Five Kinds of Listening for Newsrooms and Communities

In 2002 NPR’s vice president for diversity, then a faculty member at the Poynter Institute, described an idea he called “The Listening Post.” “Journalists interested in telling more of a community’s ‘truth’ need to establish listening posts in the places that fall outside the routine of journalism,” he wrote. “They have to leave the office, the neighborhood, maybe even the comfort of personal likes and dislikes in order to make this happen.”

More than ten years later Internews and local New Orleans public radio station WWNO launched a project with the same name and built on some of the shared values. The New Orleans Listening Post combines digital recording stations across the community with text messages and online engagement to “establish a two-way conversation with the citizens of New Orleans” where they can both contribute ideas and commentary to the newsroom and also receive news and information about their community. Internews and WWNO partners with Groundsource for the project which is building a mobile first, text message based platform for listening.

Almost 1,000 miles to the north, Jenn Brandel is pioneering a different kind of listening project called Curious City at Chicago’s public radio station WBEZ. Curious City is part journalism project, part listening platform, and in the words of Brandel, is “powered by open questions.” The Curious City team has collected thousands of questions from Chicago residents in the field, via a toll-free number and online via their custom-built platform. The public gets to vote on what questions journalists pursue, and the Curious City team brings the public into the reporting project along the way.

From Transactional to Transformational Listening

Last November I wrote about the need for listening and empathy in journalism, arguing that “better reflecting and responding to our communities has to start with better listening.” A year later, I’m encouraged by the growth of projects like The Listening Post and Curious City as well as the many newsrooms who are hosting events dedicated to listening to the diverse voices of their communities.

While these promising experiments and new start-ups a proving the value of deeper forms of listening, as an industry we still have a lot to learn. Listening is after all not a passive act, but rather an active skill that we can learn and employ strategically. As the examples above make clear there are many different kinds of listening with different goals and outcomes. Below I’ve tried to map out five models for listening at the intersection of newsrooms and communities. Continue reading

What if Journalism Was Built for Inclusive Community Participation?

Larenellen McCann recently gave a terrific talk about community, technology and how we can and should build for “inclusive community participation.” As I watched the video, she kept talking about “civic tech” and “civic hacking” but I kept hearing “journalism” and “reporting.” The failures she is describing and the challenges she sets forth are as relevant for journalists and newsrooms as they are for technologists working in the public interest.

I have written before about the need to reorient journalism around community by building more reciprocal relationships between newsrooms and communities, relationships rooted in listening, empathy and creativity. McCann’s talk hits on similar themes but gets even more concrete about the steps we need to take to transform our work in collaboration with our communities. Be sure to read her longer, follow up blog post.

In the spirit of civic hacking, I asked McCann if I could “fork” her talk and replace her references to civic technology with journalism as an experiment in context. Below is the result. I think it captures a lot of what I’m working on with community news sites at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. Continue reading

The Rise of Hands-On Journalism

Digital journalism has made possible some incredible storytelling in recent years. Visually stunning reports on issues as diverse as gun violence, environmental disasters, and surveillance have brought stories to life on the screen. Increasingly, however, journalists are experimenting with innovations that move journalism off the screen and into people’s hands.

This spring RadioLab did a story about an ancient skull and the questions it helped answer about the origins of human history. It is a fascinating story, but it revolved around minute details scientists discovered in the skull, details a radio audience couldn’t see. So the RadioLab team took a scan of the skull, printed it out with a 3D printer, and made the scan available online for others to print out. So, now you could hypothetically feel the groves and markings on the skull as the scientists discuss them, discovering new facets of the skull alongside the narrators.

I am fascinated by the potential for these sorts of journalism-objects to help engage communities around stories and foster empathy with audiences. So I began collecting examples of what I call, “hands on journalism.”

I see this hands-on journalism as a particular kind of community engagement, one that may involve collaboration with community, but puts an emphasis on discovery and learning. Specifically the kind of learning that comes from doing. Continue reading

From Washington to Ferguson and Back Again in a Night

I was on a family vacation in Washington, DC, last week on August 14. It was a lovely summer evening and on a whim my wife and I took our two young sons down to the Lincoln Memorial at sunset.

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As the last light of day lit up the sky around the monument I walked up the steps and heard a chorus of people reciting Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The group of high school students knelt on the spot where Dr. King stood, pointing to the inscription there, and breathing new life into his words.

