Let’s build a world where we can talk — and listen — to each other (Part 1)

I was struck recently by the uncomfortable self-recognition mixed with cynicism I felt after seeing an HP advertisement about political family divisions over a holiday meal.

With a heart-tugging soundtrack, I watched one family member set down her napkin in resignation after an argument broke out between two others that seemed to be triggered by disagreements over global warming. And then, she realized she could help with one simple solution! By using a nifty mobile printer, she created a heart-shaped photo collage showing happy family moments from the past that included those who had just exchanged harsh words.

Guess what: It worked! There were hugs. Soaring melodies. And two pieces of redemptive pie. Political divisions were healed within a family by giving one high-tech present.

If only it were this easy.

Here’s the truth: We need help having frank conversations with each other, whether it’s when we’re at odds politically, are seeking information or are aiming for a meaningful connection.

I’m not talking about small talk. Or therapy. I’m also not talking about romance, or job interviews or networking. There are plenty of apps and services for all of that. I’m talking about the kind of conversations where we learn about ourselves and another person by a respectful mixture of listening and sharing.

I grew up in Dike, a farming community in rural Iowa where this was a daily practice. In my youth, I called it “gossip,” but I realize now, it was something deeper. People were seeking information to make sure others were OK— living up to their full potential while demonstrating understanding of the norms and values of the community, which included hard work, creativity and fortitude. At times, the curiosity about each other felt overbearing to my teenage self, such as when I went to a high school party (with alcohol) and learned that somehow my school had acquired the names of every person who was there. The rumor was a farmer had driven by and written down every car’s license plate and provided it to the school.

I left to pursue a career in journalism wanting to take the best parts of this information-hungry place with me.

A snapshot of a recent Watermelon Days celebration, when the residents of Dike, Iowa, get together. Credit: Luke Osterhaus

I had the belief that local journalism — that beautiful act of telling factual stories about each other — can make communities better. We grow stronger by being curious about our neighbors, and learning the collective values of a city or neighborhood by reading and hearing its stories, as well as pointing out when we make mistakes and could do better.

In the last year as a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford, I have a new perception: These stories are meaningless if we don’t know how to listen. My new mission is different, and one that I believe is the first building block to creating high-functioning communities that care enough to read local journalism.

We need higher quality conversations. By re-learning how to talk to each after a decade of living our lives virtually, moment upon moment smeared by misinformation, posturing, trolls, vaguebooking, virality, online bullying, influencers and manipulators, we are reclaiming our very humanity, and along with that, our ability to discern fact from fiction, argue with a stranger (or family member) without yelling or hurling ugly insults, and learn from someone distinctly differently from ourselves.

My goal is to create better conversations between neighbors and those who share geographic boundaries, inspired by numerous experiments in conversation-making this year, along with the work pioneered by other journalists, such as Spaceship Media, which brings “communities in conflict” together, in “journalism supported dialogue.”

My focus is on local. How can we elevate the quality of our conversations with our neighbors — the people we run into at the grocery store, at our places of worship or at that park?

The reason for this goal starts with my own year of listening, hearing the stories of residents in rural Iowa, Stanford, Berkeley, San Francisco (through the work done by my colleague JulieAnn McKellogg) and Modesto. With my JSK colleagues, the help of Modesto Bee journalists and Stanford students, I’ve conducted and analyzed the results of about 50 interviews. Some of those interviews were feedback to products I created with teams to improve conversations. Others were more free flowing, where we asked people about their views of their communities, their neighbors, and their own personal values: What gave them joy and what caused them worry? How did they find out information about the town where they lived? Many of the interviews were off-the-record, with the hope that people would open their hearts to me and my colleagues. This was all done with the greater goal of seeking solutions to creating greater connections within geographic communities, in a world where I see so much socializing happening outside the bounds of our neighborhoods and cities and not enough with those in physical proximity.

Tim Regan-Porter, Lisa Rossi, André Natta and JulieAnn McKellogg recently at The Clock Factory in Berkeley, California, where they designed a local news coffee shop takeover. Credit: Melissa Briggs

Sometimes I wondered as I was doing this research that in my own personal life — was I spending more time talking to my far flung family members and friends from a decade ago rather than the humans ready for friendship and connection within my immediate physical presence? And how does that tendency translate to action? Do I live in a world where it’s not only common, but expected to step up and help when someone nearby is sick or facing a huge life milestone or challenge? That was the world where my dad grew up more than 50 years ago in South Dakota, taught by his parents and grandparents that a covered dish was one great way to show your neighbors you cared. When his mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when he was a teenager — a formidable challenge in a family of five children — neighbors and friends far and wide stepped up to help — and not just in the beginning. There were those hearty few who were in it for the long haul, dropping off something delicious every few weeks. He still remembers the specific tastes — of garlic, potatoes and meats — from some of those dishes to this day.

