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2018: The Year of Listening

For his Nieman Lab prediction last year, Andrew Haeg, founder and CEO of GroundSource, predicted that 2017 would be “The Year of Listening.” He wrote:

“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.

And please bookmark, where we will be sharing inspiration, resources, and lots more information all year long. Follow us on Twitter (also Molly de Aguiar + Jenny Choi) and Facebook.

And stay tuned for more announcements soon!

Engaging for trust: What news organizations can (and should) do right now

By Eric Garcia McKinley.

Impact Architects recently wrapped up a five month long research project, supported by the News Integrity Initiative at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York, in which we analyzed engagement practices at four organizations — Outlier Media, a small non-profit; ProPublica, a large non-profit with a national presence; Free Press: News Voices, an information advocacy organization; and McClatchy, a national for-profit publisher. We asked about the relationship of engaged journalism with trust, revenue, and civic engagement. It was illuminating to see how very different organizations approached engaged journalism, and the full research report details the ways in which the organizations converge and diverge, along with recommendations for news organizations and media funders.

But without diving into the (thorough!) report, it’s useful to ask what newsrooms can do to apply the research — right now.

Here are some actions organizations can take based on our findings. And while you can start to take action as soon as you’re done reading this blog, don’t expect the payoff to come as instant gratification. The impact associated with engaged journalism takes time. And don’t forget, you’ll need a measurement plan to see the changes.

1. Transparency is likely to lead to increased trust. Work to increase your organization’s transparency about journalistic practices and processes.

While additional research is needed to move from “likely” to “definitely,” organizations like McClatchy have good evidence that increasing their transparency is contributing to increased audience trust. Transparency can show up in journalistic practices and processes in a lot of ways, but at its core, it removes the shroud of mystery surrounding journalism. This can be something as simple as introducing reporters to audiences through an email newsletter, like some McClatchy publications in California do, including the Sacramento Bee. And deeper insight into a reporter’s motivations and ties to the community can help create a more intimate link between reporter and audience.

Strategy 1: “Get to know us.”

To replicate McClatchy’s strategy, identify a distribution platform for the targeted audience, then craft an introduction with transparency in mind. Who’s the audience for the “get to know” strategy? What do they already know about you and your organization? What questions might they have? And how would this act of transparency contribute to a lasting relationships?

Strategy 2: “Be one of us.”

ProPublica increases its transparency through crowdsourcing information from the audience. In this way, audience members are privy to the kind of information the organization needs in its reporting and can follow along as the reporter(s) continue to dig in and report out. And ProPublica frequently reports regarding how the audience’s information propelled investigations forward, demonstrating that the reporters are actually doing something with the information, and that the information is integral to the journalistic process. Find ways to invite your audience to be part of the reporting process, and bring them along with you as you continue to report the story.

Trusting News offers many additional resources about why, and how, media organizations can advance trust through transparency. In short, they ask: What are the ways you can tell your story to the public so they can get to know you? The answers will contribute to what a recent Knight Foundation reportcalls “radical transparency.”

2. A shared mission with the audience is a quick path to gaining trust. Ensure that your organization has a clear mission, and communicate it both in theory and in practice with your audience.

Outlier Media is an example of an organization with a very specific mission that is clearly communicated to its consumers, both in theory and in practice: To “identify, report, and deliver valuable information to empower [Detroit] residents to hold landlords, municipal government, and elected officials accountable for long standing problems in the housing and utilities markets.”

Outlier puts its mission into practice through its distribution method, SMS (GroundSource, specifically). Since Outlier first launched, hundreds of residents have chosen to respond to the text messages offering up free, specific, and actionable information, thereby entering into a relationship with Outlier Media. Residents engage even though they may not have much trust in the media, not to mention that they probably had never even heard of Outlier Media before the SMS introduction. Through the SMS back-and-forth, Detroit residents are offered the opportunity to ask questions directly of a reporter, and the Outlier Team responds to every question.

Outlier Media offers a blueprint for what mission alignment can look like at the organizational or project level. Whether large or small, it comes down to making the information needs of the intended audience the purpose of doing journalism. Larger newsrooms that want to build trust through engagement might think of project goals as mini mission statements. What engagement projects are you developing or working on right now? What does the intended audience need, and how can that be built in to the purpose of the work so that everyone working towards the same goal? Or, as Joy Mayer has put it, forget about “what” it is journalists do and think more deeply about the “why” of the work.

3. Use community organizing principles to conduct community outreach.

Your newsroom should spend time thinking about where it wants to build relationships and how to get there by using community organizing tactics. This means community mapping to figure out who you want to be in a relationship with, reaching out for face-to-face meetings, and listening deeply to their concerns and needs so that they become a part of the decision making process for future conversations. Free Press uses these tactics in its News Voices initiative to bring together community members and journalists in regular community events.

For instance, the Charlotte Observer (also a McClatchy publication) has partnered with Free Press for a North Carolina News Voices project. News Voices mediates the relationship between underserved Charlotte communities and the Observer, and after about eight months, the Observer has largely taken over hosting the monthly conversations with communities.

