” that we ultimately delivered to Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration.
7) Keep the conversation going during – and after – the election.
Voting Block newsrooms identified opportunities for follow-up stories from each neighborhood to track how voters were responding to the campaign and what they want to see addressed. Partners produced stories that sought local voters’ insights on top-level campaign issues such as property taxes and affordable housing throughout the campaign.
In order to keep the neighborhoods engaged with the issues and elections, newsrooms hosted debate watch parties and reported on their reactions to the candidates’ performances. Check out NJ Spotlight’s post-debate recap from Long Valley.
Voting Block newsrooms continued covering their neighborhoods after the election by reporting on their reactions and hopes for the new governor. Read Zaman Amerika’s follow-up with Woodland Park neighbors or CivicStory’s catch-up with Berkeley Heights residents for how to maintain engagement post-election.
We are currently working with social scientist researcher Lindsay Green-Barber of Impact Architects to evaluate this project. We will release a case study evaluating Voting Block in spring 2018.
Want to know more? Please direct your questions to the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University at email@example.com and The Center for Investigative Reporting at firstname.lastname@example.org.
So, our engagement team focused on finding the right audience — not just the biggest — to not only share our reporting but to help us do reporting. As we wrote last year, that meant hiring journalists who specialize in building and cultivating communities. We decided to call them engagement reporters, and we hired three great ones: Adriana Gallardo, Ariana Tobin and Logan Jaffe.
The result? Lots of good journalism that would otherwise not have existed. Here are a few things the public helped us report.
You helped us tell the story of why America is the most dangerous place in the developed world in which to give birth.
One of ProPublica’s most read stories last year was the tale of a neonatal nurse who died while giving birth at her own hospital. It was the first story in our series examining maternal care in the U.S.
But it wasn’t the first thing we published in this series. That wasn’t a story at all. It was a question and a request: “Do you know someone who died or nearly died in childbirth? Help us investigate maternal health.”
We started the crowdsourcing effort in February, three months before the first story in the series ran. Since then, we’ve collected nearly 5,000 stories from mothers and families affected by maternal complications or deaths.
The thousands of personal stories played a crucial in our coverage. It helped put a name and face to many of the estimated 700 to 900 women who die each year from complications related to pregnancy or childbirth; it helped show how severe complications for mothers are skyrocketing; and it helped us create an advice guide for mothersby mothers who nearly died.
And we didn’t leave it there. Engagement reporter Adriana Gallardo paired mothers and daughters to talk to each other about how maternal complications have impacted their families (contains audio). Here’s a sublime thread Adriana wrote about that.
You helped us find Facebook turning a blind eye to hate.
You helped us go through White House staffers’ financial disclosures and find stories.
On a Friday night in April, the Trump administration said it was making White House staffers’ financial disclosure forms available. The disclosures laid out details like ownership of stock, real estate and companies — the kind of information that’s vital to ferret out potential conflicts. But there was a catch: The White House required a separate request for each staffer’s disclosure, AND it didn’t give the names of the staffers. With the help of readers and our partners at The New York Times and Associated Press, we pierced the administration’s attempt at opacity, found the names and made the disclosures public.
You helped us uncover members of Congress misleading constituents about Obamacare.
Early last year, a reader sent us an email she received from Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., after she sent him an email supporting the Affordable Care Act. A statistic cited by a senator’s office didn’t seem right to her. She asked us to fact-check it. We did. Blunt’s note was misleading and lacked key context. But we also thought: What were other members of Congress telling their constituents?
We asked the public to send in any correspondence they may have received from a member of Congress regarding the ACA. We partnered with Vox, Kaiser Health News and STAT News. Hundreds of letters came in. What we found: “They’re full of lies and misinformation.”
You helped us show the reality of the Trump Organization’s announced hotel expansion.
Last year, the Trump Organization announced it would be expanding its hotel business. It said it had 39 deals across the country. But it wouldn’t say where they were or who they were with. So we asked for your help to find them. (The Trump Hotels CEO called the effort “inappropriate and irresponsible.”) We received dozens of tips, and found false starts, fizzled-out partnerships, and, often, no signs of deals at all.
What to expect this year.
ProPublica’s mission is the same as ever — to do revelatory, powerful journalism that exposes injustices and spurs change. We on the engagement team want to use the skills we’ve developed to do more of it. We plan to do more work that is technology- and platform-based, more engagement with those who are civically involved and more crowd-driven projects that span investigations.
We told you we would share our experiences as we go — what we’ve learned from each project. We did someofthat, but we want to do more. We want to not only be transparent and collaborative in our reporting, but also in how we’re doing it.
