Thinking in multiple frames
How journalism can be more collaborative
A year ago I boarded a plane to rural Louisiana looking for a story, and I ended up finding an audience.
Or, I guess I should say, a new approach to audience. I was flying to meet a man named Mike Schaff, who sometimes goes by the nickname Swampy Dog. Mike’s an environmentalist who doesn’t believe in climate change, a belief-system combination I previously didn’t know existed. In fact, before I spent three days driving around with Mike in his small town and drinking beer on his couch, my story about those who reject mainstream climate science could be summed up with two words, “ignorant” and “wrong.” Mike was neither.
Let me explain. Mike’s an oilman. He worked his way out of poverty only to have his dream life destroyed when his town was partly swallowed up by a gigantic sinkhole. A company called Texas Brine used a cavern under Bayou Corne to mix and store a thick salt paste used in the oil refining process. When one of the cavern’s walls collapsed — authorities suspect from over drilling — a sinkhole opened up, swallowing acres of water and trees and releasing toxic fumes into the community. Mike’s town was evacuated and the Environmental Protection Agency did almost nothing to help. Still a climate doubter skeptical of big government, Mike was now a converted, committed environmentalist.
I came to interview Mike for an episode of my podcast, “Of Two Minds,” which puts two people in conversation with very different views on a subject to try to understand the nature of their difference. In a sense I came wanting to write an episode about Mike, but I left wanting to write to him.
Or at least understand him. I’m not saying the only people I wanted to reach now were Libertarian, tree-hugging fishermen — that would be a pretty small audience. I’m saying I left Bayou Corne wanting to know my audience, well, before putting pen to paper (or voice to tape). Instead of finding an interesting story, pursuing it relentlessly, and hoping the right audience would come, I wanted to start with the people I was trying to reach and work backwards. In a nutshell, I wanted my journalism to become collaborative.
I’ve heard a lot of journalists say that when they think of their audience they try to…