Last month, I decided to uproot my life and leave people, a job and a place I loved very much to move across the country in pursuit of a concept that I had never heard of just eight months prior.
Without a doubt, I knew I wanted to be a social journalist.
Finding that term for me was the most exaggerated and metaphorical version of that feeling of finally finding the right word when it had been on the tip of your tongue, just out of reach, in a conversation.
I learned about the idea of social journalism when I read a prediction that Carrie Brown, now the director of my graduate program, wrote about what she wanted the future of journalism to look like this past January. And after stalking her on Twitter and feeling emboldened to cold call because she was a fellow Wisconsinite, I knew that this term described what I wanted to do with my life.
So, for those who are a little confused as to why I left Milwaukee so abruptly, and what I’m doing here in New York arming myself with peppermint essential oils to stave off the mouse that terrified me in the bathroom of my sublet the other day, and taking the subway all around town to search for a long term apartment before and after classes, this is my attempt to share a little bit more about why this concept and opportunity to pursue a Master’s degree in social journalism is so compelling to me.
At its most basic level, social journalism strives to make journalism more of a service to people in communities and less of a product for corporations to sell.
And from what I’ve gathered, it’s the coolest field of work I can imagine. It just makes sense, while somehow also constantly wrestling with really difficult questions. It’s the kind of journalism I want to do, aligned with the kind of person I want to be.
Social journalism grows from one of the core things that has gone wrong in our media and in our broader society: our failure to listen well to each other, institutions’ failure to listen to the people they are supposed to serve, and people with power’s failure to listen to communities that historically have been listened to less. It asserts that journalism should always be grounded in deep listening, and that it should utilize an array of creative tools at our disposal to do so. It isn’t afraid to admit that we, as journalists, could be doing our job way better.
A few years ago, when I was in college, I straddled what I consider an imaginary fault line, with one foot in journalism, and the other in community and youth development spaces. In addition to schoolwork, I spent a lot of my time volunteering at a youth leadership program on the North Side of Milwaukee. While studying journalism and politics, I spent my time both filing stories and tutoring students. I explored neighborhoods both with a recorder in hand and in the driver’s seat of a 15-passenger van bringing young people to different local events and just being present. I simultaneously learned how to be a good reporter and an active community member, and both of these roles made sense to me in symbiotic relationship, informing each other.
I felt a strong disconnect between mainstream news and the community I was coming to know, especially in the way that youth were represented. I wanted my students to be able to make media, to feel as much power as I did when I got to pursue answers to my curiosities and carry the responsibility of painting the picture of reality in that place we called home. I wanted to see what could happen when we redistributed that power a bit. So, we decided to start a youth-led media project. Together, the students and I sought to elevate youth voices to expand perspectives in Milwaukee. The students completed a survey of issues that they cared about and learned multimedia skills. We produced an online magazine profiling six young people improving their communities, which we published the week after Milwaukee made national headlines for the unrest in Sherman Park following the officer-involved shooting of Syville Smith, complicating the narrative of what it meant to be a young person growing up in Milwaukee.
Disillusioned with some traditional models of journalism and wary of going straight into a newsroom, I moved to California after graduation and worked in an alternative high school through an Americorps position with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. Missing journalism and the midwest way too much, I returned to Milwaukee the following year to work for the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, an innovative and inspiring local nonprofit news organization led by really wonderful people who have social journalism in their DNA whether they’d use that word or not.
I wanted to figure out how to keep askings these kinds of questions about how to make the media not only more inclusive but also more useful to people in their daily lives. Beyond that, I wanted to engage those most impacted by an issue in the debate about how to affect change in it. I wanted public conversations to be more accessible, and I wanted more tools to do that kind of work innovatively and genuinely.
For me, the next step in that process manifested in a last minute opportunity to be a part of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism’s class of 2020 at CUNY. So naturally, I jumped at it with enthusiasm.
Before I decided to come to grad school, Allen Arthur, an alumni of the program, helped expand my definition of social journalism. On the phone, he said something along the lines of, “This program is for people who want to work in the future of journalism, who want to flip the power structures to make the media more equitable and democratize how we listen, gather and share information with each other.”
How freaking cool is that?
In my first couple weeks of classes, my definition of social journalism has continued to expand, and it makes me so excited for this next year-and-a-half of learning.
My classmate Madeline Faber described the concept as:
“Social Journalism combines emerging technology with community engagement. Social journalists listen to the information needs of communities first and then create a story or a product that is inherently useful or valuable to that group. This approach draws from techniques found in community organizing in that it works with audiences at the sidewalk level to share power, resources and information.”
I love that!!
In our small cohort of brilliant minds, we’ve read and talked about how journalism should be collaborative and should involve the community at every step in the process, how it starts with listening to learn where information gaps are in how people get their news, and that our goal shouldn’t be just to engage with people in communities, but to equip them with access, opportunities and tools to participate in making these communities better places to live.
Madeline explained it well in class when she said, “The opposite of negative news isn’t positive news, it’s empowering news.”
At Newmark J-School, I’m surrounded by students and instructors who are questioning, who are listening, who are redefining and who are dedicated to figuring out how we can reimagine journalism in its time of crisis. I can’t wait to learn from the communities beyond the classroom I’ll get to work with in this next year-and-a-half and see what kinds of imagining we can do together.