And, finally, what kind of post about participation, community and crowdsourcing would this be without asking for your help: What are your ideas? What should we be doing more of? Interested in this type of work? Get in touch. We’re always listening.
Reprinted with permission. Terry Parris Jr. is ProPublica’s deputy editor, engagement. Prior to joining ProPublica, he led digital production and engagement at WDET 101.9 FM, NPR’s affiliate in Detroit.
2017 was a difficult year for so many of the people we crossed paths with in communities across our state.
We will never forget the young lady in Madison County who was living without her incarcerated father and her mother who had disappeared because she was probably “on some stuff,” as the student’s grandmother told me in the pew of a small country church.
We still get emotional when we visit the closed Princeville Elementary in Edgecombe County and recall the impacts of Hurricane Matthew a year-plus later.
Yet these stories, as difficult as they might be, serve to remind us of what is possible when solutions are crafted by the community with the community in mind.
In Madison County, PAGE serves as a lifeline and a launching pad for the young woman we met and others just like her. PAGE hires residents from the community and invests in young women who will lead the way forward for Madison County and perhaps the entire region.
We took philanthropists and policymakers to Madison County last August to talk about what it would mean to give every rural adolescent an opportunity to lead.
In Edgecombe County, innovative leaders are actively engaging their community in conversations about the future of Princeville Elementary, tackling trauma sensitive learning and racial equity within the school system.
We took philanthropists and policymakers to Edgecombe County last March to talk about what it would mean to give every rural adolescent an opportunity to thrive.
These ground up solutions bring us and others hope. This has fueled our thinking about the need to lift up the public in public policy and our work to build Reach NC Voices.
EducationNC launched in 2015 with one core belief — our work is all about our students. But even then, we knew to create meaningful change for our students, we also had to understand their families, their communities, and their lives. We knew educational outcomes were not determined just within the classroom walls. The neighborhoods they live in, the churches they go to, and the places their parents work all matter.
So one year ago, we launched the next iteration of our work with our landmark initiative, Reach NC Voices. We believed we could take the conversations we were holding one-on-one with individuals across our state to scale. We wanted a wider audience to hear those conversations.
We believed our own architecture of participation could be expanded with ultimately more of our fellow North Carolinians benefiting from engaging in a conversation about our state. We dared to dream how this statewide conversation would shape our future.
We were concerned about the proliferation of technology and changes in lifestyle which studies have shown may contribute to a profound sense of isolation for many. Combine this with the decline of trust in institutions — especially trust in the media — and we began to wonder what this all could mean for the most essential act of citizenship: participation.
But as the responses, comments, stories, and photos began to trickle in — or flood, depending on the question — one thing was clear:
It is time to put the public back in public policy. The people across North Carolina are ready to weigh in.
We learned another thing. People care about the issues and are willing to participate when they understand the connection between the issue and their everyday lives and believe there is a way to change things for the better.
The idea of Reach NC Voices could best be described as a 21st century town square built on our belief that the act of truly listening is a revolutionary one, and that if we listen, then people will participate.
At this point, you might be wondering how Reach NC Voices works and how you might contribute.
Reach looks different depending on how you choose to engage.
We have a web-based chatbot.
We are available via Facebook messenger.
You can text us at 73224.
We also worked with our partners at Groundsource to build a data tool allowing us to share information you might need when you need it — serious or not! For example, back before the holidays we invited you to text SNOW to 73224 to see your chances of snow on Christmas and more than 800 of you texted in.
That might seem a bit silly, but almost half of you who responded went on to share your hopes and dreams for 2018, and the majority opted in to being part of our Reach NC Voices conversation going forward.
We have worked diligently with our resourceful partners at Public Input and Groundsource to make sure that all of our technology works seamlessly together. Whether you share thoughts on a Facebook post, text in, respond by email, or take a fairly standard looking survey, all of your responses go to our unique Reach NC Voices data dashboard where our reporters and researchers can comb through the data.
The dashboard serves as our hub for your conversation, generating visualizations for us so we know quickly what is on your mind.
It serves as our one stop shop to manage our relationship with you. We look at each of you as members in our attempt to revolutionize listening and put the public back in public policy. You matter to us.
This fall in user testing we learned a lot from you. You want us to be conversational with you. You want the information we provide you to be personalized. You want us to listen and provide you with the ability to engage and act beyond the conversation.
This has led us to do what EdNC always does, go out in community even more.
This winter, residents of Durham and Tarboro could find us on coffee sleeves.
At their holiday parades.
And hosting community conversations.
We heard your hopes, dreams, worries, and aspirations.
We believe all of this conversation, and all of the listening, will add up to something. We believe we can garner your input and use it to impact public policy and shape the future of North Carolina.
