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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

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How To Get Your News From Poems

I came to journalism by way of poetry.

For a long time, poems were my workshop. Through poetry I experimented with language, learned how to make meaning and build empathy. Poetry, like so much good journalism, helped me see the world in new ways.

This week, the nation’s largest poetry festival kicks off in Newark, New Jersey. Over four days, on nine stages, more than 70 poets will take part in 120 events. In a preview of the festival, the New York Times called it “a literary bonanza.”

For me, the festival feels like a homecoming. Six months ago I began working as the Director for Journalism and Sustainability at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the hosts of the Dodge Poetry Festival. I’ll spend the weekend surrounded by some of the people whose poetry sparked my love of writing early on.

“It is difficult / to get the news from poems,” wrote American poet William Carlos Williams, “yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” And yet, we are seeing more and more efforts to combine poetry and reporting. Recently, the Center for Investigative Journalism partnered with the literary nonprofit Youth Speaks to create the Off/Page project mix spoken word with investigative reporting. In 2009 Haaretz newspaper in Israel replaced its reporters with leading poets and authors for a day, and later in 2012 NPR invited poets into the newsroom to translate the day’s news into verse. Continue reading

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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

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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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Finding a Better Way to Track Journalist Arrests in the United States

I spent a large part of 2011 and 2012 compiling a day by day detailed report of journalists who had been arrested at Occupy protests. In each case, I tried to track down multiple sources for confirmation, sought to detail the circumstances and capture a bit of the story of how the arrest happen, and then from there track what happened to the journalist in the days and weeks afterwards. At the same time I launched a series of campaigns with Free Press, calling for cities across the United States to drop charges against journalists and defend First Amendment protections for journalists covering protests.

So when three journalists were arrested in Ferguson, Missouri, in the middle of August people began sending me tips. I was away from my computer and couldn’t track the breaking news as well as I would have liked, but thankfully as the week went on – and more reports of journalist arrests and press suppression poured in – others took up the charge and helped track these issues.

At the time of writing there are three lists tracking attacks on the press in and around Ferguson, Missouri. Each is taking a somewhat different approach and reports a different total number depending their definition of who is a journalist.

There is an important debate to be had here about who gets counted in these sorts of efforts, and who gets left out. I’ll save that debate for another post, but if you are interested I suggest reading this and this as a starting place.

After a year of tracking, I began to run up against the limitations of a tool like Storify for long-term on-going coverage. Even the lists above, with social media embedded in them, begin to get a bit long and unwieldy, after just a week or two.

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

Journalism’s Theory of Change

(Originally published at the LocalNewsLab)

In July we learned more about Jim Brady’s new local journalism start-up, Brother.ly, which is taking a networked approach to news in Philly. At USA Today Rem Rieder described the project as having a “strong civic impulse.”

For Brady and Chris Krewson, the site’s editor, community is the starting place. At theInnovate Local conference at Montclair State University earlier this year Brady said that increasingly he wants to effect “our communities through action not just providing information” and he describes Brother.ly not as a news site but as “a platform for a better Philly.”

At one time, this overt emphasis on civic action would have raised red flags for many journalists. But increasingly we are seeing some newsrooms frame their work as a springboard for action. There is evidence of this shift in both nonprofit and commercial newsrooms, as well as a growing number of journalism schools which are explicitly training more community driven and action oriented students.

Screenshot 2014-07-28 14.07.49The Christian Science Monitorjust redesigned their site with a major focus on helping people take action. The site features a “Take Action” section and on some stories the Christian Science Monitor offers “paths to action for readers who’ve been inspired by a story or something happening in the world.” My colleague Molly de Aguiar recently profiled Christian Science Monitor and two other publications that are using site design to invite more user engagement.

Also this month, the Knight Foundation awarded a Prototype Fund grant to Chicago’s Public Good Software for the development of a “Do Public Good” button and an outreach campaign designed to “work with bloggers and media organizations to include a capability to take action (‘Do Public Good’) in the context of news articles.” Continue reading