NOTE: So glad to see the return of the Carnival of Journalism, where a group of passionate folks dedicated to exploring the future of journalism share ideas on a single topic. This month’s prompt is courtesy of @brianboyer:
Regardless of how we present our stories to our audiences — online, on-air, or in print — do we truly take them into consideration? Is the topic being reported on truly considered during the newsgathering process? Do we realize we can’t copy what other organizations do just because it’s already been “solved” for us? Can we look at internal reports like the NYT 2020 Report as a template or a bible for tackling how we interact with the communities we serve?
Twenty years ago, I was hired by an editor who wholeheartedly embraced the public-journalism movement. It was like being thrown into a bathtub filled with ice.
I had honed my craft in traditional news spaces. I had been educated at the nation’s oldest journalism school and trained at traditionally minded newspapers, places where you reported thoroughly and objectively, and offered your carefully culled facts for the audience to make up its own mind about what you had found.
I had spent the previous five years at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, one of the 75 largest papers in the country at the time by circulation. As one of five papers read every morning by President Bill Clinton, we regularly reminded ourselves of our own importance. If we wanted to write about something, by God, we did, and we knew how to write about it. Our strength came from our aggressiveness and independence, so we kept our stories close to the vest prior to publication. If the public had something to say about our work, they could send us a letter to the editor.
But the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader had a different philosophy. Editor Randy Hammer believed in the power of community, and the newspaper was part of that community, not separate and above it. When he arrived in Springfield, he connected with the largest television station in town and began the Good Community project, an effort to identify the strengths and weaknesses of our area in the Missouri Ozarks. It wasn’t about competing for audience; it was about serving the public.
Soon after my arrival, my team of reporters took on a project about a proposed law-enforcement tax for more officers, prosecutors, and jail facilities. The Springfield way incorporated methods unfamiliar to this old-school journalist: As part of our process, I had to put together a roundtable of readers to review our proposed story budgets before we had written a word. We held town-hall meetings. We engaged the public well before anything appeared in print.
Hammer regularly forced us to test our assumptions. As the 1A centerpiece editor, I once defended a news feature about peach farmers in the Ozarks that he had declared was too soft for the front page. His response: He sent me out during my lunch hour with a stack of papers to find out what readers thought of our news judgment. (Most agreed the peach story was not what they would have expected on the front page.)
Now, in the age of social media, we are in an environment ripe for realizing the hopes and promises of public journalism (which had its own issues and imperfections). We have a continual flow of thoughts, impressions, and opinions from across the community spectrum that stretch well beyond our standard Rolodex of sources. We have ever-improving ways to tap into the public on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to inform and deepen our journalistic efforts.
We just have to figure out how to sift meaning from the mountain of voices.
The failure of citizen journalism
When I first left the craft for academia, I was drawn to the rise of citizen-journalism models, such as the Chi-Town Daily News and West Seattle Blog. Perhaps the declines and failings of corporate journalism could be mitigated by these new models that had the authentic feel of the small community newspaper where I had worked right out of J-school. Maybe those in the community could participate actively in the journalism itself.
After earning my doctorate, I experimented with a citizen-journalism model in Springfield and hosted training sessions with concerned citizens in the community. I set up a community wiki with the help of a Knight Foundation grant. I created a community Twitter account that collated headlines from several local media outlets including local bloggers.
The challenge I continually faced: Most people still want journalists to commit journalism. In my community training sessions, the reaction was often trepidation; this journalism thing is hard. I’ve noticed a similar sentiment among students in my entry-level Multimedia Writing course. In evaluations, non-journalism majors often tell me that though they enjoyed the course, it affirmed for them that they do not want to be journalists.
So how do we include those voices in ways that go beyond the traditional journalist-source relationship?
The power of listening
Today’s audiences don’t want to be talked at. The community is looking for trusted navigators to talk with them about issues that impact their lives.
In today’s environment, those navigators are often family or friends. A recent Pew Research Center study found that community news topics were most often acted upon when the news came through friends and family members.
For those who study media effects and audience engagement, these results come as little surprise. For years, researchers investigating the uses-and-gratifications tradition have found that family, friends, and personal biases often have a bigger influence on our media choices than the media themselves.
In this interactive age, news organizations must come down from their ivory towers to connect meaningfully with their communities. The rises in subscriptions to the New York Times and other news organizations show that many Americans still depend on fact-based, verified journalism to understand their worlds, physical or otherwise. But we are one voice among many in today’s fragmented media environment. Indeed, a Facebook post from a concerned citizen can now be the spark for a multimillion-person march on Washington.
That’s because audiences are also variably active. The more passionate they are about an issue, the more likely they are to engage with stories about that issue. News organizations should not wait until it rises to the level of public protest to discover those community voices. We have to do a better job listening throughout the newsgathering process to understand the varying shades of how issues impact our audience’s lives. Our processes must become participatory, beyond likes and comments in social media.
Outlets such as the Texas Tribune are incorporating events into their mix as a creative way to engage their audiences. Data journalists at ProPublica and elsewhere are sharing their spreadsheets and databases to collaborate with their online visitors. Podcasts such as Serial and This American Life are upending traditional journalistic storytelling by pulling people in with unprecedented levels of personal transparency.
In an era when trust is a critical component of engagement, such methods are required to foster a relationship with a dedicated audience.
Social media offer another way for us to connect and listen. Reporters don’t necessarily have to ask explicit questions of their online followings to include those voices in their reporting; searches of Twitter and Facebook frequently produce meaningful context for gauging organic public sentiment and interest. Perhaps news organizations could take a page from American Public Media’s Public Insight Network, and cultivate a group of engaged citizens to submit thoughts and opinions throughout the journalistic process.
Whatever we do, we have to realize that the days of black-box journalism are gone. We have to be transparent about our processes and our reporting, opening up our journalism from reporting to distribution, whatever the medium.
Openness leads our communities to see us as authentic and real, critical traits in today’s social-media environment. When we admit we don’t know something, it makes us approachable, perhaps even likable. Over time, such transparency will inspire our audiences to trust us.
Only then will they embrace us as credible members of their communities, ones with whom they will be willing to share their most intimate concerns and engage with our stories.