How we learned new roles at DoR

Our stories have reached our community through conversations, exhibitions, live journalism shows and other formats that place journalists in new roles.

Journalists talk a lot about change: changing the industry, the business model, changing themselves. But finding the time and energy to actually enact this change is often difficult. When the world seems in constant turmoil, remaking yourself into a better and more engaged listener, for example, shouldn’t be that high of a priority. Right?

At DoR we answered “wrong”: in a world changing at breakneck speed, it’s precisely what we need.

As audience engagement and revenue have grown over the past few years, we’ve all heard about the new roles journalists can play. Yes, we’re a watchdog; yes, we keep power in check, but is that enough? The skills it takes to lead a room have little in common with the skills it takes to write a good headline, and we knew if we were to build lasting relationships with more of our readers, we needed to get to work. Were we listening enough to our communities? Were we involving them? Were we actually optimized to earn their trust and serve their needs?

These are the questions we had at DoR as we embarked in late 2018 on a two-fold journey: to transition from a print magazine mentality to a digital-first publication, and to train our team of journalists for new roles as facilitators, moderators, mediators, listeners, partners, and students. Both these priorities have one thing in common: our community, and serving them better. Journalism — especially if it’s built around membership — is a relationship business. Our journalists were good at building relationships in the field, less so with the audience, so we wanted to improve on that.

We believed that if we learned more about how each of us operated in the world, it would make our journalism better, and the connection to our community stronger. So over the course of the year we brought in numerous trainers and experts to help us integrate ideas from other practices into our own.

This is our curriculum and some of what we learned.

What we learned and from whom

HOW WE THINK. First, we took the team through a series of courses about neuroscience and communication, looking at how patterns of behavior influence our daily lives, and then looking at how these influence teams, groups of people, and various types of organizational cultures. Romanian culture can be passive-aggressive, so we focused on developing a more constructive culture. The simple idea here, was simple: if we learn what pushes our own buttons, and how we can de-escalate conflicts and troubleshoot communication loops, we could more mindfully moderate a space for our community to express their views;

HOW WE SELF-CARE. We had a stress management and burnout training with our friend Zuzanna Ziomecka, an amazing journalist and mindfulness coach, who came all the way from Poland to build on our neuroscience knowledge, and show us the dark side of being always on and not listening to the needs of our bodies. Journalists shy away from being vulnerable and asking for breaks, so having a couple of our colleagues raise their hands to say, “I might be burnt out right now” was a tremendous win.

HOW WE CHALLENGE OURSELVES. Even though we’re in the larger world of communication, we do a pretty poor job of communicating clearly, and giving ourselves feedback that is challenging, but also constructive. So we worked with a leadership training company to learn how to strengthen a team by leading with values, building strategy from a core mission, and then using feedback to stay on track.

These lessons reminded us that we tend to ascribe motive and assume the worst without checking. When coupled with journalistic skepticism, this can become a barrier to listening both inside and outside the organization. But all of the above, coupled with our own internal routines of sharing, focusing on our mission of helping people navigate their lives, have helped fortify a culture of openness, and MRIs (most reasonable interpretations).

Putting these new skills to the test

In addition to learning how our minds are wired and how team culture gets created, we learned hands-on skills for interacting with our communities. This is why:

  • We talked with Joy Mayer about the importance of trust in a news organization;
  • A community organizer spent a few weeks working with our team, teaching us how to approach a community from a place of curiosity (rather than certainty) when going in;
  • Todd Breyfogle, the Aspen Institute’s Managing Director of the Aspen Seminars, taught us about moderation. We learned how to create and hold space as facilitators with an expert in „theory U”, a change-management framework meant to aid people and communities in a transition from fear, to a more inclusive world.

All of these happened as we started hosting reporter-driven events with 10 to 50 community members where we could practice these skills. We started with conversations on covering domestic violence, mental health, and rural development — sensitive topics that the training helped us handle with empathy. We started holding occasional “state of the DoR” events where we brought in our community to talk about how we’re changing, what we’re covering, and find out how we’re fulfilling our mission.

At a discussion about the impact of climate change on our food, we discovered our community had a particular interest in the day-to-day realities of farming.

