Crowdsourcing. And a fundamental need for debate. How journalism can succeed in conversation
Learnings from WHO OWNS LÜNEBURG in reply to Jeff Jarvis
“We’re in a dying industry. Let’s not kid ourselves,” Spiegel editor-in-chief Steffen Klusmann recently said in an interview. But you can witness how alive journalism still can be, should you ever come to Lüneburg, a small town near Hamburg, Germany. WHO OWNS LÜNEBURG (Wem gehört Lüneburg) started in May 2019, and since then a lot has happened in our medieval town and among its 80,000 inhabitants.
“It is the sacred duty of journalists to listen to the public they serve. It is then their duty to bring journalistic value — reporting, facts, explanation, context, education, connections, understanding, empathy, action, options — to the public conversation. Journalism is that conversation. Democracy is that conversation.”
This is what Jeff Jarvis, Professor at CUNY’s J-school in New York, wrote in a blog post in January 2019. Jarvis was disappointed that colleagues from the New York Times and CNN wanted to abandon Twitter. They should remain part of the conversation, Jarvis wrote. Journalism is conversation.
Journalism is the conversation. The conversation is journalism.
I am sorely disappointed in The New York Times’ Farhad Manjoo, CNN’s Brian Stelter, and other journalists who these…
A t about the same time Jarvis was writing about his disappointment, we are sitting in a narrow office in Lüneburg: Marc Rath, editor-in-chief of Landeszeitung für die Lüneburger Heide, the local newspaper, his local editor Anna Paarmann, Katja Grundmann, the digital editor, Justus von Daniels from Correctiv — non-profit investigations for society (sort of the German version of Pro Publica), my colleague Jakob Vicari and I, two creative journalists who run a media start-up for innovation. Also sitting at the table: the conviction that it’s not too late for local journalism.
Our platform: the Landeszeitung, a typical German local newspaper, printed in the oldest family-owned print shop of the world. 25 editors, a paid circulation of 27,823 copies.
How does a newspaper connect with those who read it? And how with those who don’t? How can it start 27,823 conversations?
Journalism as a conversation is a model of success. Last year, 9,000 people came together at “Deutschland spricht” von Zeit Online. The participants wanted to exchange views with people of other political beliefs.
And Correctiv has landed a bestseller with its crowd-based investigation “Who owns the city”. Editorial offices in Hamburg, Berlin, Düsseldorf have already worked with the CrowdNewsroom, Lüneburg, Heidenheim and Minden are currently involved, others are in the starting blocks. The jury of Grimme Online Award 2019 praises: “‘Who owns Hamburg?’ is an outstanding example of how journalism on the Internet and using digital tools can do justice to its social mission and responsibility.” You can find more on the crowd newsroom and the investigations of local housing and real estate markets here at Correctiv.
W e took Correctiv’s idea of the crowd newsroom a step further. We wanted to start a conversation with the citizens of our town. Bürgerrecherche, we called it, citizens investigation. Journalism as a conversation about housing — what good is that for? From a reader’s perspective, the answer is easy: housing is an urgent topic in our city. We believe it can be better discussed if the real estate market were more transparent. In Germany land registers are not public, in Lüneburg there is not even an official rent index. Transparency is only possible if people — data owners — provide information voluntarily and trust us — journalists — with their data and stories.
In order to convince people to become part of the investigation, we had to get out of the editorial office and into the park. Away from the desk, closer to the garden fences. Jarvis is right: Journalism is conversation. And in Lüneburg that conversation doesn’t happen on Twitter, it happens on the streets, at the marketplace, cafés. It’s direct and personal.
Conversation is the bond between a media house and its audience, who no longer want to just read, listen or watch. They want to join in, participate and be asked. “Who owns our city?” Together we’ll find out — that’s our claim and promise. And not an easy undertaking. As we will find out.
I f you want to participate in WEM GEHÖRT LÜNEBURG, you have to fill out a questionnaire online and upload your rental agreement or land register entry as proof. It reminds people a little of the campaign “Germany is looking for the vaccination pass”. It is difficult, really difficult, to get people to share personal data. Especially when it comes to uploading it “somewhere to the web”. A lease is normally not a selfie motif. The data-sparse tenant keeps his data rather secret.
