Reimagining news from the ground up

How we can learn from what works online and on mobile to create journalism that’s deeply engaging and responsive to our communities’ needs.


Unrevealed truths smolder. Inevitably, they force themselves to the surface. Consider Ferguson. A molten core of racial tension can’t be suppressed forever.

In an ideal world, journalism would have helped reveal the underlying faultlines in Ferguson before they had split wide open. But local journalism all over the country is in a moribund state. Newspapers are bleeding journalists, and their business model has shown no signs of stabilizing. The day-to-day work in increasingly cash-strapped local newsrooms is focused on forking out the day-to-day crime, sports, political and business coverage that drives traffic. And in the process, they appear to be losing their hold on their communities’ hearts and minds.

“It’s not that people aren’t interested in their communities” writes media reporter Paul Farhi in the Washington Post, “Local news usually ranks as the top priority in surveys — it’s that the economics of the digital age work strongly against reporting about schools, cops and the folks down the street.”

To date funding for news startups has flowed primarily, as Farhi says, “toward start-up ventures that target broad and borderless audiences,” like Vice, Buzzfeed, or Vox.

With the demise of the AOL local news experiment Patch, and the clear need for more incisive local journalism, it’s time for some ingenuity from those of us who care about the future of journalism. We have plenty of data on what works digitally, and increasingly on mobile. By borrowing from what works, we can imagine a new model for community-based journalism that’s raw, reveals genuine human needs and is deeply engaging.

Tapping into secret life of the community

This model starts with a strong flow of information from the ground up. How are people really doing? What are their concerns? Hopes? Observations?

This describes what’s shared on new and wildly popular anonymous messaging apps like Whisper and Yik Yak. At the school where I’m in residence, Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, (and judging from quick peeks at other schools Yaks), Yik Yak has quickly become a highly used anonymous bulletin board where kids vent their frustrations, secret longings, trenchant witticisms, and frequently their mental anguish.

A snapshot of the Mercer University’s Yik Yak

Yik Yak offers the catharsis of sharing secret and sometimes dark thoughts without the status anxiety that defines social media (though you can build karma if Yakkers up-vote your post or comment).

Yik Yak, like Facebook before it, has tapped into the rocket fuel of post-adolescent social uncertainty. College kids go through enormous emotional, physical and intellectual changes. They thirst for a place to vent, to try out different masks and poses, to see where they stand on the social totem. (One measure of its popularity: Yik Yak appears close to locking in $75 million in funding)

And for me, the lurker professor, Yik Yak closes the gap between what I think college kids’ day-to-day experience is like, and what they may actually be going through. It helps me check my assumptions about college life, and be more empathetic and tuned-in.

Anonymity + accountability = a new local journalism?

But private sharing without accountability is clearly problematic. Because it doesn’t require user names, Yik Yak is a perfect vector for bullying—which is why it’s been banned at many schools throughout the country.

So we need to create a place that affords privacy but retains accountability. One that’s for more than just venting — a place to communicate problems and observations with an expectation of being heard. This could be the platform for a new journalism based on trusted values.

John S. Knight, one of the two brothers who ran the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain (and created the Knight Foundation), understood that local journalism was more than about disseminating facts, or selling papers. He believed a newspaper editor ought to be the “conscience of a community.”

My grandfather (pictured below) used to run WCCO Radio (the so-called Good Neighbor) in Minnesota. As a farm broadcaster, he traveled the state in a steel bus outfitted with a transmitter so he could listen to farmers, understand their problems and broadcast what he learned to the mostly rural state. He paid one of his lieutenants just to travel the state and talk to people, and report back what he heard.

Journalism, at its best, is as much about listening as it is about publishing or broadcasting (see Josh Stearns excellent writing on this subject).

I believe Jack Knight and grandpa would look at the profusion of communications channels as exciting new conduits to the concerns and priorities of their communities.

My grandfather, Lawrence F. Haeg, listens to a farmer speak about his work and life. Grandpa ran WCCO Radio in Minnesota, the so-called Good Neighbor to the Northwest.

It all starts with trust

But many of these channels are not designed to afford the kind of sharing and listening that characterizes genuine engagement.

Yik Yak and Whisper’s no-name policies make it impossible to reach people directly and (among other things) verify what they’re sharing is true. You trade the appearance of authenticity for complete anonymity.

The problem with social media—Facebook, SnapChat and to some extent Twitter—on the other hand, is the opposite. These tend to be real-name environments. But they’re also more like performance spaces. As my friend David Cohn has said, “socializing on the internet is to real social activity as reality television is to actual reality.” Or, as Sue Halpern wrote in the New York Review of Books, “Social media is about presenting a curated self; it is opacity masquerading as transparency.”

The optimal conditions for tapping into the inner life of our communities would combine anonymity with accountability, and a focus on communicating with trusted institutions with the capacity for understanding and addressing people’s real needs.

Meet those conditions, and I think you have the foundations for a new kind of journalism that is not only sustainable, but also addictively engaging and perfectly suited for mobile and digital success. This is the model that GroundSource, the platform I’m building, is designed to support here in Macon, Georgia, as well as in Birmingham, New Orleans, Nairobi, and Cape Town—and hopefully, soon, many more cities.

Combining the view from the ground and the view from above

I moved to Macon from St. Paul, Minnesota a little more than a year ago. Choose any indicator—educational attainment, rates of uninsured, poverty, weather in January—and you could hardly choose two more different cities. Here’s a map of uninsured rates, and then another map of the so-called “Black Belt.” Any number of maps will show you the same patterns.

