The importance of being earnest (And what I learned about listening to a community)

Designed by Melissa DiPento using

I am not musically talented at all.

I loved elementary school up until the fourth grade. That’s when I had to learn how to play the recorder. I would play my little tune in front of the class, only to receive a lackluster response from my judgmental pre-teen audience, and lousy grades from my recorder-obsessed teacher.

The funny thing is that I had no idea I sucked so hard. I literally thought I was nailing “Michael Row the Boat Ashore.”

I remember spending every day of my spring break that year — much to my mother’s chagrin — playing those notes until I had it down. My mom wanted to kill me. Seriously. But by being diligent, I started to hear the difference between what sounded good and what sounded like a church choir gone wrong.

I played the hell out of that song for my final presentation. I remember seeing my teacher’s shocked look after my performance. At the end of the quarter, Mr. Mitchell presented me with the “Most Improved Award.” Although humbled and embarrassed, I couldn’t wait to show my mom the certificate that day. “Good. Let’s never play the recorder again,” she said.

The bane of my fourth grade existence. Photo by Shunichi Kouroki under a Flickr Creative Commons License.

Apologies for the long-winded vignette, but I think this experience prepared me quite a bit for my journalism career.

I spent nearly 10 years as a reporter, covering local communities, school board meetings, town council members, parades, sporting events and more. I interacted with the people I spoke with, but now I wonder if I truly listened.

Just like learning how to understand when I was playing the notes on the recorder correctly, I’m now beginning to understand what it feels like to listen to a community.

In CUNY’s Social Journalism program this semester, I identified the community I want to serve this year and began establishing relationships with people in this group.

I want to serve the journalism higher education community — professors and students — with the goal of learning how this group plans to reinvent journalism education.

I started off by sending a Google Form to professors and students. I promoted this through my Twitter and Facebook feeds. I got about 15 responses, which helped me pick some common threads about what this community is interested in, and how I could possibly help serve it in the future.

Designed by Melissa DiPento using

From there, it was evident that even though some educators don’t see the need to reinvent what journalism schools teach students, many did. I kept listening, and brainstormed ways I could help serve them.

I attended two conferences — The ONA Local Leadership Summit in New Orleans and the Collaborative Journalism Summit in Montclair, NJ — where I continued to talk to professors about what they do and what reinventing their journalism programs would look like. I also met with professors in-person on university campuses, talked to them over the phone and exchanged ideas over email.

The biggest theme that came out of these conversations is that professors — well, at least the ones who want to innovate — would like to see a quicker turnaround when it comes to implementing new courses that could teach students cutting-edge skills, the kind that could help them land jobs post-graduation.

From there, I collaborated with the MediaShift editor to co-host an #EdShift chat around this idea of innovation. More than 20 professors from across the country participated in the chat, sharing ways they’ve worked to make their programs more innovative.

I am now the moderator of these #EdShift chats, so this will allow me to continue to collaborate and speak with professors who are doing innovative things. The next chat on May 24 will focus on accreditation, a hot topic right now in higher education due to Medill’s decision to let its accreditation lapse. This conversation should prove to be interesting!

I think listening is both an art and a science.

Listening can be very straightforward and almost formulaic: Ask a question and wait for a response without interrupting. We don’t do this enough in journalism and it’s what has haunted the industry lately.

Listening is also an art. It’s not a list of 10 questions that must be answered, but rather a fluid conversation with another real, living human. We forget this, too. We sometimes want a specific question answered that we lose sight of where a conversation could go if we’d allow for it.

Successfully intertwining the art and science of listening will lead to a deeper understanding of communities and better journalism. But this takes practice. Listening requires sincerity, humility and honesty. We need to be earnest.

I’m not yet sure how I can serve this community of educators, so I’ll keep listening.

What I have learned and experienced is that this “community” lives online. Some share thoughts in a Facebook group for educators, or participate in the #EdShift chats. Some don’t share much online, but like to watch the conversation. There is limited face-to-face interaction, and it happens only at yearly conferences and events.

Equipped with this knowledge, I’d like to connect this group of education changemakers in-person. I believe journalism has the power to convene groups.

My other thought is to host a weekly podcast where I interview an innovative professor. The people that do want to learn, grow, innovate and break away from silos are communicating with one another, but it’s just over social media and email. It would be nice to hear the voices behind this quest for change, and I think podcasting is a powerful way to do this.

For now, I’ll keep listening. I don’t want to make any assumptions about what this community needs. I want to be able to provide a service that can impact this community moving forward.

If you have any suggestions or want to talk more, please contact me at or on Twitter @mdipento.