7 things I never learned in journalism school

This article is the text of a presentation I gave at the Entrepreneurial Journalism Educators Summit at CUNY on July 15, 2016.

It’s a great honor to be speaking today to the very people who are preparing the next generation of the eyes and ears of the world: the next generation of journalists.

You know the craft and the field as well as anyone could. You know what makes a good story and the process of how to turn it from a hazy idea to consciousness-altering, action-inspiring reality. You know the style manuals and have wrestled to find where the lines are drawn (no matter how blurry) about what’s ethical and what’s not in this critically important and evolving profession. I have tremendous respect and admiration for what you do.

Which is why it feels somewhat strange that today I speak to you in the position of some kind of expert in the field, despite the fact I don’t know 1/100th of what you know.

My purview is so limited, in part because I never got the benefit of any real official training. I never took classes in journalism; I don’t have a journalism degree. Yet I was a practicing journalist for more than a decade and collected a few awards along the way.

For many years I felt this lack of formal education was socially detrimental. I was ashamed to admit it in front of colleagues, and had intentions of reading up, taking supplemental classes so I knew the rules.

But I never got around to it, and instead started carving my own path based on very different ideas about how the profession could and should work.

Curiosity launched Curious City

Curiosity has always been my guiding force. Prior to becoming a working journalist, I spent my twenties investigating what different lives would be like on opposite ends of the earth. I wrote psychometric tests in Montreal, made wine in Tasmania, ghostwrote for burlesque dancers, and produced informational videos for the Baha’i Faith in Chicago.

Field studies from days in Tasmania, pre-podcasts. Brutal.

In 2012, I got the rare and incredible opportunity to spend a year experimenting with journalism. At the time, I was working as a general assignment reporter at WBEZ in Chicago when the Association of Independents in Radio (AIR), awarded me $100,000 as part of their Localore initiative.

I’d secured that money by writing a proposal that questioned the foundational assumptions that journalism seemed to be built upon. As I’d been learning how to report, I asked my colleagues a lot of questions about why we made the decisions we made. Questions like: How do you pick your sources? How do you know the stories that you report are relevant and valuable to our communities? Why are you going to this press conference but not covering this other thing that feels important? Why will you report on something if it’s the 25th anniversary of it, but not the 24th? I never got the answers that put my mind to rest, despite the total respect I had for my bright colleagues.

So in 2012, with that $100,000 in hand, I launched a project at WBEZ called Curious City, a play on the word curiosity. Here’s how it worked: we solicited questions from the public about life in Chicago, we allowed the public to vote on their favorite ideas, and we partnered with them to discover the answers.

I didn’t appreciate at the time just how radical this simple project appeared to other journalists. And I’m glad to say that, just four brief years later, a lot of the ideas I was playing with are becoming less radical to some reporters now (The New York Times is even planting flags around this thinking.)

Looking back on it now, I believe the only reason I was able to create a series like Curious City was because of what I never learned in journalism school — the values I never absorbed and the worldview I never adopted.

So as a bit of a device, but hopefully a helpful one, I’d like to explain my past few years in journalism through 7 things I never learned in journalism school (because I never went).

1) I never learned: journalists are the only people who have smart questions that make for great stories

In other words, I never thought the public’s questions were not as good or worthy as a journalist’s questions.

Which is why, with Curious City, I invited the public to ask their questions to WBEZ. I extended this invitation because I didn’t see the public’s curiosity directly represented at editorial meetings and I couldn’t understand why not. It seemed that editors and journalists were acting as a surrogate for audience interest, but there was no structure or process in place for an individual from the audience to also be a surrogate for audience interest.

So we created technology and a process for the audience to ask their questions. Our prompt was: What have you always wondered about Chicago, the region or its people that you’d like WBEZ to investigate? Over the course of the last few years, this open invitation has elicited thousands of incredible questions that have turned into the most widely read and shared stories WBEZ has ever produced. In 2014, though just 2% of the stories posted to WBEZ’s website were via Curious City, they accounted for 41% of the top 50 stories of the year.