Organizing outreach isn’t something a newsroom can do at a moment’s notice, even with the help of an organization like Free Press. But by starting to think like a community organizer and setting an agenda for community outreach, newsrooms can eventually build genuine trust with their constituencies.

News Voices itself has a useful good guide for any newsroom to get startedwith using organizing principles to reach out to communities and build trust.

Ready: Go!

There are many actions newsrooms can take right now to engage for trust. However, actually seeing the trust as a payoff won’t be immediate. In the meantime, organizations have an opportunity to develop measurement strategies to understand how their engaged journalism practices are engendering trust. Engagement requires resources, and organizations must begin to see measuring the impact of their work as a necessary part of the work to ensure that these resources are being appropriately and adequately allocating resources. For instance, McClatchy newsrooms track mission fulfillment by answering yes or no mission based questions. A story moves forward if the editorial team identifies where it fits in the organization’s mission, and it’s counted successful if it followed through. Here are McClatchy’s questions:

  1. Will the story break news that holds leaders or institutions accountable?
  2. Will the story break news that makes a concrete difference in the community?
  3. Will the story tell readers how something will directly affect their lives or the lives of their families or friends?
  4. Will the story use extraordinary, revelatory storytelling to help readers understand a consequential societal issue in new ways?
  5. Will the story attract an extraordinary amount of readership or engagement because it is of great interest or value to our readers for other reasons?

What would the questions be for your organization?

Outlier Media and Free Press’s News Voices find impact in relationships — asking themselves how many relationships are being creating and are they having the desired effect? Surveys, participation rates, and subscriber conversions are just three more useful methods for capturing the effects of transparency and community organizing. And we’ve written before about one possible path to measuring organizational mission.

Newsrooms can, and should, design engagement for trust right now: Work toward transparency, align organizational and project missions with the communities being served, and plan outreach. Do one or more of those things while building in measurements for trust, and the entire industry can soon grasp the essential value of engaged journalism.

Reprinted with permission

Connecting the dots: Engaged journalism, trust, revenue, and civic engagement

by Lindsay Green-Barber.

Screen Shot 2019-02-07 at 8.51.32 PM

Across the news industry, organizations large and small, commercial and nonprofit, single issue and daily news are experimenting with “engagement.” Audience engagement. Engaged journalism. Engagement editors and specialists. Engaging for trust. And the list goes on. But what is engagement? Why are organizations experimenting with it, and to what effect?

We set out to answer these questions through a four month research project. First, we surveyed the field to identify the practices organizations consider to be “engaged journalism,” and came to define it as an inclusive practice that prioritizes the information needs and wants of the community members it serves, creates collaborative space for the audience in all aspects of the journalistic process, and is dedicated to building and preserving trusting relationships between journalists and the public. Then, we dove deep into four very different organizations to learn not only what they do, but why they engage with communities and how they know if their strategies are working. Our research builds on that of Lisa Heyamoto and Todd Milbourn’s Agora Journalism Center Report.

Through this research, we found evidence to support the following:

  • Engaged journalism increases audience trust in journalists and journalism organizations.
  • Engaged journalism builds trust among journalism organizations and audiences, which results in audiences being willing to financially supportthe journalism.
  • Engaged journalism results in audiences being more civically engaged in their communities.

The major learning that was applicable to all organizations we looked is that effective engagement requires a way for communities to be in contact with journalists in a relational rather than purely transactional manner.Furthermore, organizations that are able to clearly articulate a shared mission with their communities have the strongest foundation upon which to build relationships.

But relationships take time. Funders of engaged journalism must take into account the fact that journalism organizations that are working in, with, and for communities require time and resources to build authentic relationships that put the principles of transparencypositivity, and diversity into actionconsistently.

As organizations continue to experiment with new forms of engagement and institutionalize those that work with their communities, they must also identify the practices that will lead to their ultimate goals, appropriate indicators of success, and research methods to understand if their engagement practices are having the desired effects, and if not, why.

In the end, engaged journalism is just good journalism. it’s cultivating and listening to sources throughout the community, rather than in niche sectors or in the upper echelons of powerIt’s producing hard-hitting, moving, and accurate stories that are relevant to community members and reflect their lived realities and meet their needs. And it’s understanding that journalism — whether it’s for profit or not — is a public service, and as such, must respect and include the public in its processes and practices.

Read the full report here and let us know what you think:

Reprinted with permission

Creating Contact Zones

By jesikah maria ross.

Civic aspiration is a powerful thing — it gives moral imagination someplace to go. — Krista Tippett, Journalist

When you begin to imagine and act as if you live in the world you want to live in, you will have company. — Bernice Johnson Regan, Singer/Civil Rights Activist

These quotes have been rolling around in my head a lot lately.

I’m the Senior Community Engagement Strategist at an National Public Radio affiliate, pioneering new ways to bring together journalists, community members and powerbrokers to explore issues and propose solutions for the places we live.

If there is any institution uniquely positioned to activate the public imagination these days, it’s public radio. We’re an independent public service network made up of artful storytellers and huge, devoted audiences. Because our audience represents a narrow demographic, the potential to reflect the distinct and diverse voices within our communities is seismic.

