Don’t Just Engage, Equip
To reimagine and repair local news, democratize the journalistic process.
The speech and presentation below were delivered as the closing keynote of the 2019 Collaborative Journalism Summit in Philadelphia. Scroll to the bottom to see the group design activity based on City Bureau’s “Inform, Engage, Equip” framework. Notes from all of the Summit presentations can be found via the #collaborativej hashtag on Twitter.
This isn’t about City Bureau. This is about power.
Yours. Ours. And how we use it.
We say, “Information is power.” This is a truism — it’s obviously true but lacks definition. What we mean is, “Power is the ability to produce intended effects.”
Or, power “is the process of affecting the policies of others.”
Power is “the ability to employ force.”
Power is “the ability to cause or prevent change.”
As journalists, we have a lot of power. And in journalism, another word for power is “impact.”
We sometimes talk around it, we may disguise it beneath objectivity, but what we do as journalists is use our power to influence and change society — for better or worse.
But power is infinite. Eric Liu writes about the three fundamental laws of power in his book, “You’re More Powerful than You Think.” The first is that power concentrates — as does powerlessness… as does impact. The second law is that power justifies itself; it creates narratives to explain why the people who currently have power should keep it.
Fortunately, there’s the third law. There is no limit on the amount of power citizens can generate.
Don’t just inform, don’t just engage — equip people to generate power. I’m going to repeat this a few times, so I want to unpack it.
Inform. 95 percent of journalism falls into this category. Journalists inform — we connect public interests to issues, context and analysis. We’re the first draft of history, the Fourth Estate and, often, the final word.
I say “impact” is another word for “power” because impact is the ability to produce intended effects. When your story prompts a pothole to be fixed or a financial audit of local government or the mayor to be fired for corruption or the president to be impeached—that’s traditional “impact.”
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Engagement is a growing field in journalism that many of us practice. The core tenets of which can be described many ways but one of my favorites is that it builds relationships with “the people formerly known as the audience.”
Engagement can lead to a variety of positive outcomes like social media engagement, listener-driven questions, attendance at your events and new relationships between your newsroom and the public, among others.
Equipping, however, is about agency. It’s about providing access and opportunities for public participation and production. Equipping is about teaching and interconnected learning. It’s about exchanging skills and resource. It’s a redistribution of power between institutions and individuals.
And it scares the hell out of people in power.
I’ll offer a bit more definition here on what equipping is not. Equipping is not the same as empowerment because, much like the phrase “giving voice to the voiceless” assumes that people are voiceless, empowerment often assumes that people are powerless.
Equipping is recognizing that there is no cap on the amount of power people can create, recognizing the power people already have and providing access to resources that build power.
The difference here is key. With approaches that equip, your community causes the potholes to get fixed, the financial audit of local government and the mayor to be fired for corruption. And, in the process of equipping people to fill the role of watchdog, trust rooted in experience can be created between your newsroom and the public.
I’m proposing a more unified vision for journalism here. As journalists, we’re great at informing, we’re getting better at engaging, but we’ve got a long way to go toward equipping. But I believe journalism that strengthens democracy will do all three.
Don’t just engage, equip. But why equip?
One reason: Journalism that serves the public is great for democracy.
There is a growing body of evidence that the loss of newspapers — the decline in the availability of journalism — has disastrous, costly consequences. We need newspapers. We need investigations, we need to know when the supermarket opens in our neighborhood and we need to know exactly which line of the subway is closed during rush hour on a workday.
But we need more than stories.
We need citizens to be equipped to navigate the world around us. Because good journalism is great for democracy but a citizenry equipped to meet the challenges of democracy is necessary for democracy.
To maintain a role in that process, we need our communities to trust us. But there is ample evidence and reason as to why they don’t.
In January 2018, City Bureau partnered with the Center for Media Engagement to conduct a study of 900 Chicagoans on their perceptions of and relationship with local media. The results confirmed many of our suspicions.
Chicagoans on the South and West sides of our city were more likely to feel that stories about their neighborhood quote the wrong people.