2) I never learned: the public does not have a right to be involved in deciding which stories are produced on their behalf

Which is why with Curious City, we gave the public the opportunity to decide which story WBEZ journalists reported out. We curated a handful of compelling questions every couple of weeks that we thought would make for compelling content and let the audience have the final say by voting. There was no real danger that the public might elect an inappropriate or banal idea because we only allowed voting on questions we felt had journalistic value.

I believe journalists and editors do have a developed sense for knowing what can be worthwhile to pursue. But I also know we’re not always right. The fact remains: we don’t know exactly what our audiences’ information gaps, needs and desires are, so by creating a way to find out, we get more diverse perspectives and input to make better decisions.

3) I never learned: members of the public should not be allowed to participate in reporting

Which is why with Curious City, we invited members of the public to physically accompany reporters in the field. They weren’t just bystanders either. These non-journalists were allowed to ask sources questions. Turns out they often had different and better questions than reporters, and they provided valuable input on which angle of the story was most interesting and relevant to them. In some fields, this is called “user-testing” — making sure the product you’re making suits the needs of the customer.

My main goal was to design this aspect of the process to be rewarding for members of the public and to give them access to places and people they otherwise wouldn’t have. But it turned out to be surprisingly rewarding for reporters, too. Journalists are dispatched to report on behalf of a nameless, faceless mass. But now they could envision their audience members as real, actual people who showed profound appreciation for the work they busted their butts doing day in and out. This personal partnership made for a noticeable boost in morale. Our favorite metric was how many hand-written thank you cards we got from participants.

Hand-written thank you notes from Curious City participants, our favorite KPI.

4) I never learned: the public’s role in journalism is pure consumption

Which is why we treated audience members as individuals with valid ideas and insights we could learn from, instead of as data comprised of clicks, shares or time on site. We thought they had more to give than their attention for us to monetize. And when we gave them to the opportunity to give more, they more than proved our theory.

A neat byproduct of public involvement was how it made our journalism more relatable. By featuring everyday people as protagonists in stories, the rest of our audience had someone more like them to cheer for and to feel connected to.

5) I never learned: news consumers or “the audience” is comprised of ignorant, angry people

Which is why at Curious City we gave audiences so much agency and power. Perhaps because I believe human beings are fundamentally noble, good and their personalities are dynamic, I never bought the idea that angry people in the comments section were representative of the whole audience, or that they were angry and unproductive all the time. I saw the audience members just as I saw journalists just around me: knowledgeable, fascinating, complex individuals yearning for ways to find purpose, feel effective and make sense of the world.

Some real live Curious City question askers.

Unfortunately, a lot of journalists did pick up the idea that the public is comprised of ignorant, angry people. Which is why I created a flowchart to help remind reporters that they are members of the public, too. So anything they thought was true about the public, they were invited to measure against their opinions of themselves and their circles.

6) I never learned: the job of being a journalist had to be extremely self-serious and devoid of joy

Which is why I was hell bent on infusing all of the work we did at Curious City with some degree of delight and acknowledgement of humanity. With Curious City, reporters were encouraged to loosen their collars and be more like who they were off the clock. We encouraged everyone to be creative, take risks and use the word “I” in reporting.

And the result was these stories have a really welcoming and accessible tone. Another outcome was that we ended up producing a huge variety of content beyond our charge of making radio. We made animated GIFs, did live theatrical shows, had our work presented in Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art alongside amazing artists, and even reported a story about what happens after you flush the toilet in Chicago via a printed roll of toilet paper. If journalism is going to shit (so to speak), we want to at least make it informative and memorable. 💩

“Where does your poop go?” explained on a limited edition Curious City toilet paper roll. Reporting by Shannon Heffernan. Graphics by Simran Khosla.