Which leads to me the question: How can public radio create a new kind of listening experience where wildly diverse people come together and imagine as communities, examining the world as it is and the world as it could be, and how to get from here to there?

Here’s one idea: by creating Contact Zones.

It’s a term coined by Stanford literature professor Mary Louise Pratt. She uses it to refer to “social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power.” Educators, artists and scholars have drawn on Pratt’s concept to explore what happens when you bring together people of varying relationships with power to share experiences, negotiate differences, make discoveries and apply them in their lives.

I’ve adapted Contact Zones to my work in a slightly differently way, designing encounters where people who wouldn’t ordinarily cross paths come together and wrestle with social issues and each other’s messy experiences of them. Where powerful radio pieces ignite personal story sharing and frank conversation — the kind that busts stereotypes and generates emotional border crossings — in an atmosphere that is beautiful, respectful and relevant. Food, music and movement are also part of the mix.

Creating contact zones 2

Capital Public Radio listeners and formerly homeless residents share personal experiences with housing affordability in Sacramento, California. Photo: Vanessa Nelson

I’ve started creating Contact Zones through participatory public radio events that are part civic meeting, part art happening and part dinner party.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

We dream better when we combine purpose with pleasure. When we infuse our public dialogue processes with delight, hospitality and regard. When curiosity, empathy and a sense of belonging act as the critical yeast for metabolizing tough issues.This requires paying careful attention to location, curation and facilitation. Because of the segregated communities in which we live, we can’t expect people from different walks of life to naturally gather or get along. It takes active outreach, a sincere and welcoming invitation and structured conversation. Community collaboration in event design and leadership is crucial.

Building trust between institutions and communities begins with creating spaces and processes for people to speak and feel heard. This is especially true between the media and disenfranchised and under-represented communities. Trust evolves as long as communal input and stewardship is welcome and flourishes and when the effort is mutually rewarding for everyone involved.

creating contact zones 3

Susan Lovenburg listens to Wanda Lewis explain how she survived on the streets. Jackson now lives in an affordable housing community. Photo: Vanessa Nelson

Community visioning, bridge building and civic storytelling — this is what I’m experimenting with through my work at Capital Public Radio.

Over the next few months, I’ll share dispatches that document lessons learned from my most recent community engaged documentary project, The View From Here: Place and Privilege. My hope is that these reflections inspire and support others working to mobilize our public imagination toward building community capacity for empathy, equity and democratic change.

Stay tuned.

* * *

jesikah maria ross produces participatory media projects that generate public dialogue and community change. She brings journalists and community stakeholders together, creating a path and a plan that changes how we collect, tell and share the stories of our communities. She is the Senior Community Engagement Strategist at Capital Public Radio, Sacramento’s NPR affiliate and Public Imagination Fellow at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. @jmr_MediaSpark,

Top photo: Community members share stories and solutions to hunger in Sacramento, California. Photo: Steve Fisch

Reprinted with permission


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.

Listening is a Form of Healing

By Jennifer Brandel.

An interview with Margaret Wheatley

It’s an absolute thrill to be able to connect the incredible mind and work of Margaret Wheatley with the world of journalism. Before we get to meet and learn from Margaret, there’s some backstory required.

In the mid 2000s, as I was learning how to be a journalist, I also became certified as a healer in alternative medicine. I came into that line of work partly out of curiosity, but mostly because I needed to communicate with a family member who was no longer accessible through more common modes of interacting with the world. It was a strange confluence: the reporter brain of questioning and fact-checking everything, with the healer brain of trusting that some knowledge and wisdom cannot be accessed, grasped or verified through the intellect.

In holding these two approaches in my daily experience, I began to see both the differences and the overlap. During days practicing journalism, I often felt extractive – that I was interacting with people on my terms, approaching them to pry out information for a story that they didn’t necessarily volunteer to tell in the world. I did my best to be as present and non-transactional as possible, but the very frame of why I was speaking them was so I could take something from them to share with others. Being on deadline, with a need to produce a coherent, neatly packaged story, limited the degree to which I could responsibly veer off into other topics with sources, listen longer, and reveal my own humanity and empathy back to them. It was an unequal trade.  

In stark relief were the hours practicing the healing work. It involved a lot of techniques and practices that my reporter brain could not understand: from using hand mudras, having people put on different colored glasses, dinging tuning forks and muscle-testing. I diligently followed the instructions as I was taught, sometimes feeling absurd, trying to quiet the inner critic and just be open to seeing what happened. Did people leave feeling better than they did coming in? Did their expression, way they held themselves, or their mood palpably improve? Did they experience a breakthrough, or breakdown, or remember a long-buried memory that allowed them to rewrite their own narrative? Yes. Every single time.

So what was the difference? Both of these practices are about storytelling, truthfinding and had at the core, a practice of listening intently. Journalism, at least the quick-turnaround reporting I was doing, revolves around me or the newsroom deciding the story, and then finding the people to take information from, and share with the rest of the world. Often it was a focus on something wrong in the world, which left me and likely those who listened or read it feeling disheartened.

