From Chat Apps to Town Halls: Why More Newsrooms are Designing Journalism for Conversation

A good newspaper, I suppose, is a nation talking to itself.” — Arthur Miller

At a panel on “The Hunt for News Products of the Future” hosted by CUNY and the New School last week, Aron Pilhofer, the Interim Chief Digital Officer of The Guardian, said he is fascinated with the intersection of messaging, bots and artificial intelligence in apps like Facebook’s project M, and how that might change how we enter into a conversation with the news. The comment came on the heels of Pilhofer discussing the new mobile app from Quartz, which uses a messaging interface to deliver news via interactions with the user. He said using the Quartz app was “the first time I opened up a news app and felt like it had a soul.”

I felt that too — perhaps not a soul, but a sense of connection.

Continue reading

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.

Building Journalism With Community Starts With Building Trust

In early 2015 I wrote a post about why journalists should focus on building the future of news with communities, not just for them. I’m following up on that post with a series of profiles of people trying to embody this community-first approach.

Profile One: Jeremy Hay and EPA Now

Jeremy Hay is a Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University who has been covering local news from San Francisco’s Tenderloin district to Sonoma County for more than two decades. Before getting started in journalism Hay worked as a tenant organizer, union staff member and house cleaner in New York City.

Through his fellowship Hay is exploring how journalists can build on “the native talents in low-income communities to create their own source of media coverage” But when I sat down with Hay in San Mateo, California, last month it was clear that he didn’t want to just build on those talents, he wanted to build with the community. His first project is designing a local news service with residents in East Palo Alto, but Hay hopes he can take what he learns there and extrapolate it out to help other communities develop their own media infrastructure.

It is still early but Hay has already learned some valuable lessons about building with community, not for it.  Continue reading

10 Crowdfunding Lessons From The Radiotopia Kickstarter Campaign

The Radiotopia Kickstarter campaign comes to a close today after raising more than $600,000 from nearly 22,000 fans.

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The success of a campaign like this is a complex alchemy of passion, mission, timing and tenacity. There are a million things you can’t control, good and bad surprises abound. And yet, over the last month the Radiotopia team has run a superb and engaging campaign. Anyone thinking about crowdfunding for their project – regardless of what platform you choose — should study what the team at PRX and Radiotopia did.

Here are ten lessons from Radiotopia’s Kickstarter Campaign:

1) Sell the values, not the thing.

The Radiotopia campaign was never about just supporting some podcasts, it was about “remaking public media.” The Radiotopia team always led with the values and vision they were bringing to the table. This is especially important for mission-driven crowdfunding efforts like journalism and documentary projects, but even with gadgets or other products, crowdfunding tends to be about selling a story not a thing. “It’s not just an amazing group of podcasts, it’s an amazing group of people” writes Roman Mars on the campaign’s homepage. “Radiotopia is bringing a listener-first, creator-driven ethos to public radio.” The team was explicit about tapping into their audience’s values – a love of storytelling and public media – and made it clear how a donation wouldn’t just fund a podcast, it would help you feed your passion.

2) This isn’t just a fundraiser, it is a friend-raiser.

Kickstarter campaigns are about raising money. But that’s not all they accomplish. The best campaigns become a locus of attention and activity for a passionate group of people to come together and support a shared vision. The Radiotopia crew understood this, and they made their campaign as much about making friends as it was about making money. Early on in the campaign Roman Mars introduced one of the campaign’s key goals: To reach 20,000 donors. Yes, that goal carried with it a financial challenge from a corporate sponsor, but what was more important for the longterm sustainability of the collective, is that it presented an opportunity to introduce Radiotopia to legions of new people (and to turn current fans into donors, even if only at $1 each). One of the campaign rewards was even a chance to be connected with other fans as pen pals. The best Kickstarter campaigns are not just financial investments, but also investments in relationships between creators and their community. Continue reading

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

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

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

Video: Journalism Sustainability and Community Engagement

About one month ago I took the wraps off of the new project I had been developing with the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. We called it “The Local News Lab” because we wanted to emphasize the sense of experimentation that animates much of the project. We are working with six local news sites in New Jersey and New York City to test new revenue models, new strategies for community engagement, and new collaborative projects to strengthen the journalism ecosystem.

The project is not only an experiment in supporting and expanding local journalism, but also an effort test new ideas in media funding and philanthropy. At Dodge we are testing how a place-based foundation can strengthen the infrastructure for local journalism in a way that encourages long-term sustainability and deep civic engagement. While Dodge does fund non-commercial journalism, this project focuses on mentoring six commercial news start-ups and helping build tools and resources that serve all journalists and newsrooms. We describe this as an ecosystem approach.

I wanted to come work at the Dodge Foundation because I was really excited about the approach they were taking, investing in networks and infrastructure and putting community and civic engagement at the center of their work. In the video below, an interview with Dan Kennedy, I talk more about the details of the project and how we will measure success. 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

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

From Journalism’s Five W’s to Journalism’s Five C’s

The five W’s of journalism remain a cornerstone of newsgathering today, but I have been increasingly thinking about five C’s as well: Context, Conversation, Curation, Community and Collaboration.

Below I try to define each, with particular attention to how they intersect, and I link to one good piece of writing on the topic.

Nothing about this is supposed to be comprehensive, nor is it particularly original, it’s just a list of the things I’m thinking about right now and an invitation for you to add your thoughts.  Continue reading