Thousands of teachers shared their perspective on professional learning with us in partnership with the Hope Street Group, and the Department of Public Instruction will review their thoughts moving forward.
Our work on access to healthy food and school nutrition directors is driving a discussion about addressing hunger as an instructional strategy.
We are releasing a report on teacher housing thanks to hundreds of teachers responding to questions we posed around their opportunities for living near their school in housing they can afford.
This year, Reach NC Voices will inform the work of My Future NC by surveying the state and communities across the state about college attainment.
Reach NC Voices informs EdNC’s news, allowing the public to inform our journalism.
Reach NC Voices informs EdNC’s research, allowing us to uncover and understand the layers of community perspectives on an issue.
Reach NC Voices informs our engagement with you, allowing us to make sure people are connected us, to one another around “communities of purpose,” and to policymakers. Look for us to deepen our our work in Nash, Edgecombe, and Halifax counties in the east and in the Unifour (Hickory-Lenoir-Morganton-Taylorsville) heading west.
Thanks to the ongoing support of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina and the investment of the News Integrity Initiative, we are accelerating our own investment in technology, including bringing more partners such as Hearken to the table so we can meet your needs.
Our colleague Molly de Aguiar with the News Integrity Initiative launched a website in the new year: The Year of Listening. She writes, “With the smoke bomb of 2017 now clearing, newsrooms can see that better listening and engagement are no longer ‘nice to have,’ but are absolutely critical priorities for making good on their democratic obligations, as well as for their financial well-being.” As she says, it is about listening, about bridging divides, and about the science of change.
Reprinted with permission. Nation Hahn is the Chief Growth Officer for EdNC. Nation manages the Reach NC Voices initiative for EducationNC which is focused on putting the public back in public policy. Follow Nation on Twitter @NationHahn.
Let’s start with a simple premise: Journalism at its core and at its best, is a service.
Is that fair? Yes?
Then, it follows that the crisis in trust that journalism is facing reflects, at some level, a failure of service. We can argue about the culprits and the roots of this failure. But we all share in the problem and need to take responsibility for solving it.
Certainly it’s not an issue of quantity — never before have we had access to so much information. And it may not even be one of quality — never before have we had access to so much smart and informed writing and opinion.
Journalism is suffering from a problem of connection.
Connecting people with information they are looking for or need (vs. will click on). Connecting journalists with people who are left out of the conversation. Connecting newsrooms with underserved communities.
If a lack of a connection is the problem, then what might be the solution?
We believe it’s relationships.
What should the 21st century newsroom be optimized for — production and efficiency or trust and relationships?
The core functions of newsrooms are to listen broadly and deeply, and then distribute what was learned.
Over time and technological innovation, newsrooms have optimized for production: to efficiently push an increasing volume of content out on various channels, rather than optimizing for listening — the necessary preceding part that builds relationship and trust.
How do we know newsrooms aren’t optimized for listening? Many have shut down their comments sections. See if you can find, in one or two clicks, how to get in touch with a reporter, or even the main number or email of a newsroom. Go into their social media feeds and note the mix of posts pushing out content versus calls for stories or feedback, or responses to people in the feeds. Hunt for any opportunity where you’d have a chance at truly being heard by them. And then be left to wonder if any person who actually isresponding from the newsroom has a process or the power to take what they’re hearing from you to those in charge. And then wonder if there’s actually any incentive for those in charge to change anything.
Not long ago, the industry learned the hard way that when newsrooms don’tlisten well, they fundamentally misunderstand the experiences and needs of the public. They get the story wrong, (very wrong) which erodes credibility and weakens the very purpose and function of journalism in a democracy.
In other words: optimizing for listening, and for trust, is a BFD.
Listening is not about deploying a shiny new tool while continuing business as usual. It’s about fundamentally shifting how a newsroom thinks, behaves and serves the public. Technology can help make some of that work more efficient, but it’s not about technology. It’s about refocusing efforts to public first, production efficiency and distribution second, and having workflows and job descriptions follow.
Change of course, is hard. Newsrooms must experience the power and efficacy of listening in order to believe, or perhaps remember, how critically important (and fulfilling) it is.
EnterThe Community Listening and Engagement Fund (CLEF, for short). It’s designed to help newsrooms rebuild those connections and deepen relationships, by helping newsrooms generate capacity and muscle for listening and engagement.
If you’re a musical person, you may know already the origin of the word “clef” means “key.” And it’s no accident we named the fund accordingly. Listening truly is the key to unlock the purpose and promise of journalism’s role in society and democracy. 🗝
At this point, if you work in a newsroom and are interested in getting in on this, you’ll have a lot of questions.
But you also may be wondering more about GroundSource and Hearken. What are they?