In contrast, healing revolved around a person electing to come to me, with their individual needs as the priority, and with the goal of discovering new information about themselves so they may tell a more truthful story and direct their lives toward new possibilities. Even when the sessions I had as a healer uncovered traumatic moments, and included heaving sobs and deep physical discomfort, the person I was working with and I always left one another feeling more whole, connected, and yes, even healed.

Throughout the year or so I practiced healing arts, I kept asking myself: what was the secret? Why did it always seem to work? Was it the glasses? The tuning forks? The endless charts with emotions that I’d muscle test to find what feeling was being repressed or overexpressed? I couldn’t tell you, even now. But what I feel very confident about, is that the power of deeply listening to another person, with full attention, and without judgment or an agenda, is one of the most profoundly healing acts a person can provide to another.

Recently I went on an internet expedition, looking to find research and proof (journalist brain dominating) that what I experienced in this form of listening had empirical evidence, and hard data behind it. Afterall, I named my company Hearken, which means to listen, and give respectful attention. I wanted to dig into these ideas again.

One of the first results in my search was an article by Margaret Wheatley, called Listening as Healing, published in December 2001 in the Shambhala Sun magazine. She wrote the piece just days after the September 11 terrorist attacks. In trying to locate hope and a way toward healing, Wheatley wrote,

“Listening is such a simple act. It requires us to be present, and that takes practice, but we don’t have to do anything else. We don’t have to advise, or coach, or sound wise. We just have to be willing to sit there and listen. If we can do that, we create moments in which real healing is available. Whatever life we have experienced, if we can tell our story to someone who listens, we find it easier to deal with our circumstances.”

I devoured her article, finding passages I wanted to print out, highlight and paste to my walls, such as:

“Why is being heard so healing? I don’t know the full answer to that question, but I do know it has something to do with the fact that listening creates relationship. We know from science that nothing in the universe exists as an isolated or independent entity. Everything takes form from relationships, be it subatomic particles sharing energy or ecosystems sharing food. In the web of life, nothing living lives alone.”

My reporter brain needed to know who this woman was, and how she got to affirming and so eloquently proclaiming these truths. Margaret J. Wheatley (sometimes known as “Meg”) is one of those multi-hyphenate people who is expert and accomplished in a variety of disciplines. She holds a doctorate in Organizational Behavior and Change from Harvard, a masters in Media Ecology from NYU, worked as a professor teaching in graduate business programs, written nine books and hundreds of articles, co-founded the Berkana Institute, and has even interviewed the Dalai Lama. (Reporter-brain that requires references and expertise to feel more trusting of information, satisfied!)


For this Year of Listening celebration that the News Integrity Initiative is hosting, I suddenly had the perfect excuse to call Margaret and learn from her long-lens perspective about what professional listeners who call themselves journalists can do at this very strange moment in history and our profession.

Before we get into actionable insights, first it must be noted that Margaret is no Pollyanna. She firmly believes civilization is in a stage of collapse. In stating this, she was matter-of-fact, pointing to a well-established pattern throughout history of societies going through natural cycles of creation and destruction. Accepting this status, she acknowledges, is painful, but that being aware of what’s possible given such strong negative dynamics is ultimately helpful. She cautions against thinking that change on an industry level in journalism is possible at this juncture, and certainly not from the top-down. All effective shifts come bottom-up. And all change has to start small, on the individual level.

Which is where you, reader, comes in. What can we, while living through a civilization in decline, and in an industry facing such complex and huge crises beyond any single person or company’s control, actually do?  

Margaret Wheatley says we can listen, and that the very act of listening is “revolutionary.” Wheatley points to listening being very much on the decline. “Nobody listens. We’re totally distracted. There is research that shows if a website doesn’t respond to you in less than half a second, we leave it. To me, we’re frantic to get what we need. The Internet has really changed our brains. We’re very good at scanning and flipping now, and we’ve lost the capacity for deep listening.”

What makes this all the more alarming is the fact that listening is key to deriving meaning in life. Listening is how we learn from others, synthesize and understand who we are and importantly, why things matter. So without enough quality listening, life too easily slips into meaninglessness, leading to stress, anxiety, and at the extreme, suicide. She says the less people listen, the easier it becomes to forget how to do it.

For Journalists, where listening is such a huge part of our jobs, we face obstacles in doing the kind of deep listening that leads to personal insight and healing for those we’re listening to. We’re at the mercy of the system we operate in, including the format of the story, the voracious “beasts to feed,” which can show up as quotas for how many stories of a certain length to file, how many tweets to schedule, or editing out what provides more nuance and meaning for what our editors find punchier or more important. Wheatley says she’s become very cautious of journalists because of the very system we’re locked into. “People would feel better about talking to journalists if they got past the desire for soundbites and just picking out what seems juicy, and really deeply listened to someone.”  

