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

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

Misunderstanding Innovation and Fearing Failure

In what has now become a widely circulated blog post by Patrick Pexton, the ombudsman of The Washington Post, Pexton asks, “Is The Post innovating too fast?” Here is a smattering of points from the conclusion of his article:

 “I know from talking to folks in the newsroom that all the change may be exhausting the staff, too. Many of these innovations require considerable staff time, as well as more time from editors and reporters to monitor them… Staffers say that sometimes they feel as if the innovations are just tossed against a wall to see what sticks, without careful thought as to which of them will enhance and shore up The Post’s reputation and brand… I want The Post to continue to innovate. It’s important for the publication’s survival. Many of these changes are working… But there’s a time to press on the accelerator, and a time to ease off. Substance, clarity and direction will be more important in the long run than buzz. Take a breather lap, Post.”

I don’t know Pexton and I don’t know the inner-workings of the WaPo newsroom, but most of the people in my Twitter stream viewed Pexton’s post as at best bizarre and at worst a troubling sign for the Post’s long term relevance. However, it’s worth noting, Pexton does root his analysis in the concerns he is hearing from readers, and a news organization – whether it is innovating or stagnating – should listen to its readers.

But in this case, I don’t think the diagnosis, nor how it was delivered, fit the symptoms. Continue reading