Q&A: Ju-Don Marshall on how listening drives collaboration
Ju-Don Marshall is the chief content officer and executive vice president at WFAE, the national public radio station in Charlotte, North Carolina. Marshall is no stranger to collaboration; she was the first director of the Center for Cooperative Media in 2013.
Marshall also spent 17 years at The Washington Post, and over her journalism career has led national and local coverage. Marshall now oversees programming and community engagement at WFAE, where she has received grants from such organizations as American Journalism Project and Solutions Journalism Network to collaborate and expand the station’s reach.
We caught up with Marshall about her work at WFAE and why listening is so crucial to collaborative journalism.
WF: When did you start thinking about journalism from a collaborative lens?
JM: I’ve always been of the belief that there are opportunities to partner in media. My interest in serving communities of color has shaped the way I think about collaboration. It’s not just filling news holes, but it’s about coming together to make our journalism stronger.
For example, right now we’re in collaboration with La Noticia, which is the Spanish language newspaper serving Charlotte and other parts of North Carolina. We both have an immigration reporter that we jointly hired and manage together. We were already looking at immigration, so this wasn’t necessarily a news gap, but it was about how we could bring a different level of cultural competency to covering this issue in a meaningful and sustained way — by coming together.
WF: How does collaboration work at WFAE?
JM: We will partner with any organization that does not compromise our editorial values. For example, we’ve worked with Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts and Culture and Friendship Missionary Baptist Church on several events around issues of housing needs. We have those conversations in an institution that’s anchored in that community. We’re constantly looking at opportunities to partner in ways that reach the most people and bring in more diverse audiences.
Solutions Journalism Network was also a great opportunity for us to partner with other local media around a topic we all cared about. We created the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative with six media publications, Queens University, and the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library. We’re tackling affordable housing.
Instead of us covering this topic in isolation as we were before the collaborative, it allows us to take a step back and think about the big stories we want to tell about affordable housing, and how we can bring our resources together to tell that story more effectively. It’s been really helpful and I believe better serves the community by all joining together — we’ve been able to facilitate community conversations and events to bring people closer to the journalism and strengthen it.
WF: How do you go about gaining trust and building relationships, especially if you’re working in different communities or places you aren’t from?
JM: You have to get out into the communities, hear conversations, and meet people in their native environment — not just when you want to stick a microphone in their face or need a good quote for a story. You really have to understand how the communities work. At WFAE, I was intentional about bringing in people outside of our normal bubble — folks that maybe didn’t show up as often in our reporting, but who were really doing great work in the community.
We started inviting people in for on-background conversations just so they could share with us how they saw Charlotte and how they viewed the needs of the Charlotte community. We had people come in to talk about broadband in the Latino community, a public defender who talked about the challenges around bail and recidivism, and the head of a non-profit who provided job training and help with financial needs.
It’s different when you get to sit down and spend a considerable amount of time listening to somebody put their top issues on the table, as opposed to just going in when you have a story that you’re trying to get the answers to, or try to shape a narrative around. There’s a different kind of listening that can take place. It’s been extremely valuable to invite people in and hear what they want to say to us.
WF: How do you build that aspect of listening, without the immediate expectation of getting a quote or answer, into your work?
JM: We really lean in to listening. When we started our library engagement, the first thing we did was put together a survey to understand exactly what the community wanted to know, and how we could better serve them through this partnership. We had 800 listeners respond and tell us exactly what they wanted to see from us. We also reached out to La Noticia to ask them to share a survey in Spanish so we could reach more people and get different views.
We also have multiple tools for listening and feedback at WFAE — Hearken, Google Forms, Google Voice — that we use to ask about our audience about the different topics or voices or questions they want to hear. And we’re currently building a tool called Story Mosaic that allows local communities to partner with journalists to share story ideas and collaborate on the story process.
WF: Overall, what do you think makes for successful collaborative journalism, whether you’re partnering with another publication or a local community group?
JM: If you’re going to collaborate, it has to be treated like a partnership of equals. There has to be an equal value exchange. If I feel like I’m doing you a favor, that’s never gonna work. If I realize that I get as much value out of this as you do, then that makes a better collaboration.
You also have to set expectations up front. And you have to be able to talk through a lot of things along the way because what you think you’re going to do will often change. Don’t be afraid to just acknowledge if something isn’t working. Don’t suffer in silence. Build in those check-in points to have those conversations. It’s important to talk about the need to change or pivot and be transparent about what’s working and not working — open and honest communication are key.
Will Fischer is a journalist covering the intersection of technology and media. He’s worked for Business Insider and New York magazine, and conducted local news research for City Bureau. Follow Will on Twitter @willfisch15 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Center for Cooperative Media: The Center is a grant-funded program of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. Its mission is to grow and strengthen local journalism, and in doing so serve New Jersey residents. The Center is supported with funding from Montclair State University, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Democracy Fund, the New Jersey Local News Lab (a partnership of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Democracy Fund, and Community Foundation of New Jersey), and the Abrams Foundation. For more information, visit CenterforCooperativeMedia.org.