Her saying this struck a familiar, painfully dissonant chord. So how can journalists listen without being extractive given the demands of the job and the products we have to create to sustain the work? To this question, Wheatley gives tough, honest medicine,

“It will take a lot of courage and fearlessness to make a choice about how you want to succeed in your profession. Do you want to have moral integrity? Do you want to stand up for the profession, and change it? You recognize where it’s at now is pretty abysmal. You have to decide if you’re going to be one of the people who is going to do your very best to change it.”

Her saying this makes my mind spin to search for those who are already doing the work to change it. To that I see groups like Free Press and their News Voices program, which connects communities and journalists in more intimate, vulnerable and humane ways, or City Bureau in Chicago, which positions the public as producers who can contribute acts of journalism to a community’s collective information needs, or Spaceship Media, which helps newsrooms connect people to one another and creates space for deep, transformative listening and dialogue. These groups are breaking through the extractive models of traditional journalism and creating the opportunity for deep listening that isn’t solely focused on creating a news content to sell.

This work to listen differently and deeply is all the more important in a moment in history in which people are becoming more politicized, divided, more fearful of one another, and less willing to hear someone who looks or thinks differently than they do. Wheatley says this time we’re living in creates a “… cycle that descends into fear, and people can’t have the conversations the way we used to. It’s how self-protection becomes the norm.” Self-protection then creates separation, and being out of relationship with others again leads to all manner of negative outcomes, for the health of individuals and for society.

So how do we manage the challenges of this moment in practical ways? Wheatley advises journalists take the time to reconnect with what drew them to the profession in the first place.

  • What were you trying to accomplish when you decided this line of work was for you?
  • When have you had the experience of doing the kind of work that fulfilled those desires?
  • What were those stories, and what about them, or the making of them, or the effect of them, made you proud?

It’d be worth taking a few minutes to pause and actually answer those questions right now, if you’re in a context that would allow for it. Reconnecting to your purpose, and dissociating for a moment with the outer environment that determines how that purpose is expressed, can show gaps for where your own agency and integrity can emerge.

From the perspective of the source, someone a journalist is interviewing, Wheatley recommends journalists act in such a way where a source can say yes to these three questions:

  • Do I feel respected in the moment in which I was interviewed?
  • Do I feel respected by the way I was represented in the story when it came out?
  • (Which leads to …) Do I respect the journalist?

Wheatley has a lot of compassion for the difficulty of performing journalism, especially right now. She knows the pressures of time, speed, money, marketing and survival alongside the political attacks on the profession. But once we acknowledge those forces, she urges journalists to figure out how to “make room for telling a story more truthfully, more fully and more respectfully.”

Grappling with questions like this alone is a recipe for staying stuck. So Wheatley also advises that journalists who are committed to listening deeply, in ways that are less extractive, and perhaps even healing, find one another for mutual support. It’s difficult not to get dragged down by reality, so having others to lean on and turn to can reinforce the kind of change that will add up to make a difference. To that end, if you’re reading this and not yet part of the Gather community of practice, you’ll find a lot of kindred spirits there.  

I hope Wheatley’s cautions and advice leave you more with a feeling of possibility and focus, than with despair. Individual actions do matter, and they do add up. I’ll end with a truth she uttered that feels more urgent to remember and live by in these tumultuous times for our professional and personal lives, “We have to do what’s right even if it does not succeed.”

Additional reading, writing by Margaret Wheatley:

Turning to One Another: Simple Conversation to Restore Hope in the Future

Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World

A Simpler Way



Jennifer Brandel is an accidental journalist turned CEO of a tech-enabled company called Hearken. She is also the founder of @WBEZCuriousCity.



Stop, Look, Listen, Think” image + campaign by The Stone Twins

37 People Struggling to Get by in New Jersey

By Mike Rispoli.

When it comes to telling stories of economic hardship, what can journalists learn from social workers? From oral historians? From artists? From community advocates?

It turns out, a lot.

At a recent workshop at Rutgers University convened by coLAB Arts and Free Press, a dozen people gathered to begin a community collaboration to lift up the stories of New Jersey residents struggling to get by in one of the country’s most expensive states.

In New Jersey, 37 percent of residents have trouble affording basic necessities, according to the United Way of Northern New Jersey. Our project, “37 Voices,” will feature interviews with 37 people living in the greater New Brunswick and Newark area who fall into this threshold — working but finding it hard to pay for basic needs.

The project’s roots lie in a 2017 collaboration between Rutgers University’s NJ Spark and Free Press. That effort focused on training student journalists in community-engagement techniques and telling the stories of New Brunswick’s working poor.

Free Press and the New Brunswick-based group coLAB Arts then decided to take the idea a step further by bringing on six freelance journalists and community partners to tell these stories in ways that would challenge misconceptions about people experiencing economic hardship — and inspire policy change.

This new collaboration comes out of nearly two years of community engagement, group meetings, deep listening, issue exploration and project piloting in New Brunswick.

Project partners include the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey, the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University, the Center for Investigative Reporting, the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers UniversityFeeding New Brunswick NetworkNJ SparkOral History and Folklife Research, the PRAB and United Way of Northern New Jersey.

The journalist team is comprised of Mira Abou ElezzDebbie GalantScott GurianHank KaletAndaiye Taylor and Kristine Villanueva.