Half a nation away in Ferguson, Missouri, a different sound filled the night air. Just a few days earlier a young unarmed black teenager, not much older than those who stood before me on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, was killed by police. And on this night, protesters calling for justice met militarized police who were prepared for a fight.  Continue reading

Defining Civic Action Beyond Institutions in Journalism and Politics

A few common themes have long animated my work in education, conservation and journalism. Collaborating with a range of national and local organizations across these sectors I focused on building community, mobilizing civic action, collaborative problem-solving, fostering new networks and grappling with institutions in moments of profound flux and change. As such, I’m keenly interested in how people engage with their communities and their government, and how those actions are facilitated or hindered by institutions in media, education and the nonprofit sector.

I’ve written before about these dynamics, and the tensions between networks and institutions in news and civic life. We are at a moment when many of the institutions of civic action and information, from advocacy groups to journalism organizations, are re-imagining themselves as networks. The Columbia University report on “post-industrial journalism” is one of the clearest descriptions of this moment. But the corporate and government institutions that are so often the targets of civic action are in many ways growing stronger and more monolithic. C.W. Anderson puts it this way “Journalism may survive the death of its institutions, but the institutions that journalism used to cover aren’t going anywhere.”

One problem with institutional models is that they tend to define the norms of acceptable (or “real”) action. In politics, this is why voting and other electoral organizing is held up as most meaningful and legitimate. In news, this is part of the reason citizen journalism and blogging has long been treated as something less than traditional reporting. That is in part how institutions preserve themselves. And that preservation has both costs and benefits, as I’ve explored in the case of disaster and crisis response.

All of this is why I was so interested in the Twitter chat I have embedded below, in which Jonathan Stray, Anthea Watson Strong and Ted Han debate the intersection of legitimate civic action and the role of institutions. How do we understand the differences between community action and civic action? When do we need organizational action versus individual action? Can diffuse networks circumvent, replace or take on powerful systems? Continue reading

On Memorial Day, An Old Briefcase Reveals a Remarkable History

Roughly fifteen years ago I found a nondescript briefcase in the basement of my mom’s house with a sticker just under the handle that read, “My War.” 

Inside the briefcase was an amazingly well-preserved archive of letters, military paperwork, newspaper clipping, sketches and photos from my grandfather’s service in World War II. At the time, I spent months pouring over the collection, and carefully scanned in every page. 

My grandfather, Al Atkins, was shot down over Germany in November of 1944. He was able to parachute to safety before being taken as a prisoner of war. The collection of his military papers includes the original Western Union telegrams his wife received when his plane was shot down and when he was confirmed as a prisoner of war. Those two are dated three months apart.

Imagine what his family must have felt during those three months. The immense weight of the unknown.  Continue reading

From Troll Whispering to Community Building: Practical Lessons in Engagement from ProPublica, WNYC and WFMU

Last month, as part of the Innovating Local News summit hosted by the NJ News Commons and the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University, I moderated a panel with Amanda Zamora of ProPublica, Jim Schachter of WNYC and Ken Freedman of WFMU, looking at how their organizations have sought to build community around the news.

The focus of the panel was on moving newsrooms beyond narrow definitions of both “community” and “engagement.” While social media is a core part of many outreach efforts, this panel focused on how we can move beyond Facebook and Twitter to engage people in deeper ways on and offline.

Here are some takeaways from the panel – with lots of links to tools and examples.

Why Invest in Community Engagement?

Community building is complex and resource intensive, so before newsrooms develop a project they should by clear about why they are engaging their community and what their goals are. The panelists described three overarching ways that community engagement can strengthen media and news organizations:

  • Build capacity: Your community can help you do things you can’t do yourself. Amanda Zamora pointed to projects like ProPublica’s Free the Files project which helped journalists scour more than 17,000 campaign finance PDFs for critical data. Jim Schachter talked about the WNYC Cicada Project which taught people to build soil temperature sensors and track the spread of the 17-year cicada across the North East. At WFMU the audience can annotate live-playlists adding their own images, facts and links to each song, building a vast knowledge base around the music they play.
  • Build value: By inviting people into your work, you also make your work more central to people’s lives. When people have invested in a story or project, it helps build “sweat equity” in the organization. WFMU actively asks their community to help them fundraise with embeddable fundraising widgets. WNYC is currently running a sleep project that is providing people a platform to track their sleep and advice on getting more rest. Finally, Zamora of ProPublica talked about the way people see their stories, values, contributions reflected in ProPublica’s reporting and how that helps build affinity.

