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Scale vs. Love: The Secret Balancing Act

Two of the biggest trends in journalism seem at first glance to run counter to each other. Can we foster community engagement and participatory journalism and still chase scale and growth? One is messy, complex, and time intensive while the other demands speed and replicability.

On a recent Nieman Lab podcast Matt Thompson, Deputy Editor of the Atlantic, gave one of the most cogent descriptions of this tension I have heard and made a compelling case about why all newsrooms need to be thinking about both. His discussion was really helpful for me, so I wanted to share it with you.

For people who make things, everything from media to music, Thompson says there is a tension between two things, both of which are of value: “One of them is scale or reach — the access to a vast and wide audience — and one of them is love.” While these two things are in tension, Thompson argues that media companies need both: “You got to have a scale game and you got to have a love game. You have to attend to both.”

Nieman Lab doesn’t release a transcript of their podcast so I transcribed a few key quotes here.

“You have to be thinking about, on the one hand, you’re a media organization and for most of us part of our purpose is to have a big megaphone to reach of broad and diverse set of people. And to reach them with stories and information that ostensibly can bridge perspectives, can insight action, can enlighten folks and introduce people to one another. All that, to me, falls under the purview of scale.

You also, I think, you got to have a love game. This is the one that I think is easier in the short term to neglect, but I think in the long term it’s just as important. It’s money in the bank, it accrues dividends over time.”

Thompson goes on to talk about how both the newly introduced Notes section of the Atlantic and the sites redesign were part of their love game — cultivating affinity and connection with their most dedicated audiences. But, he says, he often juxtaposes those developments with something that happened just a few weeks later.

“One week we launched this redesign this lush, beautiful, very high brand fidelity redesign with our own custom fonts and what have you, and then just a few weeks later we were one of the launch partners on Facebook Instant. One of those is part of our love game, one of those is part of our scale game. The divide is not total, ideally these two strategies should reinforce one another, but there is also a tension between them.”

Listen to the entire discussion at PressPublish.org or below:


I think about issues of scale and love in local news and community engagement on Twitter at @jcstearns. Say hello.

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The Art of the Commons

(This essay was originally published in Orion Magazine’s spring 2015 issue)

There is a growing recognition that the solutions to some of our greatest struggles are rooted in our relationships to one another. They are built by hand, often slowly, and begin in our communities. From the environment to the economy, conservation to culture, people are developing creative networks to tackle wicked problems at a human scale. New digital tools have helped catalyze many of these efforts, but this tendency towards cooperative, participatory, and equitable problem-solving has a long and rich history.

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The FCC’s Public Problem

Yesterday, Gigi Sohn, a senior advisor and legal counsel for Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler, took to Twitter for an extended Q&A with the public. And remarkably, by most accounts, the discussion was actually useful.

The Twitter chat was prompted by the enormous public outcry in recent weeks regarding Chairman Wheeler’s plans to implement a “pay for play” system on the Internet. That push back from the public has now forced Wheeler to revise his proposal, which would have dismantled the idea of net neutrality and undermined the level playing field of the Internet  (but even this rewrite may not solve the problem). As I have written before, this is particularly troubling in terms of people’s access to news, information and a diversity of voices and viewpoints online.

Sohn should be commended for her willingness to listen and talk honestly about these important issues, but it may have been too little too late.

In the past week more than 50 artists and entertainers have joined 50 investors, 10 senators and huge coalitions of public interest groups and tech companies in blasting Wheeler’s proposal. In a rare move, two of Wheeler’s democratic colleagues on the Commission released statements acknowledging their concerns.

This reversal is just the most recent in a long line of policy moves where the FCC has been caught off guard by public protest and broad-based pressure. For an agency that was established, in part, to protect the public interest, it has an enormous problem with the public. Continue reading

Can The Can

Offices, classrooms and civic groups around the country are gearing up for their annual canned food drives. From now until the new year people will pile prepackaged, non-perishable food items in cardboard boxes and promptly forget about hunger and homelessness for the rest of the year.

Obviously, this is a generalization, and likely a bit unfair. But as the season of the can drive bears down on us, I have to wonder – is it time to can the can?

We need a new kind of food drive. One that helps build a sustainable infrastructure for healthy local food for everyone. One that is premised on valuing the land and the people in our community. One that is rooted in justice, not charity.
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