Bringing Journalism Back to the People
Our year in relational journalism. By Karolis Vyšniauskas
What is the role of a journalist in the age of social media? That is the question I’ve been asking myself since 2008, the year I started studying journalism at Vilnius University. The same year I created my Facebook account.
Fast forward 11 years and Facebook is at the center of our digital lives, while “broadcaster” and “newspaper reporter” ended up on a list of “25 Dying Professions You Should Avoid.”
In the U.S. alone, 27,000 newsroom workers lost their job since 2008. In Lithuania, important news websites and magazines were shut down. We saw talented colleagues starting to work for politicians and PR agencies.
For many journalists, it’s the end of the world as they know it. But I feel fine. For us, millennial journalists, this is all we know. We started our careers during the 2008 financial crisis, when the media business was losing advertising money, and in a lot of cases, it has never recovered.
Those of us who stayed in journalism didn’t do it for money or influence, because those things were never there for us. We stayed because we simply wanted to get closer to people.
Or as Henry Luce, the founder of TIME magazine once put it, to “come as close as possible to the heart of the world.” Few other professions empower you to do that the way journalism does.
At its core, a journalist’s job is to help people know more about other people. And that is why journalism will never die. We’ll need journalists as long as people are interested in each other.
The problem with today’s journalism is that many media organizations lost touch with the people they are serving. The goal became to have as many readers and viewers as possible, without aiming to understand who those people are and what they want from you. Too often, people are reduced to statistics.
Which is why the very first Finding Common Ground relational journalism project was such a valuable experience for our team at Nanook, the independent journalists’ collective in Lithuania.
Hosted by Agora Journalism Center at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication, it allowed us to meet other journalists in the U.S. and Europe who also aim to focus on people, not the ‘audiences’ in their work.
During the project, we visited Sacramento, California, where jesikah maria ross from Capital Public Radio was hosting a unique event series called Story Circles. It was a form of journalism like no other. There were no microphones and no cameras, except for my colleague documenting the event. The guests of the evening were Sacramento residents. Most of them hadn’t met each other before. But they were all affected by the same issue: the growing housing prices in their city.
The goal of the evening wasn’t to produce a radio story, it was to meet others facing similar issues. Story Circles events brought Sacramento residents closer to each other and closer to their local public radio station.
jesikah maria ross, the brains behind the Story Circles events, has documented her process at her Medium account. One could argue that event organizing isn’t really a job for journalists. jesikah’s position at her radio station is called ‘community engagement strategist’.
But Andrew DeVigal, former multimedia editor at The New York Times and one of the initiators of the Finding Common Ground project argues that we should rethink what journalism is really about:
“The way we practiced journalism in the last several decades has been that we will report on the community and then we would share that story back to the community, without really bringing the community into the conversation. [Story Circles] is a great example of pushing boundaries of journalism. Because if we don’t hear from the community members, I’m not too sure what we are doing here at all.”
And to be precise, Capital Public Radio did run a series of podcast documentaries exploring the issue of California’s housing crisis. The live community events were part of a bigger attempt to tackle the problem.
Back in Vilnius we were joined by Alaska Public Media’s reporter Anne Hillman, who hosts the impressive radio program Community in Unity. Its setting is similar to jesikah’s model in Sacramento, but Anne takes on the role of mediator between the people in the circle. She holds the microphone and asks additional questions if needed. Her goal is not only to make the conversation happen, but to also turn it into a radio show so those who didn’t attend the event would be included.
The prison system was one of the topics Anne had worked on. “Most people who go to prison in Alaska will eventually be released,” she writes. But a lot of them are scared to go back. By inviting Alaska residents to meet the prison community she helped people on both sides to be less afraid of each other.
Inspired by the work of jesikah and Anne, we tried the Story Circle format in Lithuania. We organized a conversation with former inmates, except that it wasn’t held in prison. Lithuania leads the EU in the percentage of people put behind bars. Half of Lithuania’s population say they wouldn’t want to live next to a former prisoner. One of the reasons is that they have never met a former prisoner. Or they don’t know that they have.
With the help of the Lithuanian Prisoner Community, we invited three former inmates to share stories of how prison changed their lives. Česlovas, one of the guests, counted 18 times when he was rejected from jobs. He was sure it was because of his criminal record. “It’s called a correctional center,” he said. “But you come back as a worse person.”