In many cases, the goal of these engagement efforts was not to cultivate more donors or raise money, but in the end, building capacity, trust and value are all critical to developing sustainable newsrooms. No matter what your business model is, you need to cultivate a deep connection to your community if you are going to survive. Continue reading

Journalism Will Rise and Fall With Its Communities

Creating a sustainable future for journalism will demand an entirely new approach to building community around the news.

Two stories from the past week drive that point home.

First the Good News

Mathew Ingram at Gigaom has a great profile of the Dutch crowd-funded journalism site De Correspondent, which brings in almost $2 million a year in subscriptions. Drawing on a piece in Fast Company, Ingram highlights how De Correspondent builds community:

  • It considers reader comments as contributions and values them as part of an ongoing dialogue.
  • It holds editorial meetings in the community, reaching out to different demographics and stakeholders.
  • It encourages people to subscribe to individual authors, and creates opportunities for journalists and communities to debate and discuss the news, building personal relationships beyond the brand.

“One of the key principles behind De Correspondent,” Ingram writes, “is that the news outlet and its community of readers are two parts of one thing, not just a seller on one side and a consumer on the other.”

Now the Bad News

The nonprofit journalism world includes a few big newsrooms funded by a few wealthy individuals. This model works when a major donor gives a new journalism organization the stability and safety to experiment and develop new revenue streams. But it can also go wrong: The Global Mail, one of Australia’s great nonprofit experiments, may be closing its doors because its primary funder is bowing out.

It was only two years ago that Internet entrepreneur Graeme Wood pledged five years of support, totaling over $10 million, but his priorities shifted and he decided to support a different publication.  And while the Global Mail has a dedicated readership, it hasn’t been able to cultivate the community investment it needs to diversify its funding. Continue reading

Remembering Bill Coperthwaite

When my wife and I got married my friend, John Saltmarsh, gave us two hand carved wooden spoons and a book called “The Handmade Life.” The spoons were carved by the book’s author, Bill Coperthwaite.

Ten years later, as 2013 was coming to a close, I found out from John that Bill had died in a car accident not far from his home in Maine.

Bill’s book occupies a special place in my heart, and on my bookshelf. I keep it in a small pile of books in our living room, books that I go back to often for advice, for grounding, and for inspiration. Bill was a pioneer in popular education and homesteading, living close to the land and thinking always about how to build more resilient and connected communities. Continue reading

Fighting for Our Rights to Connect and Communicate in 2014

In my first months on the job here at Free Press I traveled to Chicago and did a bunch of workshops all over the city about media consolidation. I was pretty new to media policy issues, and spent most of the time listening to community members talk about why the media was a life and death issue for them.

I listened to them talk about not hearing anyone who sounded like them on the radio, not seeing any issues that they were struggling with in the newspapers, and constantly seeing their community misrepresented on the evening news.

But I also heard from amazing organizers working in youth radio, journalists who were helping residents start their own newspaper, and digital activists working to connect more people to high-speed Internet access.

These are the stories that still motivate me today. These are the kinds of stories that inspire a lot of the work we do here at Free Press. And I’m lucky to work with an incredible team of people everyday, who inspire me with their passion, smarts and tireless work.

Free Press has been at this for ten years, and I believe this is a turning point. We’ve had one of our most successful years ever, but we have much bigger plans. Some of our biggest fights to defend press freedom and Internet freedom are ahead of us. Continue reading

The Need for Listening and Empathy in Journalism

Two recent blog posts raise this question: Just how often do news organizations actually listen to their communities?

In his post, former News & Record editor John Robinson argues that his paper doesn’t dedicate time or resources to the issues he and many other readers face on a daily basis. And the News & Record isn’t unusual. In fact, Robinson says this problem isn’t limited to newspapers: “TV news has the same news diet,” he writes, “and it’s not in touch with mine.”

In a response to Robinson, Kevin Anderson notes that many newsrooms are “subsisting on the fumes cast off by official life: crime, council meetings and planned events.” They’re spending much less time, Anderson says, on “the lived experience of their communities.”

Being Zoned Out of the News

This debate reminded me of a talk that longtime editor Tom Stites gave at UMass Amherst in 2006. “Why is it that less-than-affluent Americans are being zoned out of serious reporting?” Stites asked.