The first phase of the project will feature journalists doing community outreach and interviewing 37 people to capture their personal experiences. These interviews will be documented using oral-history techniques and turned into podcasts. Then coLAB Arts will transform interview transcripts into a stage play in 2019.

Researchers from Rutgers will look into overlapping themes from the stories, providing insight into how these personal experiences tie into larger structural or policy challenges around pay, housing, health care, child care, transportation and more in New Jersey.

First step: Building trust, sharing knowledge

Community organizations, artists, researchers and journalists joined together at the kick-off workshop in March. This gathering marked the first step to deepening relationships among group members, promoting a culture of listening and knowledge-sharing, addressing challenges around collaboration head on, and building trust among the people and groups involved.

Laura Bruno and Molly Rennie from the United Way of Northern New Jersey kicked off the workshop to dive deep into the ALICE Report, which stands for “Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed.”

The data in the report show how 37 percent of New Jersey residents are working but can’t afford basic necessities. Bruno and Rennie helped workshop participants grasp the nuances in the report and the experiences of people who are employed but lack financial stability.

Next, Free Press led a discussion on media portrayals of poverty and economic hardship. The conversation focused on how major news outlets hardly ever cover economic struggles; when they do, it tends to be in the form of a “special project” rather than an ongoing exploration of the root causes and policies that promote inequality.

We designed this session to give project collaborators a deeper understanding of the structural forces at play, with an eye toward evaluating how our collaboration could present stories that center people and paint a more holistic and compassionate picture of their experiences.

Workshop participants broke up into small groups to talk about their own experiences with economic hardship, and to think about how empathy could shape this project.

People talked about how pervasive economic inequality is — and how the perception of what it means to be “poor” may not line up with how people actually feel about their experiences.

People also reflected on how media outlets tend to judge people of color who are struggling — and respond to low-income White people with sympathy.

‘They have a story to tell’

Renee Wolf Koubiadis from the Anti-Poverty Network then spoke with participants about the need to build relationships with people who are struggling financially.

One of the keys, she said, is that people who are in crisis may not be willing to speak with reporters. “They have a story to tell,” she said, noting that it’s important to listen, show patience, accept that people may not respond right away, and establish safe spaces for people to share their experiences.

Next up was Molly Graham of Oral History and Folklife Research, who will be working with journalists involved in the project on capturing the stories and turning them into podcasts.

While she ran through techniques and strategies to document what she called “felt” experiences, the journalism team raised good questions — noting that how you build relationships, ask questions and document information in oral histories differs from how you approach traditional newsgathering.

Journalists and community experts discussed ways to address these challenges, talking about the difference between getting a good headline and getting a good story, and letting people tell their stories as opposed to going into an interview with a story in mind.

While there are different strategies for interviewing and getting information from people, good journalism and good oral history both tell stories in an authentic way that depicts people in all their complexity.

To round out the day, Anish Patel from Rutgers’ Bloustein School spoke about the research that will take place at the end of the project.

Each story will be tagged based on measurable data points from the ALICE Report, and tied to policy and legislation at the local, state and federal levels for further inquiry into the personal experiences of interviewees.

What excited the group was being able to take those personal experiences from the interviews and dive into the larger structures around economic inequality.

The interviews won’t just tell stories; they could lead to policy solutions.

A ‘groundbreaking’ collaboration

Everyone at the March workshop was excited about what this collaboration could produce, and thankful for the opportunity to engage in this ambitious project.

But the discussion wasn’t easy. Participants discussed the challenges involved in bringing together people from various fields to collaborate while respecting the role that each person or organization would play.

People also wrestled with questions about what the group was trying to produce. Was it journalism? Oral history? Art? Research? How could it be all of those things?

It’s a tricky challenge, since journalists pride themselves on being fair and independent. The storytelling involved in the project cuts across disciplines — but the way a journalist tells a story is different from how oral historians capture experiences, which varies from what plays well on the stage.

And the types of questions journalists ask to tell impactful stories may differ from what policy researchers might ask to produce academic research.

Anish Patel from Bloustein sensed this tension in the room as he closed his remarks. He reminded everyone that the project could be “groundbreaking”. Has this type of collaboration ever happened before, he wondered, with this many people from so many different backgrounds?

It’s an important point: No kind of collaboration is easy.

It’s not easy inside one’s own workplace. It’s even more difficult across newsrooms. So imagine the challenges that could pop up in a collaboration among journalists and community organizations, artists and researchers.

But that’s one of the central points of the project: that it would be challenging. These are individuals whose fields rarely overlap. But the role of journalism — and its associations with people and groups outside of the newsroom — is changing.

Community-journalism collaborations are still relatively new, but many of them have a power imbalance, with reporters holding all the cards. They ask the questions, they frame the story, they control the budgets and their newsrooms receive funding grants for or revenue from the journalism being produced.

Those on the journalism side make almost all of the decisions. That’s not a true collaboration.

From dating to going steady

Our project is an attempt to address that:

coLAB Arts, not a media outlet, received funding from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, in partnership with the Knight Foundation, for the project.