Rates of uninsured. Source: The New York Times.
A map of the Black Belt.

The maps point to structural realities that can provoke some facile sense-making from 30 thousand feet. It’s poverty + slavery! It’s racism! It’s conservatism! But maps alone aren’t enough to make sense of the forces shaping life on the ground, or more crucially, what to do about it. For that, you need to engage people in the community, gather stories, spend some time in their shoes and then find relevant data that explains what you’re hearing and seeing. You need to connect the view from the ground with the view from above to tell true, human stories in context.

And it’s exactly this kind of structural, but grounded, reporting that I think we’re most lacking today—especially at the local level. Which is why we seem to get blindsided by Trayvon and Ferguson and every other conflagration that springs from deep and difficult societal issues.

Lawrence Lanahan wrote about this deficit in the Columbia Journalism Review. “What’s missing from this coverage are the regional dynamics of racial inequality — the policies and systemic realities in housing, criminal justice, schools, and the workforce that enable and sustain that inequality and that sow the anger and mistrust and frustration that eventually help create the circumstances in which young black men like Michael Brown get shot.”

Is Macon a Ferguson? Hard to say. As a white northerner, and as a newcomer, I feel like I don’t have enough of a conduit to the black community, or to the community at large, to help me understand the range of experience here.

That’s the job of journalism.

And that’s exactly what we’re going to be building here at the Center for Collaborative Journalism. Over the next several months, with support from the Knight Foundation, we’ll be building a listening post to give the community ways to communicate its concerns and priorities to journalists and others who can listen and act to address them.

After all, in Macon or Minnesota, in New Orleans and Ferguson, and everywhere else—what we don’t talk about gets bottled up until it can’t stay down any longer.

So instead, here in Macon, we see the secret life of our community bubbling up in other ways. Trenchant, racially tinged Facebook comments on news stories. People littering with impunity. Stray dogs. Empty houses overgrown with vines. All symptoms of needs that have gone unaddressed for too long.

Private sharing for community awareness

But how do you engage people on these topics when they’re so difficult? I’ve devoted my career to using technology to help communities more effectively tell their story, first with the Public Insight Network and now with GroundSource.

My strong hunch is that if we are thoughtful enough about our design, we can reveal the underlying reality of life in Macon and many other communities—and create a conduit for news organizations and others to address the social issues that are afflicting and affecting people here—rich and poor alike.

This is how it could work.

Start with the “bottom of the pyramid”

To start, we need to think holistically about community. The technologies we choose for engagement define who we engage. Yik Yak is great for college kids with smart phones. But only half of Americans own smart phones. And, in a community like Macon, a significant number of people are illiterate and left out anyway.

But almost everyone, anywhere has a phone capable of texting and making phone calls. So we’re building for that.

Building trust & a feedback loop

The next challenge is creating a place where community members can feel safe sharing their honest observations, and feel like they’ll be heard.

The Center for Collaborative Journalism is made up of the local public radio station, newspaper, a TV station and Mercer University. This is a solid cluster of trusted institutions. Tie in the local United Way, churches and other service organizations, and you start to form a “trust network” with direct channels to people of all races, incomes, and political persuasions—as well as the ability to both listen and communicate to the broader public.

The mix of trusted institutions might be different in your community. But the point remains the same: People will talk about hard things when someone’s listening and when they believe they can make a difference, even in a small way.

One company that’s nailed this flavor of sharing with a purpose is SeeClickFix (which just surpassed one million issues fixed), which enables community members to report issues — graffiti, streetlights out, downed trees, etc. — while city managers and others can monitor issues cropping up in their area.

Emulating SeeClickFix, our local information ecosystem will enable organizations and individuals to monitor the feed of community reports based on their interests.

The beginning of a solution

Much of the work we are embarking on builds off of the success others are having. One example that shows the promise of this approach is The Listening Post in New Orleans.

Radio producer and media development expert Jesse Hardman and his colleague Kate Richardson send out a question via SMS every week to a growing list of 600-plus “sources” who they’ve cultivated at events, over the radio, with flyers and posters and other forms of outreach. Typically at least 10 percent, and sometimes more, text or call back with their story. Later in the week, Kate and Jesse synthesize what they hear to put together a radio show and a curated Tumblr feed.

Here’s some of what they heard recently when they asked sources about violence in New Orleans:

“My students are being shot at. They are dying. I am heartbroken.”

“As a police officer, I have seen first hand the results of this violence. Society cares more about crawfish boils and Saints games than the crime problem.”

“In New Orleans, poor kids attend some of the worst schools in the country and their streets are patrolled by infamously corrupt and incompetent police.”

“I hope you will continue these texts. I can help you.”

Jesse and Kate are tapping into a vein of unshared thoughts, untold stories and unmet needs that we, as journalists and as public servants, need to pay attention to if we hope to stay relevant to the life of our community.

As a recent article put it, they’re successfully tuning in “to a city’s inner most thoughts.” I can’t imagine a more noble journalistic pursuit, or one that has more promise to change how we understand the communities we live in.

Thanks to Michael Caputo, Tim Regan-Porter and Jesse Hardman for improving this piece with thoughtful feedback and edits.

Andrew Haeg is founder of GroundSource and is currently Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Mercer University’s Center for Collaborative Journalism. Get in touch at andrew [at] groundsourcing.com.