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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.

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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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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

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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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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