Journalism Rituals? A framework to build intentional communities.
Rituals have been the superglue of many cultures and can be a helpful referent for community-minded journalists. In this post, I think about rituals in a journalism context. Is there any need for them? Would they create value? What would a journalism ritual look like? There are also some ideas to design and host them. I hope you’ll find them useful.
When Andrew DeVigal invited me to be August’s guest curator, I immediately knew what I wanted to discuss. I’ve been doing engagement journalism for a decade, and my career turned a corner when I started paying attention to rituals.
Rituals are repetitive activities infused with intentionality, and they allow communities to remember their purpose and spark meaning. Even though they’re slowly disappearing from modern life (I recommend reading Bowling Alone by Robert D. Putnam), you can still feel the power of rituals on special occasions like marriages, presidential inaugurations, some music concerts, sports events, or religious ceremonies. Actually, it’s common to associate rituals with religion, but they happen perfectly outside of that context. Rituals are a non-denominational practice: You just need to be a human to experiment with them. Every morning, before my yoga practice, I light a candle and present myself to the seven directions, giving thanks for a new beginning. Or I participated recently in a men’s circle, a simple ritual where we explored our lights and shadows in a deep, vulnerable conversation.
How you get together with others to grieve, celebrate, transcend, heal, etc., indicates your belonging to a group, your values, your worldview. And there’s something specific about rituals that is fascinating to me: you’re never alone while participating in them. In the ritual circle, the group becomes a system that enables you to process things that are harder to process as an individual. My goal in recent years has been to recreate the power of those intentional gatherings in a journalism context.
Was this a journalism ritual?
I remember the first Listening Club we hosted at Radio Ambulante, NPR’s only podcast in Spanish. It was early 2019, and we were testing the appetite for face-to-face meetings where a group of strangers would listen to an episode and discuss it afterward. Listening Clubs were not listening parties with a fancy name; as in a ritual, we had a clear intention: For participants to become better listeners and connect with others. And we designed a unique structure to turn the event into a strong container for the emotions and dynamics that audio journalism could catalyze in the group.
The pilot started in Medellín, Colombia, my hometown. I welcomed 15 people to a small coffee shop room, and we listened to Exodus, an episode that tells two personal stories about Venezuelans migrating out of their country. Once it was over, the conversation gravitated around how Medellín residents were experiencing the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans in the city. There was still a clear distinction between “us” and “them.” Until a young woman raised her hand. She spoke brokenly: “Those voices you just listened to in the episode are familiar to me. I’m from Venezuela, and my WhatsApp is full of voice notes sent by relatives who are experiencing the hardships described in the story at this very moment. We didn’t hear ‘characters’: They’re as real as you.”
The room stayed quiet. Her intervention collapsed the distance between the story and life. Suddenly, the problem was not something happening outside the room but an issue at our own table. The story was alive and demanding our response as a group. How could we serve that young woman? What was needed from us to see her? The conversation became much more intimate and intense, allowing us to process uncomfortable emotions delivered by the story, such as sadness, frustration, and pain. We held each other while bringing up nuanced feelings and questions that were difficult to share in other contexts. Ultimately, we felt that we had accomplished something we wouldn’t have done without listening to the episode collectively. Together, journalism was not overwhelming but inspiring and replenishing. That evening, rituals and journalism intersected for a moment.
We hosted 12 events during the pilot. After that, we made Listening Clubs an open-source model that any Radio Ambulante listener could self-organize (all the materials are here). Hundreds of them have been hosted by the podcast’s community, becoming a kind of ritual that facilitates deep conversations and that has created groups of new friends and meaningful relationships.
Rituals or routines?
Kursat Ozenc, a professor at Stanford’s d.school, researches and writes regularly about rituals. In 2017, he published a Medium post that clearly distinguishes between rituals and routines:
In its everyday life use, it’s very common that people use ‘rituals’ interchangeably with ‘routines.’ But there is an important difference: one of them makes meaning, the other doesn’t. This meaning could be non-obvious, even illogical or irrational, to an outsider observing the ritual in practice. Rituals don’t need to be instrumental, they just need to provide the ritual-performer with a spark of meaning.
Another simple distinction is made by the South Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han in his book The Disappearance of Rituals: [Rituals] are different from routines in their ability to generate intensity.
Before going deeper into the things that make rituals rituals (intent + intensity), I find it important to focus on the value of repeated actions or routines.
Many journalism organizations are innovating how they relate with their communities. I’ve been inspired by the repeated events organized by Zetland in Denmark; Pop-Up Magazine, or Scalawag in the United States; La Diaria, Revista Orsai, Mutante, or Radio Ambulante in Latin America.
Consciously or not, those organizations who gather regularly with people follow the three principles described in the book Get Together: “Make the event purposeful, participative, and repeatable.”
For August’s Lightning Chat, we invited Ana Pais (Senior Digital Editor at Radio Ambulante) and Juan Camilo Maldonado (Founder and Director at Mutante) to talk about the routines they have designed to meet with their communities. To me, those routines are on the threshold of becoming rituals.