Hearken enables news organizations to listen to and engage the public as a story develops from pitch to publication. Our unique public-powered methodology and supporting engagement management system platform leads to top-performing, differentiated and award-winning stories while also growing newsletter signups, paid subscribers and membership. An annual subscription to Hearken includes expert consulting, training, their custom platform, data reports and entry to a global community of best practices. Developed out of WBEZ as part of AIR’s 2012 Localore initiative, Hearken is now at work in more than 100 newsrooms around the world in various formats (TV, radio, newspaper, digital) and content types (feature investigations, breaking news, beat reporting, live events, topic-based or geographic-based coverage).
GroundSource is a platform newsrooms use to build and scale two-way relationships with audiences and communities via mobile messaging and voice. It’s also a service that helps newsrooms imagine and implement new ways of reaching out to communities, building trust, and becoming more responsive to their needs and interests. GroundSource is in service at dozens of newsrooms, civic organizations and nonprofits around the US, and around the world — and customers report much higher engagement (open and response) rates than email newsletters, and success in sustaining relationships over time. Founder Andrew Haeg created GroundSource out of his work as a magazine and public media journalist, and as co-founder of the Public Insight Network at American Public Media.
Can Hearken and GroundSource be used together? Why yes. Here’s how the Washington D.C.-based WAMU’s national talkshow 1A is doing just that.
WAMU’s 1A Talkshow — A CASE STUDY
“You ignore the audience’s voice and curiosity at your own detriment,” says Gabe Bullard, senior producer of the national radio talk show 1A, a production of WAMU in Washington, D.C.
Gabe Bullard, senior producer of 1A.
Bullard came up through local journalism and newsrooms, first in St. Louis and later in Kentucky at WFPL in Louisville.
For Bullard, audience engagement has always been a natural reflex — “You’re always doing this for the audience” he says.
So when given the opportunity, and the resources, to build a radio show from scratch, he and other producers wanted to build a genuine audience feedback loop into the very DNA of the show. They use the Hearken to invite the audience to suggest and then vote on show ideas, and GroundSource to text out questions to a growing community of 5,000 plus audience members.
Using GroundSource, they they’ll hear back from hundreds of people within minutes, sharing personal stories and questions — some of which they’ll read on air, and all of which help them see where they’re hitting or missing the mark.
“You can speak to everyone, and broadcast out, anyone can find the show, but having people who give feedback to you and make what you’re offering stronger is good,” Bullard says. “It gives the listeners a voice in what we’re doing”
1A often invites its fans to use a Hearken module to send in questions about specific show topics (for example, Bitcoin). Near the end of 2017, the show invited listeners to send in questions about any and all topics, to help them shape the show’s calendar for 2018. Bullard filtered through the responses, and invited the audience to vote on which of the top questions the show should pursue. “A lot of the ideas that came in were ideas we might not have thought of.”
The capacity to listen to their audience, ask questions, and be asked in return, gives Bullard a daily, deep connection to the 1A audience — an invaluable finger on the pulse of whether their show is truly the service they hope it to be.
“What Hearken and and GroundSource offer is this ability to read the audience really well and find out what the audience is thinking,” Bullard says. Plus, he says, “it shows listeners that we are listening.”
The two, together, give Bullard and host Joshua Johnson a feel for their audiences interests and curiosity day-in, day-out in a way that comments sections or call-in lines can’t touch in terms of scale and manageability.
“You want to tell people something they don’t know.” Bullard says. “Or even so they can be informed or delighted or knowledgeable about the world and the systems around them,” he says.
“It’s not just the quantity of comments and interactions,” he says — though it’s great to see traffic spike on Chartbeat. “But it’s even better,” he says, “when you look at what they’re saying and sharing personal stories and asking insightful questions showing that they value the information, and give something back to us.”
So if trust is the big problem in journalism, how does building these kinds of connections with the audience do anything to solve that?
“It sounds basic,” Bullard says, “but you trust someone you know more than a stranger who’s walking up and telling you something.” And using Hearken and GroundSource has allowed 1A to be less like a stranger speaking from on high, and more like a friend chatting with the audience like other friends, asking questions, and being genuinely curious to ask (and answer) questions in return. “Hearing your own voice reflected in journalism, and having your own curiosity addressed, I think goes a really long way to building trust.”
But here’s the rub: Bullard works with a national show, with a big audience, and while they don’t have a big staff, they have enough capacity to pay for and manage these tools day in day and day out.
We talk to many newsrooms around the country, and around the world, and know that a lack of resources and capacity is a big barrier to doing this kind of engagement at smaller newsrooms — the kind where Bullard used to work.
“I think people are really really open to trying these things,” Bullard says, “but not having the resources to do all of this is something I hear a lot more, and is a real thing,” he says.