Good tasting investigations
So we had to get into the conversation — but how? Our best-tasting solution contains blueberries: handmade sweets from the local manufacturer. The candies have the shape of the typical gabled houses of Lüneburg and are packed in bags with a campaign-style gift ribbon. We distributed the candy at the information stand to those who talked with us and participated in the crowd newsroom. Blueberry sweets can start conversations, I can assure you. That’s why we deliberately did not order any give-aways from the advertising material catalogue. The sweet idea popped up during a Design Sprint.
1 out of 107: Finding good ideas
We locked ourselves in for two days — far away from the editorial office. Our goal: “The whole city should talk about our investigation!” So we needed to create a campaign around the WHO OWNS LÜNEBURG idea. We needed to start a whole new conversation. The Design Sprint helped us do it. Its promise to develop something new in a very short time goes back to Jake Knapp. The Google employee came up with the method and wrote a manual about it: “How to solve big problems and test new ideas in just five days”. (Meanwhile there is a lot of literature about Design Sprints, also here on medium.) We have often used the method successfully. But never for local journalism.
In only 16 hours we developed 107 ideas for WEM GEHÖRT LÜNEBURG. We selected. We wanted to surprise. We wanted to create reasons for debate. Huge balloons are cheaper than beach flags and more effective. The same applies to chalk spray graffiti. In a city of cyclists and walkers, we attract attention better on cobblestones than on large billboards. A campaign in Lüneburg needs to be different from a campaign in Berlin.
Focus instead of scattering away
Editor-in-chief Marc Rath clears the newspaper’s first ‘book’ completely, eight pages WHO OWNS LÜNEBURG to kick off the conversation. Since then, articles, interviews, maps and charts have been published daily. The newspaper is full of stories.
Creating new occasions for speech
Meanwhile outside: On the street we encounter people who don’t read the newspaper. Children from poorer districts paint their dream houses on giant cardboards at street festivals. “My house should only belong to my parents and me, nobody else,” says 9-year-old Jaidaa, her hands full with colorful finger paint. While the children are painting, our team talks to the parents. Gets in touch.
Picnic with the mayor
A real hit is our picnic in the park, with the mayor as special guest. We decorate the lawn in campaign blue, drag beer tent sets, tables for children, ball games. A barista brews Flat White. There is cake from the baker and from the publisher’s wife. Lemonade and the weather provide a fresh breeze: discussions over living in our city unfold here and there on the picnic covers and at the tables, while the children balance on a slackline. The mayor is busy talking to people, always surrounded by at least ten locals who involve him in conversations. Others enjoy the afternoon sun on a cozy sofa a local manufacturer donated for the occasion. The guests feel comfortable. WHO OWNS LÜNEBURG is set as the topic in town.
And there’s more and more talk. Especially about our favourite idea, the “Wohnzuschuss”: One Saturday, 10,000 copies of the newspaper come with empty bread bags. It says “3 crusty rolls and a home of my own, please”. A bakery sponsors the rolls. The offer pulls. The people from Lüneburg bring hundreds of bags into the bakery store, meet our team from WEM GEHÖRT LÜNEBURG at the information stand in front it. While we serve coffee, people get rid of their questions. Questions about our crowd investigation, about data privacy, about local journalism in general. Some bring their whole folders with apartment documents. Others have a story to get excited about. And we are right there — in the middle of the conversation.
Investigations live on stage
Five experts and a moderator are sitting in a school auditorium, surrounded by 150 interested people and an empty chair. A fishbowl discussion. The lawyer of the tenants’ association describes the concerns of the tenants, the managing director of the housing cooperative denounces the failure of urban planning. The mayor counters. Someone from the monastery chamber defends the heritable building rights. A person affected cries. The property appraiser estimates prices for possible construction sites. A student asks why more and more expensive micro-apartments are being built, amidst a lack of affordable living space. An elderly gentleman calls for restrictions on the use of apartments as Airbnb. Politically charged terms fall: misappropriation, expropriation. It is a controversial and strong debate. A debate at eye level. People who are taken seriously remain loyal readers — or perhaps they become so.