We then hosted eight hours of conversation with various artists, community leaders and entrepreneurs at one of the largest music festivals in Romania. This happened right before we took our team on our largest experiment yet: a pop-up newsroom in a town in Transylvania, where we did journalism, offered classes, and met with the community. The pop-up newsroom just won a European Press Prize for innovation.

Speaking about everything we did last year, my colleague Oana Sandu, who covers domestic violence and gender disparity, says that it’s a miracle to see you can have power to connect people as a reporter. “Here’s what comes out of putting people in contact and facilitating their interactions as a journalist: victims find advice from lawyers, readers get involved in NGOs, survivors find support groups. People find motivation, and inspiration, and strength to report wrongdoing, so others can live a better life. It’s what good stories do.

Oana adds that the classes we held at DoR over the past year — neurosciences, self-care, how we communicate and build teams — helped her become more conscious of her strengths, but also of her natural human limits when covering trauma. “It’s never easy to do journalism with empathy, while at the same time taking care of your own mental health, but with patience and presence, and awareness of yourself, you can do this work better.”

Our experiments with creating new roles for our journalists continued.

Hosting community events in Vaslui created space for much-needed conversations.

For one project we went to Vaslui, an often-talked about, left behind region in Eastern Romania, where we spent a collective month on the ground last summer and fall, reporting on a number of topics suggested by locals, from migration, to agriculture, to unemployment, to youth activism, and then discussed the published stories at a local event.

We interviewed some of the people we wrote about on stage, and then listened to an amazingly diverse audience — high school students, public officials, and entrepreneurs, among others — discuss how today’s issues affect Vaslui. Local media there is just focused on news, so this space of conversation and listening was empty, and needed.

We also began using our newsroom more intentionally for events. For one, we brought together more than 20 people who turned 30 in 2019, an important benchmark because Romanian communism fell in 1989, the year of their birth. We just held the space for them while they took over the conversation, sharing thoughts on what it meant to be part of their generation, and plotting projects. Many of them left that night with plans to see each other again.

Many of the 30-year-olds wished to stay in touch and take the ideas from the meet-up and shape them into plans for the future.

One participant wrote in a feedback note that she avoided interactions with strangers out of fear, but that DoR felt safe, and so she came. She says she left thinking about a moment when she was six years old, hanging out with her friends, but then being too scared to jump a fence alongside them to snatch fruit from a tree. „I was afraid”, she wrote. „And I told myself that if I don’t jump now, I’ll never jump. And so it was. Today, after the DoR meeting, I happened to pass that fence. Well, from now on, I’m all in.”

Looking to the future, through a pandemic

Given the financial pressures facing our industry, these trainings might seem like a strange use of our resources. But we did so with a goal: to cultivate the facilitation and empathic skills that a subscriber/member-driven newsroom needs in order to cultivate lasting relationships with audience members.

In early March we even moved to a new office, with a large open-space, that we planned to use to continue having conversations and hosting communities.

The pandemic put a stop to that for now, but it has also proven to us the value of the trainings we went through. Our team mobilized quickly to organize our work around serving the community in ways it wasn’t being served by other media. We created a daily newsletter, we moved our subscribers to a Slack space to interact more frequently, and we took our events to Zoom. Just this month we’ve hosted conversations on making small farms sustainable in the pandemic, helping parents deal with the stress of managing work from home and raising kids, and talking to teenagers about their struggles with living a life online.

After everything we’ve learned over the past year, it seems natural we responded to the pandemic the way we did: adjusting the work to a new reality without abandoning the mission. But I don’t think it would have been as easy to do if we didn’t have the language to discuss our fears as things around us changed, to understand that these feelings exist among our audience as well, and to know how to respond to them with an invitation to conversation.

Learning how we’re wired, how we operate as human beings, and how different people communicate is essential to listening. Practicing our new facilitation and moderation skills built courage to adopt the new roles we are expected to play as journalists today.

Text by Cristian Lupsa, editor, DoR. Images by Cătălin Georgescu, Mihai Ciobanu and DoR.

Quarterly magazine publishing narrative nonfiction from Romania