Journalists are playing a single role in a much larger, multi-faceted effort.

And community groups are equal partners in the decision-making process.

Along the way, reporters will learn new skills, build strong relationships and share knowledge about the practice of journalism with their collaborators.

It’s the difference between going on a date and going steady.

Community-journalism collaborations are a natural outgrowth of community engagement, which — when done well — connects reporters and residents to listen to and learn from one another.

Collaboration is another step toward building trust and changing how people participate in journalism, a practice that requires mutual buy-in, and investment in time and resources. The ideal end goal: new ways of telling our communities’ stories.

The notion that journalists need to be separate from their communities to do their jobs is outdated, and could be one of the reasons why so many people don’t trust reporters. Our work in News Voices for the past three years has sought to change that, to bring communities and newsrooms closer together, and to find ways for journalism to strengthen communities.

This project is one step toward seeing if that’s possible. Along the way we will document this process and share what we learn so others can embark on similar collaborations. As this experiment moves forward, we hope you’ll have a chance to learn with us.

Mike Rispoli directs Free Press’ News Voices project, which connects local communities and the newsrooms that serve them via public engagement, advocacy campaigns and collaborative projects. The News Integrity Initiative supports News Voices.

Recovery in post-Maria Puerto Rico

By Jesse Hardman.

More than a million people access vital information via start-up news site

It’s been a harrowing six months since Hurricane Maria hit Freddie Rodriguez’s small town of Juana Díaz near Puerto Rico’s southern coast. An infection from an exposed nail in the storm’s rubble put Rodriguez in the hospital for a stretch. Eventually he returned home to find that a tree had crushed his roof. That’s when community news correspondent Nashaly Alvarado encountered Rodriguez. For the past few months she’s been collecting hurricane recovery news stories and sharing them through “Information as Aid,” a social media-based recovery-focused news feed.

Alvarado’s story about Rodriguez ended with a quote: “Lo unico que pido es ayuda para remover el arbol.” (“The only thing I ask is help removing the tree.”) This hyperlocal story got more than a million views, and put a spotlight on the ongoing issues facing many Puerto Ricans as they fight their way back towards normalcy.

Rafael Torres read the story and, like many, responded with a comment on Facebook. Unlike all the other readers, Torres also showed up at Rodriguez’s home with a chainsaw. He and Rodriguez removed the tree and fixed his roof. An online story had turned into offline action.


Rafael Torres’ image of a tree that fell on Freddie Rodriguez’s house, before and after Rafael jumped in to help, prompted by a story on the Information as Aid news page.

Community-led reporting

Journalist Justin Auciello was in San Juan when Maria hit; the hurricane left five feet of water in his house two blocks from the ocean. After securing a place nearby for him and his wife to stay, Auciello hit the streets of San Juan and rural areas surrounding the city, to see how people around the island were faring without electricity, water, and other basic resources. He also wanted to figure out how they were getting information about their situations. The answers became more dire as he got further from San Juan.

To document the situation, Auciello began working on an information ecosystem assessment with Internews. The resulting document showed a desperate need for recovery-focused news and information island-wide, and for ways for communities to share their circumstances and questions.

The ensuing Information as Aid project is a partnership between Nethope and Internews, managed by Auciello. After Maria struck, Nethope responded to provide online connectivity for organizations and isolated communities. Internews joined the effort to ensure that once people got back online, verified information about the response and recovery could be easily found.

Information as Aid publishes a variety of recovery news and information on a dedicated Facebook page, which has become a primary platform for more than a third of Puerto Rico’s three million residents. The unique service connects affected communities with responding organizations and volunteers, and provides a platform and amplification for the voices of affected community members.

reach chart

This chart demonstrates the boosted (orange) and organic (blue) reach of the Information as Aid Facebook page during the first five weeks of the program. More than one million were reached daily through organic efforts during the last half of December. As of March, reach remains consistent, indicating a stable community and continuing major impact.

Twelve local citizen journalists from around the island serve as the “eyes and ears” for island residents. These community correspondents were recruited and trained in basic newsgathering and community engagement techniques by the Information as Aid team, and they then began gathering information and producing reports. Their reports are first shared in a private Facebook group, where an editor reviews and offers suggestions. When ready, the posts are published to the public “Information as Aid – Puerto Rico” page.

Information as Aid 2

Information as Aid Citizen Reporters practice interviewing skills at a training in San Juan.

In just a few months, the Information as Aid team has reached nearly half of the population of Puerto Rico on Facebook (more than 1.5 million), and averages a reach of up to one million people each week.

Information as Aid readers are not just consumers of valuable recovery information – they are also participants. The page is a vibrant community of daily interactions and engagement. Posts are about everything from how to conserve water, to recovery messages from local mayors, to stories about community members looking for help to repair homes. 22 year-old correspondent Alvarado says this work has given her an opportunity to help her community recover. “I’m creating new experiences and creating new knowledge,” she said.

Coverage from rural correspondents has helped struggling families receive much needed attention and assistance. In one instance a citizen reporter heard from community members about a man who lost his house in the hurricane. He was living in his car, and was attacked and robbed one night. Community members who read Information as Aid’s reporting reached out to the man with food and clothing, and a social worker arranged with the island’s Department of Housing to provide him with temporary housing.