7) I never learned: the news should focus on the most morally suspect or the most successful people in society

Which is why we picked stories with no obvious villain or hero. We didn’t require every story to be centered on conflict. Instead we positioned reporters and the members of the public as curious explorers of a mysterious and interesting world they yearned to understand.

Personally, I find consuming too much news to be bad for my health because it creates a skewed, funhouse mirror of society in which people are portrayed as either extremely terrible or extremely wonderful. My lived experience does not jive with these extreme representations.

Where and how do these lessons get taught?

I realize that by detailing all the things I didn’t learn in journalism school, I’m implying that these lessons are taught in journalism school. Which is something again, I don’t know to be true because I never went.

What I do know is that these attitudes and ideas are programmed so deeply into the minds and hearts of reporters, editors and managers in newsrooms. And they come from somewhere. It’s unlikely these attitudes are written down in a handbook and memorized for tests. Still, they are transferred nonetheless.

Regardless of whether journalism schools explicitly teach these lessons or they’re some kind of errors of omission, they saturate the consciousness of the industry. They’ve led to structures, processes and power dynamics that put journalism increasingly at odds with a world comprised of empowered individuals.

Question everything

As a reporter, I learned the importance of questioning everything. To scrutinize what sources said, what message came through in the stories I produced by what I chose to say and by what and whom I chose to leave out. But I was never taught to question the very processes by which I went about making those stories. That happened thanks to having a beginner’s mind, and because I had no idea what was right, accepted, or wrong in the field until I started straying from the well-trodden path and faced resistance.

Journalism educators are in the best and crucially important position to create space to interrogate the journalistic process itself, and to enter into rigorous, fact-checked explorations into our own industry practices. I can’t help but think preparing the next generation to enter newsrooms with this degree of self-awareness will shift the dynamics of how the industry survives and evolves.

Hearken means to listen respectfully

Hearkening, on a frozen lake in Minnesota.

So to circle back to my personal path for a moment, here’s how against many odds I got to this very stage standing before you.

With this different take on the journalistic process called Curious City, the crux of the question I was trying to answer as a journalist was whether or not the public had great questions that reporters could serve to satisfy. Three plus years of research and development has proven to me, without a doubt, that answer is emphatically YES.

The question I’m currently investigating with Hearken (which means to listen respectfully) is whether or not more newsrooms beyond WBEZ will listen respectfully to the public’s curiosity and invite meaningful engagement in the editorial process before a story is published.

To discover the answer to this question, I had to quit my job as a journalist and find a new structure. This new structure is a company called Hearken, which serves newsrooms this public-powered model along with a supporting custom technology.

The jury is still out as to whether or not enough newsrooms will take on this audience-first, individualized approach to the news for my tiny business to survive. But in just one year we have many signs of hope. We’ve gone from a staff of one to seven, and brought on 50+ newsroom partners in eight countries, and these newsrooms are publishing stories that are more original, relevant and shareable. These stories are breaking metrics records and winning awards.

Our process and tech is designed to enable newsrooms to generate valuable email leads and data. We want newsrooms to have direct relationships with their audience members, and not be at the whim of Facebook algorithms when they’re looking to make meaningful connections.

The most important part of this whole endeavor: the people participating from the public, are telling us they feel more invested in and empowered by news outlets that actually listen to them. And reporters are telling us they’ve never loved their jobs as much as when they’re working with their communities like this.

Only you can decide what to teach your students, and I know you’ll do a wonderful job. I hope the lessons I shared with you today that I didn’t learn in school will help the next generation. I believe you have the key to unlock tremendous innovation trapped within the current value system of journalism just by questioning it. I can’t help but think that treating members of audiences like they’re worthy of being heard will help repair the relationship damage and rebuild trust.

Within these deceivingly simple adjustments in thinking, the students you nurture can build new businesses, new business models and new technologies that will push our industry toward a level of service, efficacy and connection that wasn’t possible until we turned our examining eyes and minds back toward ourselves.

Thank you.


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