Who are we baking lasagna for now? I’m worried that in the act of connecting to our affinity groups globally, we’ve become separate locally. We need help talking to each other in real life. The act of constructive, moderated dialogue I’m talking about isn’t just for fun. It’s not to scratch an itch. It’s a crucial component for positive action.

Beyond that, it’s interesting — to both be a part of and to watch. When I think about the favorite parts of my days, they are the long conversations where I felt like a part of myself changed in the process of hearing another person’s story. And I also love listening to conversations like these. When I was a local news editor, I savored the times I could overhear a reporter interviewing a source. When I see two people engrossed in a conversation at a coffee shop, I find myself compelled to lean over and listen.

During my listening tour this year, I heard repeated themes of loneliness and the seeking of non-romantic and non-professional connections with neighbors and friends, while also strengthening romantic and familial relationships. I heard from people frustrated by the lack of “real” information from friends and family on Facebook, and their own journeys in truth-seeking around changes underway in their community, which was happening more on text, face-to-face conversations and over the phone as opposed to reading a newspaper.

I learned that many people don’t have a daily local news reading habit, although they will Google a local news source when they hear sirens or other evidence of breaking news. Conversely, they will take the extraordinary step of leaving their homes to see firsthand new features of their community. I spoke to one young adult male in Modesto about why he was motivated to attend an open house to see some redone tennis courts at a local gym. It was because his girlfriend was into tennis. By having that firsthand information, I think he hoped it would help him forge a deeper connection with her. He was the same person who told me and another journalist that his life’s greatest joy was love — something he felt by being part of a local community of soccer referees.

I learned that marginalized communizes long for more empathy and understanding from the powerful. Modesto Bee Opinions Page Editor Mike Dunbar told me how, in one of these interviews, he asked a homeless man, “What could you teach me?”

The answer was that he could teach Dunbar, “How to better care about people like him.”

JSK Fellows from Team Local recently teamed up with journalists at The Modesto Bee for a day of listening to readers. Pictured: Rosalio Ahumada, Joan Barnett Lee, Mike Dunbar, Brian Clark, Lisa Rossi, Marijke Rowland, JulieAnn McKellogg, Tim Regan-Porter and Patty Guerra.

These interviews underscored the importance of constructive dialogue. In an era when local news is declining, who is left to ask a public official a question about a confusing new policy? To get to the bottom of a school rumor about a teen in trouble?

We are. Regular folks. It behooves us to take the time to learn to do it right. I believe journalist-inspired training and events designed to bring different people into meaningful conversation can help build literacy around truth and bias, not to mention connect people together who aren’t from the same race, economic background, neighborhood, high school, workplace, political party or hobby group.

I also learned this year the decisions we make in our daily life — such as where to go out to eat or see a new art exhibit — are motivated by our desire to connect with the community around us, to make the friendships we perform on our social platforms manifest themselves into authentic connections informed by vital, firsthand observations of the world around us. One woman told McKellogg that when she moved to San Francisco, friends and coworkers were her primary sources in determining events to attend, opportunities to pursue and even where to go out to eat. In McKellogg’s interview notes, a conversation with another newcomer who shared how they learned about a new community was summed up this way “Prioritizes people over publications.”

Local journalists used to do the work of explaining features of a community to both longtime residents and newcomers, such as a restaurant or a new business or government policy. My conclusion from this year is that people want to do some of this work themselves. I imagine that this is a generation of news consumers who would jump at the chance for a tour of a new restaurant and to conduct a group interview with the chef. They’d love to have the chance to ask a public official their most pressing questions about a new policy — and in a forum less stuffy than a formal town hall meeting. I imagine they also long to ask their family members questions, to uncover the stories that hold meaning and value from the past. They are curious to see the world and explain it firsthand, just as they have been primed to do in revealing their personal lives online. They are hungry for meaningful conversations beyond their virtual worlds, but unsure exactly how to do it, when every decision they make in public (or even in private) is potentially the next viral meme.

I believe it’s not only possible — it’s the next new wave of hyperlocal information sharing.

PART II: 13 lessons for journalists who want to build high-quality conversations