Last night in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood a roomful of journalists and community members gathered to discuss the launch of the University of Texas in Austin’s Center for Media Engagement research analyzing Chicago audiences by neighborhood, roughly divided by the north, west and south-side regions. This event was a part of the Chicago civic media lab City Bureau’s Public Newsroom convening series.
In full disclosure, I was a program officer at the Robert R. McCormick Foundation and recommended the funding of this study, mostly to get updated baseline data on audience attitudes in specific regions I already knew were identified “information deserts” based on past studies in a new social media as ubiquitous newsfeed reality. (Newsflash: the majority of Chicago residents surveyed get their news from social media!)
It’s no secret that Chicago is a highly segregated major city – and that racially and socioeconomically the South and West sides tend to be predominantly black and brown and poorer than their predominantly white northern counterpart. The Center for Media Engagement study showed that the differences in attitudes toward local news by region are particularly striking, which we always kind of suspected, but didn’t realize how large the disparities actually were.
Studies like these (including this more recent national one by the Media Insight Project) and their key takeaways (i.e., if you come from a disenfranchised community you tend to be more dissatisfied with how your communities are represented in the media) may land a bit like “water is wet” epiphanies.
But this study took the next step beyond the obvious by also pointing out that misrepresented communities are audiences of missed opportunity, because despite being dissatisfied with local news coverage of their communities, these audiences were more likely to volunteer and civically engage to improve their communities – and audiences were more likely to donate to high quality local news that was freely accessible rather than paying for a subscription service.
Talia Stroud, director of the Center for Media Engagement
This, in conjunction with the recent Knight and Gallup study released earlier this week, shows that audiences value and consider high quality journalism a critical public service. We just have to listen better and produce more relatable, authentic content.
This was the heart of the community conversation that ensued. The Center for Media Engagement, in partnership with City Bureau, began a brainstorm of next steps as the room broke out in small groups with facilitated questions.
Here were some key takeaways that surfaced from the community conversation:
Many reporters feel under-resourced to go more deeply with discovering the best sources for communities with which they aren’t familiar.
Meeting the pressures of deadline can interfere with finding the best sources that know his/her community intimately. And developing relationships and trust with communities (especially communities that public institutions have historically and systemically betrayed and disenfranchised) take time.
Management needs to make smarter business decisions that prioritize reporters building relationships with communities, including investing in editors that support community-first relationship building and authentic coverage and will nurture a pipeline of journalists who actually reflect the communities served.
Jen Sabella, former deputy editor of the now defunct (but very much missed and beloved) DNAinfo Chicago, implored journalists, editor and management to “get out of their goddamn Loop offices and out into the communities.” (sidenote: Jen was one of a cadre of emerging, mid-management leaders in the Chicago journalism community that I was hoping to take over shops like DNAinfo at an executive level to demonstrate the business case for community-first approaches. She’s now managing editor of The A.V. Club’s new foodsite The Takeout.)
I was delighted to see Chicago Public Media’s Curious City producer Jesse Dukes in attendance and engaged, as Curious City was created at WBEZ by Hearken’s Jenn Brandel in 2012. But I couldn’t help think about the fact that although Curious City stories have proven time and time again (and still do) over the years that they are WBEZ’s most popular stories, the project is still relegated to a quirky side project that still hasn’t been integrated throughout the newsroom to shift its news-making practices.
This audience study can be augmented by a content-side analysis of the adjectives often used by local media to describe these neighborhoods.
A community stakeholder and lead project manager for a digital photo archiving project for the Chicago Defender Angela Ford described preliminary research she has performed showing that analyzing local media’s actual coverage of south and west-side communities shows that the local media tends to use negative and disparaging language when characterizing stories from those communities:
“We need to make sure we’re not saying that these audiences who are dissatisfied as the problem, but also examine on the content-side that the audiences are reacting to consistent, negative portrayals of where they live.”
Stay tuned for how Chicago might prove that if we listen and convey stories that feel real, authentic and relatable to more and more communities, there might be a sustainability solution there for local journalism that the industry hasn’t effectively tapped into just yet.
More than 30 tools, guides and examples to help journalists — and anyone else — be better listeners.
In my weekly newsletter, The Local Fix, I compiled a list of guides, tools, and examples of how newsrooms can listen more deeply to local communities. I’m sharing it here in case it can be useful to others, and to encourage people to add to the list.
Listening Articles and Guides
Listening is a Revolutionary Act: Part 1 and Part 2 — Jesse Hardman
Finally, I want you to know that I’m listening. Share your additions, examples, stories and more as comments on this post. Help grow this as a resource.