Mutante, a newsroom that covers four of the most urgent social issues in Colombia and Latin America, gathers every other Wednesday with their members in what they call Mutantes en pijama (something like Mutants in pj’s). High-profile guests (artists, policy-makers, activists, etc.) connect to the Zoom meeting in their pajamas for a 90-minute horizontal conversation with the community. The value proposition of the routine is to give access to influential thinkers and creators in a low-pressure gathering where everyone comes with a beginner’s mind. They are incredibly participative and abundant in emotions and ideas.
Besides the Listening Clubs, Radio Ambulante organizes monthly virtual coffee-table conversations between the team and those participating in their membership program. They also organize Radio Ambulante Fest –an educational event for Latin American podcasters– and legendary Zoom parties to celebrate special milestones. Radio Ambulante’s events have been a high standard for engagement and collaboration for over a decade.
These events can be categorized as memberful routines, a handy concept introduced by the Membership Puzzle Project team: Engaged journalism is not inherently one-off projects, but this is what it looks like in most places right now. [That’s why we focus] on memberful routines: workflows that connect audience members to journalism and the people producing it on a consistent basis.
Memberful routines consolidate communities, increasing journalism’s impact and maximizing retention and members’ lifetime value. That’s great, and I think more organizations should invite their communities to get together in creative ways, as Mutante or Radio Ambulante are doing. The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker, an essential book in a community-minded journalist’s toolkit, provides a potent framework and many ideas to do that.
These routines boost engagement and create new opportunities to exchange value between the organization and its community. They make the network tighter and more willing to collaborate. Designing and hosting meaningful routines was my ultimate aspiration as an engagement journalist for many years. But my goal with this post is to invite you to take an extra step and consider turning some routines into journalism rituals. Ritualizing events makes them more intense and engaging. The extra layer of meaning that rituals have deepens the relationship and may transform all parties involved. So the question is, how do we turn routines into rituals? What makes rituals, rituals?
Rituals common features
Think of rituals as devices. They need some specific parts and a minimum structure to work properly (i.e., contain the group’s energy and transform it according to the intention that has been expressed).
Ozenc, the Stanford professor, mentions five elements to a successful ritual: triggers, intention spell, script, enactment, and props. He describes them briefly in Ritual Design: Crafting Team Rituals for Meaningful Organizational Change, a paper co-authored with Professor Margaret Hagan:
To design a ritual, there is a pattern of interactions. The designer needs to set a specific context, a prop, act, and a narrative goal. Context is the setting where the ritual will occur and the hook that will trigger it. For example, one context could be “the first day at work.” A prop is a symbolic object or act, such as your orientation booklet. An act is a series of repeatable actions, such as repeating an oath. A narrative goal is what the individual or group wants to happen at the end of a ritual, such as feeling connected or instilling loyalty.
I’m not an expert on rituals, but I’ve studied them for a while. I’ll develop some of the fundamental parts described by Ozenc and include a few more. I’ll also try to translate each part into a journalism ritual context. Just note that these are not rigid forms and that I’m only naming a few of what are infinite possibilities.
- Trigger and Opening
A specific event or trigger usually marks the beginning of the ritual: a death, a natural phenomenon, an anniversary or a complete cycle, etc. The opening is the explicit willingness of individuals to get together and do something about it.
The trigger for a virtual gathering like Mutantes en Pijama can be a recent public interest event that surfaces community concerns, like a housing crisis, a Supreme Court ruling, a new journalism investigation, etc.
The opening happens when the group is ready to begin the ritual. It can express itself as a quick introduction of the participants or as initial words acknowledging the value of being together. Even though rituals usually follow a pattern of interactions (or structure), their outcome is as unpredictable as life. Awareness of that uncertainty bonds participants and focuses their attention on what will happen.
Usually, the purpose of a ritual is such that individuals need the assistance of other humans (and/or spirits, depending on their beliefs) to accomplish what they intend. That’s the primary reason for getting together: You can’t make it alone. The ritual’s shape will depend on its intentions. There are rituals to grieve, celebrate, thank, heal, repair, transition, transcend, celebrate, farm, you name it.
As I said before, at the beginning of the Listening Clubs, moderators mentioned that the purpose was for participants to become better listeners and connect meaningfully with others.
Suppose you’re inviting a group to gather ritually around a piece of journalism covering the climate crisis. In that case, the purpose can be to grieve collectively or to turn the paralysis of being overwhelmed by bad news into something constructive.
- Offering / Shrine
In most rituals, the individuals or the group offer something. It symbolizes giving, emptying space for the new, the willing to nurture, or making yourself at service. In some cases, if the offerings are material, they are collected and put together in a shrine, representing what’s larger than the community.
At the beginning of Listening Clubs, we handed people coloring sheets, pencil colors, and clean notebooks. Many of them drew or colored while listening to the story or to other participants, and at the end, they would offer their work to the group. It’s a simple thing, but it creates a sense of reciprocity.
