First letter to my future (journalist) self

Be open to change, involve more people, show your process, destroy those information and talent silos (both in the newsroom and the community) and embrace the journey.

Special delivery stamp / Wikimedia Commons

A couple of weeks ago, my classmate Kristine Villanueva nailed something that still very much defines the journalist’s profession. Yes, when properly done, our job can leverage a community´s network and knowledge to contribute a solution — one of the main promises of this thing we call social journalism. But before we can think about doing that, Kris says, “We first need to learn that people don’t owe us their stories.”

Kris also remembers that those stories are “gifted to us.” While I thought I couldn’t agree more, at the same time memories came to me about how many times I approached people as a journalist thinking what a gift my newspaper was giving them by highlighting the issues they were facing. As the fourth estate, we the press would position that community to be helped by the authorities by raising awareness about what was happening in it.

Now I wouldn’t like to delve much into how amazingly naive that way of thinking was, or how much it had to do with laziness, probably associated with the self-assurance newsrooms always provide.

There were so many things I could have done — but didn’t — when reporting on those communities. I would like to use this post as a memory-helper, a letter to myself for the future that may keep me from falling into the usual traps when dealing with the people I want to serve as a journalist. I hope this list grows through the rest of the year and in following chapters.

So here goes:

1- Pick a problem you want to report about, and be ready to write about something else. When approaching a community to report about it (from gamers to low-income neighborhoods), we leave the newsroom with a preconceived idea of the main issue, and we don´t want to move away from that because this is what an editor told us, or because deadlines will not let us dig deeper. We should strategize how not to fall into that if we really want to help that community by getting their stories.

2- Abandon the idea that you and your sources are enough for a story about real people. Getting good sources costs journalists a lot. When we get a good share of them, we tend to enter our comfort zones. But actually, regular people affected by an issue can also source you. Recent Pulitzer Prize winner David Fahrenthold from The Washington Post did that when reporting on Donald Trump as a candidate with the help of their Twitter readers. This is just a way to do things, and it doesn’t even need to be just for investigative pieces. This is another way of doing things from the traditional process.

3- Show your process. If you want the help and the support of an entire community that you are reporting about or trying to help with information, try being transparent about what you want to achieve, how you plan to do that and what kind of help you might need. After you report, maybe you won’t have just the story, but also a lot of people involved with it ready to stand for it.

4- Battle to destroy those silos. Last week, when Jeanne Brooks spoke to my class at CUNY, one of the things that struck me most about what she does was that she described herself as an ecosystem architect. “The systems that we develop,” she said, are “complex, multidisciplinary networks” based on multiple ways of diversity: not just race and gender, but also age, location and many other aspects. But she also told us that part of what she does is to break “information silos.” “You cannot navigate today’s world with a single skill,” she said. It made me think how, in many ways, newsrooms are composed of content silos, commercial silos, production/design silos and so on. If I take that framework to the field, I may say that a social journalist should be a silo-destroyer in other ways: to tap into the knowledge a community may have, you can do a lot more than what the typical process imposes. What about looking for validation with people who may know the place, its history and some things about handling information? In other words: why I have never thought about trying to work, for example, with a librarian?

5- Make the road by walking. Joy Mayer, whose writing greatly influenced me to pursue the opportunity to become a social journalist, highlights the concept of “mutualization” that The Guardian’s leadership used to describe interactions in which readers become part of the reporting process. Quoting Meg Pickard, in charge of that effort in the Guardian´s newsroom, Mayer emphasizes that “mutualization isn’t a destination; it’s a journey.” We´re tapping into the potential of something that has as yet been done very little, and we know that journey will be different depending on which communities we tackle. But if we want to do this in a different way, the deadline and this weekend´s paper cannot be the top priority.

Thanks to Diane Nottle for editing this piece.