A house on track
The running track of Lüneburg’s company run is six kilometers long. The editorial team brings a big cardboard house into the race — from the starting point to the finish line. It is unwieldy. It can’t be overlooked. The running house passes more than 2,000 runners this day. It costs only 35 Euros and has attracted more attention than almost anything else we did or do during WHO OWNS LÜNEBURG. Dialogue starts along the race track — the house is reason enough for just another conversation.
Cycling to alternatives
How do we want to live in the future? We are looking for answers on a bicycle tour. Together with an architect we visit four alternative housing projects in the city. The tour is fully booked right away: 50 people come to the meeting point, drive to construction sites and are welcomed in other people’s gardens. Over non-alcoholic beer, they exchange ideas with the residents of the construction trailer, the cross-generation flat-sharing community. The team from WHO OWNS LÜNEBURG cycles along — with super balloons tied to the handlebars, cushions with campaign logo, a tripod and a microphone for our Instagram live. While the architect answers questions about the housing projects, the residents open up living rooms and kitchens. The participants look around and are amazed. One of them says: “How great, what a new role journalism is slipping into here”. And she demands: more of it!
Journalists can listen
“We’ve created response throughout the city,” says Landeszeitung’s editor-in-chief Marc Rath, “that’s what journalism has to do.” Anna Paarmann, who coordinates the WHO OWNS LÜNEBURG project in the newsroom, is also proud:
“We have succeeded in reaching the Lüneburgers. In the city there is talk about the topic, my telephone does not stand still. People entrust their stories to our newspaper. Not only are we fulfilling our duty, going to appointments and reporting, but we are now hosting a debate. I think that’s great.”
We deliberately seek conversations in almost every part of the city: at the mobile stand at fruit markets, at the university, in front of supermarkets or at the city street festival. Not to sell subscriptions. We don’t do advertising campaigns. We want to achieve something else: new confidence in local journalism.
New ways for new stories
‘Every person from Lüneburg should have heard about WEM GEHÖRT’ — that was our initial goal. In order to achieve this also via smartphone, we started an specific Instagram channel for the occasion. Our reporters roll out a pink doormat in front of doors in the city. The Instagram stories are designed as portraits, introducing the people who live behind these very different doors. “Where we live, how we live” is the series’ title. On Instagram, we bring facts and quotations into the discussion, invite people to meet. But there we also get feedback — and hints for new research approaches.
Almost six weeks of conversations at WHO OWNS LÜNEBURG are behind us. Not everything has worked out. When the T-shirts are delivered in slim, Jakob has to hold his breath. The helium balloons cannot be closed with the special closures supplied by the manufacturer. When there is drizzle, only a handful of people come to the panel discussion in the newspaper’s courtyard. Not everyone understands that the reporter wants to take a picture of the bedroom after an interview — possibly because of the mildew spots on the ceiling. When we rang the bell, some doors were slammed.
“Journalism is the conversation, the conversation is journalism.”
Enough obituaries have been written for journalism. Is the local newspaper dying? Perhaps. Definitely, if it remains the same. “This campaign has brought a great spirit into the house. That was good for the whole newspaper,” says Anna Paarmann. The many conversations and encounters during the past weeks have shown: The people in our city want to be informed. They want journalists who do research and investigations. Maybe they won’t pay for words on paper or screens much longer. But they might pay for a total offer of information. Including room for encounters. The opportunity to do their own research. Including a conversation — at picnics, street festivals, in the school auditorium.
If you are a journalist, at least get out of your editorial office. Start a debate! It requires creativity and budget, but not wealth. More important: 107 ideas. And the courage to take up a thread of conversation in the city — or to weave it from scratch.
This article has been published in German as well. You can read it here.
We thank Marc, Anna, Katja and their team at Landeszeitung as well as Justus and Michel of Correctiv for the team spirit — and a whole lot of conversations. We are looking forward to the next steps at www.wemgehoertlueneburg.de.
tactile.news — tangible campaigns
Spray cans, super balloons and cream cuts: we know how to use them for journalism. We — Astrid Csuraji and Jakob Vicari — are tactile.news, a Lüneburg-based media start-up that enjoys innovation in journalism. We share our inspirations. Just drop us a line at email@example.com