Across the great divide

I’m as adversarial as the next person. I like a good verbal spar. I am pretty sure what I think is right is right. I have strongly, deeply held convictions. I believe my way is right.

At the same time, I have spent my life as a journalist — and as a community member and friend — listening to other people. Exploring their views, stretching myself to understand where they come from. So, too, has my partner in Spaceship Media, the supremely kind and empathetic (and dogged reporter) Jeremy Hay.

Jeremy and I were working together at a nonprofit journalism organization in Oakland when we hatched a plan to practice our craft a little differently. We wanted to start by diving into the heart of polarizing, divisive issues — not to highlight the contrasts as journalists often end up doing, but to begin to pick through layers of stereotype and judgement and find ways for people to connect. We wanted also to preserve what we love best about journalism: careful research and information gathering, respect for facts, contextualized story-telling, public service.

Our pilot project, an effort with the Alameda, California Police Department and students of color from Encinal High School — thanks especially to Alameda Police Chief Paul Rolleri, Sergeant Darin Tsujimoto and Encinal English teacher Gene Kahane — got us thinking more deeply about just how to bring folks together and support dialogue across difference.

Then the election happened, and it became abundantly clear just how divided we are as a nation. So we went full force, thanks to the risk that Alabama Media Group Vice President of Content Michelle Holmes took on us when we pitched a cross-country project bringing Alabama Trump voters together in conversation with San Francisco Bay Area Clinton supporters.

The project drew a lot of attention and many took heart simply from the fact it could be done at all — that at that moment in American history we could bring people together for a fact-supported, respectful conversation across difference. Facebook even used the Alabama/California Conversation Project as an example of a best practice of how to use Facebook in newsrooms.

At Spaceship Media, we know that people do want to connect with their fellow citizens, that they can do it respectfully and that reasonable, decent people can have different takes on important political and social issues.

Now, with crucial support from the Jim Bettinger News Innovation Fund (our gratitude to the fund and its namesake, Jim Bettinger) we are creating another large project about a deeply polarizing issue: immigration.

Next week marks the launch of what we are calling the California Immigration Conversation Project—a collaboration between two major news organizations and us. We’ll be using our seven-step method of Dialogue Journalism to bring together those who support and those who oppose increased enforcement of immigration laws. In a private Facebook group, we will give them a chance to get to know one another, we’ll support their conversations with reporting — a unique aspect of our practice — and then we’ll work with our partner news organizations to tell stories out of that reporting.

Collabrations likes this are increasingly necessary in this news era of contracting budgets and newsrooms; we hope this one will produce an experience of civil dialogue about a polarizing issue in an overheated time.

For this project, we are partnering with Digital First Media, which includes the Bay Area News Group and the Southern California News Group and their more than 25 papers — including the San Jose Mercury News, East Bay Times, Orange County Register and Riverside Press-Enterprise. Univision, which has lately been recognized for its reporting on immigration in this time of flux and fury, is also a partner.

Look for more updates about the California Immigration Conversation Project and other Spaceship Media work.