People in these same areas were less likely to feel that news media does a good job of showing what’s going on in their communities.
And more than half felt that stories about their neighborhoods were too negative.
Here’s where it gets more interesting: the same people who were most likely to feel they weren’t being served by local media are exactly the same people who most want to get involved in local media.
That’s because there’s a growing thirst to participate — especially from those historically left out of the public narrative. Fortunately, there are emerging systems that have the potential to accommodate that thirst. Which brings us back to power.
In their book “New Power,” Henry Timms and Jeremy Heimans lay out the characteristics of old and new power.
On the left is what journalism looks like today: We represent people in public dialogue, we compete for clicks, we literally have our own definition for the word “exclusive” — and we’re the experts.
On the right — that’s what democracy looks like. At City Bureau we believe the future of journalism looks more like this. It’s made of networks, it’s collaborative, it practices radical transparency and it equips people to be makers.
This is how we democratize journalism.
We believe that journalism can be an act of citizenship — acts co-created with citizens — but if that’s going to be true, many more people will need to be involved.
New power equips people with the tools to build power. And journalists are more well-positioned than anyone to equip (i.e. Don’t just engage, equip).
So what does it look like to equip through journalism?
It looks like City Bureau’s Documenters Program in Chicago, which trains and pays everyday people to hold local government to account in collaboration with local journalists.
Or our Editor Office Hours, where our editorial director, Bettina Chang, provides story feedback, editorial advice and free resources to freelancers and local community members each week from the cafe next to our newsroom.
It looks like Detroit’s Outlier Media, which is using text messages to deliver service journalism on demand.
It looks like Public Access TV and community radio — like BRIC in New York City, PhillyCam here in Philadelphia and many, many others offering public access to broadcast equipment, media tools and physical space.
It looks like outlets that use crowdsource tools like DocumentCloud to get people involved in journalistic processes. And those that host public workshops to teach their readers about things like FOIA, pivot tables, data-sourcing and basic skills like using a mobile device as an accountability device.
This list goes on… but it doesn’t go on long enough.
Fortunately, inspiration and frameworks for informing, engaging and equipping are plentiful. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We need to reimagine local journalism.
From politics and government, we have the International Association for Public Participation spectrum, which begins with inform then goes through consult, involve, collaborate and ends with empower, which in their model is the greatest among each step in the process.
Equity advocates like Chicago United for Equity remind us to center the people directly impacted by our work when it comes to indirect impact and the experience of impact.
Community organizers have refined an asset- vs. deficit-oriented approach that can and should be applied to our work as journalists. This focus on the assets of communities — rather than its needs, deficits, or problems — is a shift in mindset that journalists can bring to their work on a daily basis when defining coverage.
From the civic tech space we have Erhardt Graeff’s “Empowerment-based Design Principles”: Be inclusive, give users agency, provide opportunities for reflection, tell stories with data and anticipate breakdown.
And from youth education we have the Chicago Learning Exchange’s “Connected Learning” model, which says that programs that prioritize interests, relationships and opportunities are those that connect learners for life.
You can clearly see the impact youth education has had on City Bureau’s work.
And, lastly, from Twitter: the Galaxy Brain.
At City Bureau, we believe that journalism is not fundamentally a profession or an industry; it’s an act of citizenship, and our role is not simply to inform the public but to equip people to access the information they need to strengthen their communities.
These are frameworks — and this is just a speech — but the work they represent is a proposal, a rough draft of a new contract between the press and the public.
Let’s reimagine local journalism, together.
Support City Bureau mission to democratize and reimagine local journalism by becoming a City Bureau Press Club member today.
If you’d like to run the design activity we tested at the 2019 Collaborative Summit, start by drawing the diagram below:
- Think of a story you or your newsroom produced or plan on producing. Summarize this story in the first box (Inform).
- Think of a way you could engage your community on it — add it to the second box (Engage).
- Then think of a way you could equip your community with a skill or resource based on or rooted in that story—add it to the last space (Equip).
- Lastly, write out the outcome — as in, if we do these things, X thing will happen (i.e. our community will have greater access with the skills to…).