A new journalism startup is tackling polarization in the US (and asking some even bigger questions)

Photo by Erik Eastman on Unsplash

At the end of January 2018 I started as a Fellow in CUNY’s Tow-Knight Entrepreneurial Journalism program. I joined the program to find ways to tackle polarization through a journalism-focused startup, ‘A Civil Divide’ (working title).

A big task! And I’m asking some pretty big questions. In this time when America’s social, political and economic fault lines feel daunting to explore:

  1. Can we imagine new ways to learn about and understand one another across social and political divides?
  2. Can we use journalism to create a stronger base, across communities and between diverse groups, on which civil dialogue and engagement can proceed?

The Tow-Knight program acts as an early-stage incubator for media startups. And I am beyond thrilled to be building A Civil Divide alongside 11 other extremely smart, wonderful, motivated individuals creating their own new products and businesses.

With this initial post I want to explain some “whys”, “wheres” and “hows”: why I’ve chosen to tackle polarization through this program, where I currently am in the process, and how I plan to proceed from here.

And I want to invite you to follow me through this program, and join me in seeking answers to these big questions.

Why tackle polarization through a journalism startup?

My hunch is that tackling polarization through a journalism startup will provide a number of benefits. First and foremost, I believe it will provide a way to engage audiences asking questions and seeking understanding across divides. I also believe it will allow people to feel invested in taking steps to improve civil dialogue.

Making headway against the forces that isolate communities from one another requires efforts in and between many disciplines. Government and political parties, media and journalists, community organizers, and the arts more broadly all have a role to play. And it requires effort between isolated communities, and across political divides. The good news is that there are already so many people and groups in all these fields thinking along these same lines!

For me, journalism provides a key opportunity for people to learn from one another’s experiences of the world. When it does this well, it can provoke in us curiosity, thoughtfulness, empathy and understanding. I want to be part of this. In our digital age, there are exciting experiments in what modern journalism looks like, and how it engages audiences. I want to be working and learning with, from and alongside people pushing this envelope.

Can this make a sustainable business? I don’t know, but I’m going to find out. I am optimistic that by applying the Design Thinking frameworks I have learned already in this program (including by focusing on users, finding where a value proposition lies, continuously experimenting, testing and learning) I will zero in on what my audience needs and wants. And if I build something my audience needs and wants, then they’ll be happy to pay for it, right?

Where is the project at?

It is at an early stage. This involves a ton of research into people and organizations pursuing similar goals to mine, both in the journalism arena and outside it. And it involves many conversations with people like you who could be my first users, so that I can find out your needs, wants and habits. The last thing I want to do is create a product that you don’t need or want to use!

While I am part of CUNY’s awesome community of skilled and innovative teachers, students and alumni, I also want to build some cool stuff. Do I want to learn about all the different tools at my fingertips to help tell stories based in data? Sure do! And building chatbots? Experimenting with VR and AR? Sign me up.

Based on user conversations to date, three areas of opportunity are emerging:

  • Visualization: Use data to help us visualize not only America’s fault lines but also to map areas where consensus exists across difference.
  • Storytelling: Harness storytelling about the lives and experiences of people across diverse communities in a way that inspires trust. I have found many are interested learning about the lives and experiences of others different to theirs. But how can we make this storytelling come to us?
  • Building Capabilities and Finding Solutions: Equip people with capabilities to take small steps in their own lives towards a future with stronger civil dialogue and engagement. Many people are concerned about the idea of growing polarization. But it’s one of those BIG PROBLEMS, leaving all of us wondering, “but what the hell could I do about it?”

How to proceed from here?

The coming weeks will involve a lot more listening, and wide consultation along the lines I have described.

The Tow-Knight program also encourages us to prototype as quickly as possible. This is so that we start learning from users’ interactions with our product, and continually experiment with ways to improve it. (The perfectionist inside me is still coming to terms with this approach!)

So watch this space for an update about the release of A Civil Divide’s first product…

Want to stay in the loop?

Great! I would love to keep you in the loop over the coming months. You can:

  • Head to A Civil Divide and sign up to receive email updates. This ensures you will be the first to receive updates and among the launch group testing out our first product (I promise we won’t spam you with emails, or do anything untoward with your email address).
  • Follow me here on Medium, where I will be documenting my progress and learnings over the coming months.
  • Follow me on Twitter.

Are you asking similar questions, or pursuing similar goals, in your own work?

I would love to hear from you. Drop a note to alex@acivildivide.com and I will be in touch.