Reprinted with permission. Josh Stearns is Associate Director of the Public Square Program at the Democracy Fund. Follow him on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/jcstearns. Featured photo by Don Graham, used via Creative Commons.
East Boston, Nuestra casa: A social journalism project that uses postcards to inform the Latino community in East Boston about the current housing crisis and the available resources to face it.
East Boston (Eastie), Boston’s fourth largest neighborhood, is being rapidly transformed. Its location and public facilities have made it attractive for a wave of developers and investors. They’re buying and renovating properties to rent them to young professionals and students who can pay much more than the Latino working class community that has been living there for more than two decades.
The fear of being displaced can be felt all around the neighborhood. You hear it in casual conversations on the bus; you read it on the “room-for-rent” signs on the laundromat’s cork boards. It’s told by the families who just got an eviction notice as they walk around Eastie on Sundays to see if they’re lucky enough to find a unit with the old affordable prices.
I’ve been reporting displacement in East Boston since 2015, and I’ve seen how it has rapidly snowballed. One of the variables that contributes to Latinos’ displacement is lack of information: Few of them know that getting an eviction notice doesn’t mean they actually have to leave, that they have tenants rights no matter their legal status in the country, and that there are NGOs and lawyers who could provide them free legal assistance. East Boston Nuestra Casa seeks to make that information more accessible to the Latino community in Eastie.
What is this project about?
East Boston, Nuestra Casa is a series of postcards that I made in collaboration with a group of Latino families who are facing eviction. The goal is to inform other Latinos about the causes of the housing crisis and the available resources they have to remain in the neighborhood.
We chose this printed format because it guarantees us that every tenant will receive the information directly to their home. Besides that, East Boston Nuestra Casa is a public Facebook page and a Facebook private group where more than 200 tenants are sharing their stories, questions and concerns.
This is a hybrid project between journalism and activism: It seeks to mitigate the anxiety caused by the housing crisis with useful information for the affected community.
Because a postcard is an intimate medium: You feel it’s addressed only to you. In that it differs from a flyer, a brochure or other massive formats.
The first postcard is a panoramic of downtown Boston taken from Eastie. On the stone is carved an ironic truth.
What’s on the back of the postcards?
The back of the postcards is divided. The left side is the same on every card. It’s meant to hook readers by describing some of the most common causes of displacement: huge rent increase, eviction notices, negligent landlords. After getting your attention, you’ll find information about the community meetings where tenants can get free legal assistance. The message is brief and it calls for action:
Hundreds of Latino families are being displaced from their homes in East Boston. Don’t wait until the problem knocks at your door: We can still organize ourselves and resist so we can stay in the community.
Has your rent skyrocketed? Have you received an eviction notice? Is your landlord reluctant to fix the unit where you live? It doesn’t matter if you’re an undocumented immigrant or if you have legal status: You have rights. Come to the community meetings where Harvard lawyers and the NGO City Life/ Vida Urbana have allied with Eastie’s tenants to offer free legal assistance.
Where and when are the meetings? 28 Paris St., Next to Maverick Square, Every Wednesday from 6:30 p.m. — 8:00 p.m. (Food is served)
Find more stories in www.facebook.com/EastBostonNuestraCasa
The design of the postcards was made by Colombian designer Laura Pérez.
The right section is different on each postcard. It’s handwritten and it combines both narrative and data to explain the dimensions of displacement. There are testimonies of Latinos who have been effectively evicted, and also of tenants who have won their cases in housing court. You can also find statistics about housing in Boston and read some policies that have been suggested to slow down displacement.
Each postcard is designed to be self-contained and work independently, but you can have a better picture of the housing crisis by reading all twelve of them.
A family dinner in East Boston.
How did all this get started?
I met most of the portrayed families thanks to the weekly community meetings facilitated by City Life / Vida Urbana, a nonprofit focused on housing and displacement. On average, 50 tenants — most of them Latinos — meet every Wednesday in the basement of an East Boston church to share updates about their cases, exchange support and helpful tips, discuss legal strategies with the lawyers and plan actions to raise awareness in other neighborhoods. It was in those meetings where I got to know the problems of the community and where I began thinking on how could I help them as a journalist.
There has been a constant concern during the community meetings:Thousands of Latinos in the neighborhood are ignorant of the resources available to help them fight their cases and try to stay in their homes. In response to that, I suggested creating an information campaign to reach those people and engage them with a discussion about displacement.
At the time, I was taking a photography class with artist and activist Lara Baladi at MIT, and her course helped me to come up with the postcards idea. I presented it to the community and they liked it. More than a dozen people — most of them women — raised their hands to volunteer. Even though many of them are undocumented, they were not discouraged with the idea of their portraits and testimonies circulating around the neighborhood. (However, to protect their privacy, we omitted their last names and, obviously, their addresses.)
