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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

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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

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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

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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