Hi Mary, Welcome to the Newsroom…

What if bots could introduce new readers to journalism?

Earlier this week, Josh Stearns and Lisa Williams had a quick exchange on Twitter. These two have their fingers on the pulse of local public interest journalism, Josh at the Dodge Foundation (soon to be at Democracy Fund) and Lisa at WBUR.

It got me thinking. And what I kept coming back to was this explanation that people give for disconnecting from news, “I can’t do anything about it.” That’s a problem, but I don’t believe it’s the problem that some people in journalism think it is.

Here’s what I mean.

If you believe the problem is that journalism motivates people to act but doesn’t channel that motivation, you might respond with a prompt for engagement. Now that you’ve read the story, tell us what you think in the comments. Take this Twitter poll. Tweet a hashtag. Events, topical Facebook groups, and sharing your reaction with a reporter are more sophisticated options but follow the same logic.

The assumption here is that “What can I do about it?” isn’t provided for in the act of journalism itself. That’s a mistake. The better answer to “What can I do about it?” is journalism. Which is more likely to make a difference, a poll at the end of the story or the story itself? What has a bigger impact, a panel with a reporter and a handful of public figures or the original reporting that they’re going to repeat from stage?

If fact, if you rely on something subsequent to journalism to satisfy readers, you are setting yourself for the impossible. Sometimes there is nothing more readers can do. Complex problems are complex.

Instead, I’d posit this. When people disconnect from news, the problem is not that they despair at their impotence upon reading journalism, but that they don’t share a “feeling of us/we” about the news, as Lisa Williams put it this week. If they did — if news organizations, especially local news organizations, were better at cultivating that feeling — then perhaps reading good journalism would lead to a sense of accomplishment. Especially a story that makes a difference.

Many of the nonprofits I support, I see what they are doing and I don’t get frustrated that I can’t personally help. That’s not why I support them. No, instead I get a little burst of happiness that this thing I’m doing my small part to make possible, this thing so much bigger than me, is doing terrific work. It’s the easiest sense of accomplishment in the world to earn and the collective impact is real.

hello, robot

Why don’t we feel that way more often about local news? Here’s a thought experiment about one solution.

Imagine Harper, the welcome bot.

Each time your newsroom gets a new email address, at an event, through a web form, as a digital subscription, they meet Harper.

Hi Mary!
Thank you for getting in touch! The news you are looking for is the exact kind of thing our newsroom works with the community to deliver.
The stories we write are factual and inform readers about what is happening in our community, explaining complicated issues, bringing public records to light, and holding powerful figures accountable. Our journalists can report fearlessly and independently because they are trained professionals, and no one has control over what we publish.
To get started, please fill out our community survey. It will guide you through questions about your interests and the news you are seeking. Let me know if you have any questions as you go through it!
Happy we got connected!

Your new reader fills out the survey, and the conversation continues.

Hi Mary!
Thank you for taking the time to fill out our community survey.
I’ve picked out a few stories that might interest you, and also want to invite you to our next event on June 3. If you decide to come, let me know and I’ll make sure to bring an extra welcome bag for you from the newsroom.
Thanks and great to get connected!

If your reader reads the stories, you have one more opening.

Hi Mary!
I hope you had a chance to look at what our reporters have done recently.
I wanted to touch base to see when might be a good time for us to schedule a brief telephone call to get to know each other and discuss what kind of news you and our community need.
Let me know what works best for you and we can get something scheduled.
Thanks again!

How many people would go through the process? How would they feel about their relationship with the newsroom and their local journalists? How would they feel after reading a story by one of those journalists?

Would they disconnect from local news at the same rate as they do now?

I imagine not.