How did the community participate?
While taking the portraits in their apartments, the families told me about how the threat of displacement has affected their health, their jobs or the education of their children. But even though they’re facing a very difficult situation, the process of making this project together was a happy one. They invited me to their family parties (where they made me drink aguardiente, a strong Colombian liquor that I had avoided for two years). I was with them until late in the night when their kids were getting ready for bed. I watched them play cards for hours, and I spent afternoons in their homes where they fed me with treats from the delicious Salvadoran bakery.
After taking the photos, we wrote the stories. I collected data about the housing market in Boston, and also about Latin American community. I found, for example, that the value of the properties in Eastie has increased 36 percent in the last two years, and that Latinos are the demographic group that earns the least money in Boston and across the United States. We put together those numbers with their testimonies.
Finally, we were lucky to have the support of Laura Pérez, a talented Colombian designer who created the graphic identity of the project.
What’s the stage of the process right now?
We have printed 5000 postcards thanks to the support of Northeastern University. Now we’re distributing them in specific areas of the neighborhood where the lawyers have seen a fast increase in the number of properties bought by corporations, a pattern that signals a potential increase in evictions in the next few months.
During these two months, a dozen volunteers have walked around the streets and put the postcards in the mailboxes that are marked with Latinos’ names (by law, we’re only allowed to put them in mailboxes that don’t belong to USPS.) We’re also handing them to Latinos on the street, in laundromats, and at bus stops and subway stations. Their response has been surprising: People want to talk about this, they know it could happen to anyone at any point. And, yes, most of them didn’t know about the meetings.
We’re distributing the postcards in areas like Eagle Hill, where the housing market is moving fast.
How are you measuring the impact of the project?
You could measure the impact by comparing the lists of attendance to the community meetings before, while and after distributing the postcards. If the strategy is successful we expect to see more Latinos every Wednesday.
The second metric would be the number of followers and their engagement in the Facebook private group.
However, we think that this project is already having an impact on the community. The collaborative process of making the postcards and the way they’re being distributed is starting a conversation in the neighborhood. The housing crisis in Boston has been well reported by local outlets, but not in Spanish.
What’s your personal interest in doing this work?
I’m one of the approximately 20,000 Latinos who live in East Boston. I felt at home when I arrived to the neighborhood, but I was also aware that my privilege as an international student was problematic: I’m one of the many students or young professionals moving to Eastie and competing with the working class community for housing units. I’m part of the problem, but could I also work with the community to find possible solutions?
Can this media tactic be replicated in other neighborhoods or cities?
East Boston is not the only neighborhood facing displacement in the U.S. We want this postcard journalism project to be useful for other communities that are in a similar situation. That’s why we are sharing the editable files of the postcards and a short guide of how to use them. The design is under a Creative Commons license (Attribution 4.0 International), so feel free to modify it and adjust it to your needs. Some of the photos are also licensed with Creative Commons (Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International) and you can download them here.
Have media outlets shown interest in this project?
Yes, and it has been very important. Nieman Lab, one of the most important journalism publications in the U.S. wrote a nice review about the project. And Univisión, the largest outlet in Spanish in the U.S., also wrote about us. That is helping to call attention about what’s happening in East Boston and is spreading the idea of postcard journalism and making it available for other communities in the country.
Have other reporters used postcards to tell their stories?
Yes. Photographers Anastasia Taylor-Lind (English/Swedish) and Mónica Gónzalez (Mexican), have done beautiful works using postcards as their medium. Do you know about someone else? We would love to hear about it.
Jorge Caraballo is the Engagement Editor for Radio Ambulante. He is a Columbian journalist and photographer, who recently completed a master’s degree in Media Innovation at Northeastern University on a Fulbright scholarship.
People don’t just consume news today. They participate in it.
People have access to vast and varied information. They pursue news on their own time, and on their own terms, connecting with others who share and help satisfy their curiosity about their world.
This presents an opportunity for news publishers strained by shrinking resources and growing competition: Now more than ever, journalists can engage their audiences as contributors, advisors, advocates, collaborators and partners.
This study describes in detail how newsrooms and independent journalists can grow their readership, boost their relevance and find new sources of revenue by listening to and learning from their audiences.
Reporters and editors can apply this knowledge to all phases of news production — including story selection, reporting, and distribution. These strategies also can help with the longer-term development of beats, sources, formats, and innovative news products. Over time, publishers embracing these strategies can strengthen their business and increase the impact of their work.
This report is part of the American Press Institute’s series of Strategy Studies, which offer detailed, practical strategic guidance about a critical issue that journalists and news organizations need to address.