Or let’s say your reporting focuses on a diverse neighborhood or city. A ritual to celebrate diversity and connect people can include a pot-luck. Offering the flavor of one’s culture and being open to receiving those of others is an ancient way of bonding. In that case, the food table is the shrine. However, you can design rituals with symbolic immaterial offerings: people can offer their attention, generosity, special talent, connection with others, etc.
- Strong container
The ritual must happen in a safe space so the energy is focused and participants can relax and integrate into the group. Shared symbols and codes are used to create that trust, but they don’t have to be explicit. Mutante has no rules to participate in Mutantes en Pijama, and they’ve never had a situation that threatens the container. A consolidated community knows its boundaries and usually respects them. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t moderate. Every stage of the ritual should be designed to hold the group and its energy together, and there must be at least someone assuming the role of setting the rhythm and taking care of the structure.
Before the first Listening Clubs, we made some common agreements: no intervention would last more than two minutes (with some exceptions), we encouraged tension and diverse worldviews but no harassment or discrimination, we always started on time and ended on time, etc. That helped to make everyone feel safe and responsible for the shared experience.
- No spectators
In a ritual, everyone is a participant. No one inside the ritual circle can be a spectator or a witness. Full presence and intense attention are required. This element makes rituals completely different from events/routines with a stage and an audience. You don’t perform a ritual in front of others; you make the ritual with others. The participatory condition is non-negotiable.
This is a challenge for journalism organizations, who come from a culture that is used to a vertical distribution of information. How do you design events where you’re not performing or expecting attendants to be spectators? Before even considering that, reshaping your mindset and cultivating a reciprocal relationship with those you serve is necessary.
A ritual is not a panel, is not a conference, is not a keynote. A ritual can only happen if every guest shares the collective intention and is willing to participate actively in the group. Have you seen Jacob Collier’s concerts? They can give you an idea of how everyone contributes.
- Act or Collective Interaction
This is the core of the ritual. After all the previous conditions are met, what are you doing together? Will you talk? Dance? Sing? Eat? Stay silent? Walk? Laugh? Paint? Scream? Cry? All of the above?
“ Members realize their community’s purpose through the thing that they do together,” wrote the authors of Get Together.
What will be your act? What thing surfaces the purpose that brings you all together? If you’re covering science, would you gather with your community to run an experiment together?
There’s an explicit closing, usually infused with gratitude for experiencing uncertainty together and acting as a group around something meaningful to all participants.
Some questions to turn events into rituals
Each ritual is unique, but I think some questions can be a roadmap during the design process. Here are some of them.
- What does this community value in a way that makes it unique?
- What’s the purpose of the community?
- What experiences could highlight the community’s purpose or bring it to the surface?
- How do we encourage everyone to participate?
- What collective emotions is your journalism moving? Is your report about glaciers melting making people sad and helpless? Or is your series about local corruption making the community angry and disgusted? Or is the coverage of young athletes creating joy and awe? Can you offer up spaces to handle the emotions together?
- Is your work inviting others to grieve? To celebrate? To raise awareness? To feel a sense of ownership?
- How do we ritualize events without assuming a vertical relationship with those participating? How can you make them take responsibility and make the process a collaboration?
- How can you make the ritual repeatable but not redundant?
- What will happen in between rituals to preserve the feeling of community?
More and more often, I find myself talking with friends or family who tell me that they stopped using journalism because it affects their mood or mental health. Part of me gets it, but I think the problem is not journalism but how we handle the emotions it creates.
Individuals shouldn’t be receiving and processing news/journalism alone. Most problems we cover as reporters are systemic, but people digest them as individuals. It’s a broken system that overwhelms and paralyzes “users.”
As journalists, we must contribute to creating spaces where the communities we serve can handle emotions together and transform the information they get from us into action. Doing that can flip the coin, and instead of being associated with stress and anxiety, journalism can be perceived as even therapeutic. That’s why I think journalism rituals, still a very raw idea, are promising.
Rituals are disappearing. We’re getting together less often around a common purpose not limited to entertainment or productivity. Can journalism play a role in reclaiming meaningful gatherings? I think it can, and I’d love to talk more with colleagues who want to collaborate in designing journalism rituals. Should we begin?
- Get Together: How to Build a Community With Your People — Bailey Richardson, Kevin Huynh & Kai Elmer Sotto
- The Disappearance of Rituals: A Topology of the Present — Byung-Chul Han
- Ritual: Power, Healing, and Community — Patrice Malidoma Somé
- The Art of Gathering — Priya Parker
- Developing Memberful Routines — The Membership Puzzle Project
- Introducing Ritual Design: meaning, purpose, and behavior change — Kursat Ozenc
- How Do You Design a Ritual? — Kursat Ozenc
Jorge is an engagement journalist and consultant. He works with newsrooms worldwide, designing creative ways to connect journalism and communities. He is a 2022 Harvard Nieman Fellow, a Fulbright Scholar, and Gather’s guest curator for August.