Stites noted at the time that newspapers were increasingly aiming to serve the audiences that advertisers want to reach. “Is there any wonder that less affluent Americans have abandoned newspapers and are angry at the press?” Stites asked. “They’ve abandoned newspapers … because the newspapers have abandoned them.” Continue reading

Ethics for Anyone Who Commits Acts of Journalism

Right now there are three major efforts under way to rethink journalism ethics for our changed media landscape. The Online News Association and the Society for Professional Journalists have both launched ethics discussions with their members, and the Poynter Institute recently published a major book on “The New Ethics of Journalism.”

Poynter is using the occasion of the book to jump-start a broader conversation about truth and trust in the 21st century, the first event of which happened this week in New York City. Sponsored by PBS MediaShift, craigconnects, the Ford FoundationAmerican University’s School of Communication and NewsCred, the event featured a panel of journalists and academics from the New York Times, BuzzFeed, Huffington Post, NYU, AP, and the Seattle Times. There were some great discussions on sponsored content, the nature of truth versus facts, and the intersection of reporting, opinion and activism. But I won’t get into those here. Instead, I want to talk about the one theme that seemed to undergird the entire evening: journalism’s relationship with its community.

One of the most important points of the evening was made by Mark Glaser of PBS MediaShift in his opening remarks. He said, “These are not ethics for journalists, but ethics for anyone who commits acts of journalism.” And indeed, Kelly McBride and Tom Rosenstiel, the editors of the new Poynter book, have worked hard to think about an ethical framework that can be relevant and meaningful to the wide array of people who are participating in journalism today.

Rosenstiel echoed this point later in the evening when he argued that today ethics has to be embedded in every piece of journalism, not just a set of values ascribed to by a newsroom or organization. The way content spreads online means that journalism is often disconnected from its source so we can’t rely on brands to establish trust with the reader. Audiences need to see, within the journalism itself, why this piece is worthy of trust and how it reflects ethical reporting. This is why Rosenstiel and McBride put more emphasis in their new book on transparency over independence, a decision which itself has sparked some useful debate. Continue reading

What Should Readers Demand from Their Reporters?

Over at The Morning News Brendan Fitzgerald has a fascinating piece for those thinking about the role of journalism in our communities. He asked a bunch of journalists what readers should demand of local newsrooms. I was grateful to be included along with folks like Laura Sydell and Robert Krulwich of NPR, Dahlia Lithwick of Slate and Tim Burke of Deadspin, and Dean Starkman of the Columbia Journalism Review.

Here is what I said (but be sure to go read the rest of the piece):

Given the fundamental shift in the media, from a one-way broadcast model to a two-way participatory model, both journalists and the audience should welcome the chance for deeper dialogue. Readers, viewers, and listeners should demand a conversation from their local newsroom. At their best, truly reciprocal conversations are a path of discovery for both stakeholders, and we should want that same kind of discovery from the journalism we create and consume. A good conversation provides context, accountability, and questions. It honors the knowledge both people bring to the table, and it moves towards clarity and understanding. Conversation builds trust. If journalism today is a process, then conversation is the engine that drives the process forward. We should be demanding more conversation from our journalists and looking for it from our communities.

What would you demand of your local newsroom?

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Community Engagement and Press Freedom: Building More Resilient and Sustainable Journalism

Next week I’ll be speaking at the Reynolds Journalism Institute for its five-year anniversary, which will focus on the next steps we need to take to sustain journalism.

The event organizers have outlined five critical areas for exploration, but there are two that I’ll focus the most attention on: press freedom and community engagement. For me, these two issues are deeply woven together in a participatory, networked fourth estate, and both are in a moment of terrific flux.

I have written previously that regardless of whether your business model relies on ads, paywalls or donors, journalism will rise and fall with its communities. Editor Melanie Sill argues that “we must reorder the fundamental processes of journalism toward the goal of serving communities.”

We need our communities to invest, fund and support our work, to share it and help it make an impact on the world. We need our communities to be sources, to give feedback, to help us report.

But we also need our communities to fight for our rights to gather and disseminate news, to access information, to assemble and speak freely. This has never been truer than it is now, when the threats to journalism are not just economic, but legal. Continue reading

Journalism Needs More Than a Shield Law — It Needs a Movement

According to the First Amendment Center’s new survey, freedom of speech is Americans’ favorite First Amendment right.

Press freedom, however, came in dead last.

The notion of ranking our rights is a bit contrived, given that — as the director of the First Amendment Center notes — “our core freedoms, regardless of their relative popularity, complement and reinforce one another.”

That said, press freedom’s standing in this survey, paired with recent events around the country, reveals a troubling disconnect. Continue reading