For this study I talked with 25 news leaders and innovators to distill best practices in audience and community engagement. I consulted reporters and editors, managers and strategists, pioneers and leading thinkers in this field. These innovators work in many places: in legacy newspapers, digitally native outlets, radio and television stations, hyperlocal news outlets and technology startups. They serve national, local and hyperlocal audiences and have for-profit and nonprofit business models.
To be clear: This report is not a social media guide, a technical manual or a primer on marketing yourself or your stories. This is about how journalists can genuinely collaborate with audiences to improve their work, not simply to promote it. To the extent that certain technologies and promotional strategies help strengthen your work, we will address them. But this report was written with a point of view: Collaboration is not about what your audience can do for you, but what you can do with your audience.
To examine best practices, we’ll work through the basics of how to effectively interact with and tune in to the communities that can most strengthen your journalism. Then, we’ll look at a few ways newsrooms can build their capacity to engage their audiences.
When I agreed to teach audience development to a class of undergrads at West Virginia University (WVU), I wanted to focus on a few key segments of community management.
Those segments would be the core aspects of audience development: basic interviewing skills, user behavior, and safety and moderation. After all, a good foundation in these skills can help newsrooms convert a one-time reader into an evangelist. What I didn’t count on was how much I would first have to teach the skills of basic listening.
Listening is a skill that everyone thinks they do well. In truth, most of us are just waiting for the other person to finish talking so we can speak.
With the often-earned reputation of harassing commenters and anonymous Twitter trolls burned into our minds, many established journalists have created coping strategies based around listening less, and asserting themselves more. I had hoped that their future colleagues of a younger age would be less burned by these problems, and more open to community conversations. What I learned was that these students needed just as much listening instruction as the most experienced of journalists. I ended up dedicating a few classes to focusing on the basics of how to really hear what people are saying. Here’s what I did.
For a group of students just starting to learn about journalism, my WVU class was really good at certain things. They spent the semester working on the 100 Days in Appalachia project, learning about what constitutes a community (not just geography, certainly not in Appalachia), and how to speak to people and communities in a way that is not intrusive or bothersome. They became great at figuring out what the hook should be in a local interest story, and choosing what format – text or visual – a story should take on. But skillful listening was something that continued to escape them.
The hardest lesson to teach around listening is that you’re not doing it right the first time around. What do most people do instead of hearing people? We take in specific phrases and words. We become activated and excited by ideas that mimic our own, and then we wait for our turn to say something about those ideas.
After a semester working on our project, here are some of the most important lessons we learned:
If you want to become a good listener, you have to put yourself within a totally foreign group of people, about which you know almost nothing.
Having no base of knowledge means you are forced to more actively listen, in order to understand what’s happening. To then contextualize and make sense of things, you need to ask more thorough questions that relate specifically to what someone has just said. In journalism, the difference between a good interview and a simple list of responses is your ability to take hints from what has been said, and being willing to expand or shift the direction of your story at a moment’s notice.
I found that the students were a little nervous about leaving their bubbles and asking questions, but once they had been pushed into doing it, they weren’t shy to identify and reach out people. The one assignment they all achieved flawlessly was to find a group they knew nothing about, and to contact them; several utilized Facebook groups to target new interests and cultures. That openness is something even seasoned veterans can learn from.
When asking questions to people who are different from you, you need to learn to hold your tongue when they start to respond.
When they’ve finished speaking, you have to focus on responding with direct replies based on what the person said, not on shifting the conversation to the story you want them to tell. Take in and assess what’s being told to you, and listen for details that you want to learn more about. Staying quiet is a problem we all have: as a reporter and as a human being, we want to relate with the person we’re talking to, and to ask questions to further your existing work. However, by pausing, taking deep breaths, and focusing on the words and thoughts being expressed to you, your work will be all the better for it.
Don’t forget to ask “Why?”
Really think about the words you use when you ask a question. Do they help the flow of the conversation the way you intended? Are your questions open-ended enough to show you are curious about the direction of the answer? Be understanding, be empathetic, and don’t assume you know the answer before you ask the question.
None of this means you have to abandon your ability to be critical of what someone is saying. But whether you agree or not with someone, actually hearing them and trying to understand what they are saying and why, are the most important places to start.
Annemarie Dooling is Director of Programming at Racked.com, and the Knight Innovator in Residence 2017 at West Virginia University’s Reed College of Media. She formerly ran community at The Huffington Post.
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.
So I co-founded the Public Insight Network and later founded GroundSource, to systematically open up the reporting process to more voices, more perspectives, more expertise.
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.
The Goat Must Be Fed — a report on obstacles to innovation and digital tool adoption in newsrooms
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 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!
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.