We’ve taken an important step to learn how to co-produce stories with our readers without corrupting the editorial process

David Landes, Head of Commercial Content at The Local explains how they used a game-based narrative to tell the stories of refugees in Sweden. David participated in the European pilot of the Digital Identities programme in Stockholm and his team received support to conduct an experiment. He will be speaking at the seminar in Delhi. The global seminar series is powered by Google News Lab.

David Landes, Head of Commercial Content at The Local

David, tell us a bit about yourself:
I am an American who has been living in Sweden for over a decade. I have a background in journalism and public diplomacy and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how people from one country think about other countries. I joined The Local in 2008 and served as the Editor of our Swedish edition until couple of years ago. Currently, I oversee commercial content and branded partnerships, where The Local Voices was born.

What is The Local Voices?
The Local runs a network of news websites across Europe that together attract close to 6 million visitors a month from around the world. The Local Voices is one of these sites that emerged as a concept back in 2015 when the refugee crisis was at its highest. Sweden was getting up to 10,000 asylum seekers a week. We figured, as a publisher that’s been trying to explain Sweden to non-Swedes for over a decade, we had a role to play — a common English-language channel to tell newcomers’ stories to Swedes and vice versa — and in a language both sides could understand. We were fortunate enough to secure financial support for the project from the Swedish Institute. And over a period of ten months we published over a hundred feature stories related to the life of refugees and asylum seekers in Sweden.

“We wanted to focus on people and not on statistics. We hoped this would provide more entry points for nuanced conversations and enable our readers to question assumptions.”

So you set out to create dialogue?
Well, yes. We felt a lot of conversations about refugees and integration were happening amongst Swedes in Swedish. These conversations were inaccessible to a lot of people who should have been integral to them. We felt content and community can have a reinforcing effect on these new relationships that needed to be formed. We wanted to focus on people and not on statistics. We hoped this would provide more entry points for nuanced conversations and enable our readers to question assumptions.

“…you could call our stories an augmented narrative to the existing narrative you would get reading traditional news coverage.”

You’ve mentioned stories several times, what was your approach to storytelling for The Local Voices?
We’re a digital news publisher. At the end of the day, we wanted compelling stories. We achieved this by letting the voice and perspective of whoever we were featuring come through. Our stories weren’t in first person, but we wanted them to be personal. I guess you could call our stories an augmented narrative to the existing narrative you would get reading traditional news coverage. Our content was accessible both within and outside Sweden, so we ended up giving a lot of people outside the country a snapshot that captured what Sweden was going through. Not just from the perspective of Swedes, but from the perspective of refugees and asylum seekers.

“The Syrian immigrant in northern Sweden often worked out what was going on in the south of Sweden through an Arabic language network that was sharing our content on social media.”

How did you engage with your subjects as a digital-first publisher?
We made some strategic partnerships with organisations that were active in the field, such as the Swedish Migration Board, which we combined with basic outreach. The journalist working on the project was a Syrian national and an Arabic speaker, which also gave us better access to the community. Over time, through word of mouth, we engaged with the community offline and online, which helped us build trust. The online networks included other non-English language networks outside of Sweden who were sharing our content, which was then fed back to the communities in Sweden. The Syrian immigrant in northern Sweden often worked out what was going on in the south of Sweden through a Arabic language network that was sharing our content on social media.

What made you decide to come to the European pilot of the Digital Identities workshop powered by Google News Lab in Stockholm?
It was a combination of things. I live in the digital world every day and work for a digital-first newspaper. So I’m a practitioner. I thought the workshop would be an interesting opportunity to step back and hear a different perspective as well as the theory of how to use social media in new ways. I was keen to see if I could find any new approaches to apply both to The Local and The Local Voices.

“The ‘aha! moment’… was to figure out a way to use this technique to ask questions from our readers and increase the probability of getting useful answers without the issue getting hijacked.”

You also conducted an experiment after the programme, tell us about it
I felt the framework presented in the workshop was a useful way to think about The Local Voices having a clearly defined Digital Identity. We treated The Local Voices as a bit of a lab and we wanted to understand how we could explain ourselves to an audience which is local, national, and international. Is there a different way in which we can relate to them and vice versa? The concept of a game-based narrative was pretty compelling and was a useful and simple way of exploring this idea. The ‘aha! moment’, which was so rudimentary, but so effective, was figuring out a way to use this technique to pose questions to our readers and increase the probability of getting useful answers without the issue getting hijacked. This strategy allowed us to reduce risk in the way we presented the questions and incorporated feedback.

“By the time we came up with the story, there were several hundred people who had a fingerprint on it… ”

What was the outcome of our experiment?

How I fled Isis and celebrated Christmas with a Swedish circus, read the full story on The Local Voices

We got the coolest headline one could ever ask for — How I fled Isis and celebrated Christmas with a Swedish circus. How many times do you get to see these words in a sentence? We were able to frame a story from an entirely new perspective, which helped us reach new audiences. By the time we came up with the story, there were several hundred people who had a fingerprint on it. Now that I look at it, I feel this is as much our readers’ story as it is ‘our’ story. What if every story produced on every channel had the fingerprint of the audience on it? That can have profound implications on the way publishers can work. I think we’ve taken an important step to learn how to co-produce stories with our readers, without corrupting the editorial process.

Digital Identities powered by Google News Lab is a free programme open to journalists. After a successful pilot in Sweden we’re running seminars in Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Oslo and Delhi this year. Click here to learn more.

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