The audience, around 30 people, mostly listeners of our NYLA podcast, asked questions. It was an enlightening evening. We could have met Česlovas on our own and told his story via the podcast. Nanook colleagues had previously covered a similar topic, creating an insightful multimedia project about a women’s prison in Lithuania.
But the effect of listening and asking questions in a group setting is different. It reduces your journalistic ego. You have to acknowledge that you invited people who have an equal right to ask questions and share their thoughts.
“I felt that the people were really listening,” said Česlovas. “And they weren’t judging us.” The event lasted three hours. We all agreed that we must do it again. We called the event series NYLA Live.
Our next event was held right before the mayoral election in Vilnius. We were disappointed by the public conversation on the topic, which focused on political fights rather than the needs of residents.
We were not interested in what the candidates had to say about each other. We wanted to know whether people in Vilnius feel they have a right to change the city? How do different people experience the same city? What are the small steps that each of us could take to improve our community?
It was a gathering of skateboarders, social workers, young moms and dads, sculptors, urban sociologists. If you chose to live in Vilnius, you were welcome. Around 40 people came.
First, each participant shared what place in Vilnius makes them feel at home. From parks to cemeteries, people constructed their own map of the city. This little experiment helped us break the ice of public talking — the microphone wasn’t so frightening anymore.
As it turned out, most of us worried about the same things: the shrinking public space, the lack of community. None of these issues were raised at the official mayoral debates.
Some of the people came on their own, others were invited by us to present more varied perspectives. Some had returned after our first event. We wanted to make sure that everyone would have the chance to speak — but only if they wanted to.
The next day, we received an email from one of the participants. She said she doesn’t feel comfortable speaking publicly but she still wanted to share her thoughts. We included them in the podcast episode from the event.
So far, we haven’t experienced real tension between participants, which could happen if the topics were more poralizing. But we want to tackle those topics as well. There is a wide range of questions that Lithuanian society is not used to discussing publicly, such as economic inequality, rising nationalism, LGBTQ rights, historical memory or mental health. These conversations are starting to happen on Facebook, but they aren’t as effective as real life interactions.
Lithuania didn’t have the chance to build a strong civic society. During the 50 years under Soviet control, the press was ruled by the state. Sharing your opinion publicly was restricted. We have to relearn how it’s done. Relational journalism — the practice in which journalists work as conversation facilitators rather than traditional reporters and broadcasters — is one of the ways to achieve that.
Recently, we were invited to adapt the Story Circle format for European Youth Week’s final debate. We also hosted more traditional panel discussions in the spirit of NYLA Live. It became a crucial part of the podcast identity.
When I was writing for DELFI, the largest news website in the country, some of my articles would receive hundreds of comments. But most of them were anonymous. Too many of them were insulting, borderline hate speech. I had a huge audience, but I didn’t know who I was writing for.
With Nanook we took a different approach. Instead of seeking traditional advertising, we rely on listener support via Patreon to keep our (online) newsroom going. Our listeners are also our podcast creators. We have a private Facebook group where we discuss ideas, receive praise and criticism. We send postcards to our listeners, visit them while traveling around Europe and working on stories in Lithuania. NYLA Live is a continuation of this process of keeping the connection between journalists and the community alive.
There is an economic argument for why you should try to engage your listeners. It’s true that the closer you get to them, the more likely they are to financially support your work. But relational journalism is much more than just an economic tradeoff. It brings you a real sense of purpose — something that today’s journalists lack the most.
If your newsroom wants to explore relational journalism:
- Applications for the new edition of Finding Common Ground project are open until April 19.
- Agora Journalism Center in Portland has launched Gather, the platform for journalists and community facilitators to learn from each other.
- Building Engagement report presents other projects from our first Finding Common Ground cohort and describes the philosophy of relational journalism.
- The report also presents Reflective Practice Guide, a methodology allowing to document and reflect on the community engagement work.
Karolis Vyšniauskas is a host and editor of NYLA podcast. Established in 2017 by Nanook journalists’ collective in Lithuania, the podcast aims to analyse cultural and social forces that shape our society. Most of the episodes are in Lithuanian, some are English.
The article was edited by Rasa Radzevičiūtė