A posting for a legal clinic sponsored by Fundación Fondo de Acceso a la Justicia (Access to Justice Fund Foundation). Information as Aid developed a partnership with the foundation in late November to amplify the reach and impact of the organization’s work.

Auciello has previous experience in community collaboration and reporting in disaster situations. He led a massive community reporting and organizing effort in New Jersey that spanned Superstorm Sandy’s impact, response, and recovery. Justin’s hyperlocal news site Jersey Shore Hurricane News (JSHN) continues to provide “news you can use” related to the recovery along the Jersey shore, and also general information that helps local communities build up resilience. Through this work he has partnered with Internews’ Listening Post Collective to expand his audience reach.

Auciello is taking the JSHN experience and applying it to Puerto Rico. The objectives are enabling communities to get the right information at the right time, and providing community-generated data and news to guide targeted actions by local leaders and humanitarian actors.

“I know first-hand the desperation of looking for information during a disaster – how do I help my family, find drinking water, save my house from flooding?” Auciello said. “I never want people to feel forgotten or suffer for something so basic as lack of information.”

Auciello says the Information as Aid Puerto Rico news feed has more than just vital information; it’s also intended to instill some hope and inspiration for the millions of locals still figuring out their next steps post-Maria. For success, he recommends a balanced approach of hard news, soft news, actionable journalism, and some inspirational examples of recovery. The growing audience for his page suggests this formula is a successful, and needed, effort.

“Journalism ultimately should be about empowering people and providing a service. It’s incredibly vital to provide people with actionable information to make the right decision at the right time,” says Auciello.

(Banner photo: The Information as Aid Citizen Reporters team. Coverage from our rural correspondents has helped struggling families across Puerto Rico receive much needed attention and assistance.)

Reprinted with permission. Jesse Hardman is a public radio reporter, writer, media developer, videographer, and journalism educator based in Los Angeles. He created the Listening Post, an innovative community engagement project in New Orleans. He works with Internews to inspire similar community engagement media strategies around the US. Jesse is a regular contributor to NPR, and also has written for Al Jazeera Americathe GuardianLe Monde Diplomatique, and other outlets.

How to launch Voting Block for your next local election

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.

At a time when news organizations are losing staff at alarming rates and perceived negatively by 43 percent of Americans, collaborative reporting models rooted in engagement, like Voting Block, are a way for newsrooms to help expand their reporting capacity and build stronger relationships with their audiences.

“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.

For examples, check out WHYY’s introduction to Paulsboro, Shorebeat’s profile of Ortley Beach, “Ground Zero” for Hurricane Sandy, or NJ Spotlight’s portrait of neighbors in Long Valley.



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.

Other examples include The Wall’s potluck with Trenton’s homeless community and Reporte Hispano’s gathering with members of the Latino community in Elizabeth, and TAPinto Newark’s potluck with neighbors from Halsey Street and Central Avenue in Newark.

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.

Stay tuned!

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 and The Center for Investigative Reporting at

How the Public Fueled Our Investigations in 2017

by Terry Parris Jr.

A year ago, we said we would focus more on how the public can participate in our investigative reporting. We wanted to work more collaboratively and openly, and create more opportunities for participation.

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 GallardoAriana 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 mothers by 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.

We got a trove of internal documents about how Facebook’s censors differentiate between hate speech and legitimate political expression. Looking at them, we found that Facebook’s secret censorship rules sometimes protect white men from hate speech but not black children.

We wanted to know more, specifically if the site’s censorship policies were actually working. So we developed a Facebook messenger bot to make it easy for users to submit questionable posts.

Hundreds of people submitted examples. When we asked Facebook about its handling of posts readers sent us, the company acknowledged that it had made the wrong call on nearly half of them.

You showed us that Facebook was letting companies exclude older workers from job ads.


Here’s where two crowdsourcing projects converged into one. In May, we asked people to share stories of age discrimination in the workplace. A few months later, we announced a completely separate project: We asked people to help us monitor political ads on Facebook. You’ll never believe what happened next.

The ads people submitted to our Political Ad Collector showed that companies were also placing job ads that were only being shown to younger users. (You can see the ads here.) The stories people submitted to the age discrimination callout allowed us go directly to the people impacted. In fact, one of those people became the lead example of our front page story with The New York Times.

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.

We posted the financial disclosures and asked the public to help us dig through the names. Readers sent us dozens of tips. One reader led us to a story about how President Donald Trump transferred some of his holdings to his son Eric while avoiding the usual taxes.

You helped us track the more than 1,000 officials Trump quietly deployed across the government.trump

The Trump administration has been slow to fill many jobs that need Senate approval. Yet it has made more than 1,000 temporary hires across the government without going through that vetting process. Many work at agencies they once sought to influence.

Again, once we got the names, we posted them and asked the public to help us dig in. One of the many tips we received led us to a Trump administration hire whom five students accused of sexual assault.

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 some of that, 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.