I’m sorry, but this is yet another blog post about Substack. Sort of.
Depending on who you ask, Substack and its many imitators are a godsend or the downfall of modern journalism. Really, it’s just a newsletter platform that pays some people money and gives independent writers a way to collect revenue from subscriptions. That’s it.
There has been a lot of opining (so much!) about how “the media” will survive losing the writers who have left their cushy jobs at NYT, WaPo, CNN, or Vox to go it alone on Substack.
Frankly, the loss of these voices isn’t a concern to me. As Will Oremus noted in Slate, many of these departing writers are not primarily known for their hard-hitting reporting anyway. They’re pundits, the sort of column writers that get invited onto cable news panels and podcasts. They’re also primarily white guys of a similar age that I probably couldn’t pick out of a lineup*.
This might be a crazy thought, but what if this is a good thing? I’m sure these folks’ columns masquerading as reporting get good pageviews, or else they wouldn’t have gone independent. But so what? I would bet that every newsroom that has lost some superstar white dude has many more talented writers and interesting personalities in its ranks that could become big stars.
Maybe if so many media writers and newsrooms leaders weren’t themselves white dudes of a certain age, they could see this opportunity for what it is.
The departure of these bright lights might free up some salary and oxygen for more women, journalists of color, and other underrepresented groups in the newsroom to get their shot at the spotlight.
That would require our biggest and most prominent news organizations to think creatively about assessing the skills and ambitions of their current staff and considering who they need to recruit. It can be done!
As for those underrepresented newsroom voices – get your newsletter and column pitches together now! It’s only a matter of time before the next [young, white male] journalist is tapped to be the next big newsroom star.
* Many of my friends (and my spouse) are white, male journalists. I can like them and also think they are wildly overrepresented in news, especially in the ranks of management. ✌️
That is the first question I get after “How are you?” from every person I have spoken to in the past month. But for the most part, they already know what happened to The Compass Experiment. They’ve heard it many times before.
It wasn’t anything dramatic. It rarely is when a startup or product within a larger company pivots or concludes. In fact, it is such a familiar story that it the fourth time since 2010 that some version of it has happened to me.
As it happens sometimes, one management group’s pet innovation project becomes the odd man out when priorities, plans, and players change. In February, McClatchy decided to reorganize Compass in hopes of making the two local news startups financially sustainable on a shorter timeline.
Instead of running Compass and its two sites, Mahoning Matters and The Longmont Leader, as a primarily independent business entity within McClatchy, it would become part of larger networks. The hope was the benefits of shared resources and network effects could spur faster growth. Mahoning Matters would be fully integrated into McClatchy as one of its publications. The Leader would be spun off and sold to our partners at Village Media. The three-person central team that helped run the revenue, fundraising, and audience efforts at both sites would be made redundant (that included me).
As far as solutions go, it could have been a lot worse. I was not involved in the decisions, but I would have also suggested I be the first to go if I had been. After all, the goal of the overall project was to make the local sites self-sustainable. From day one, I have been working toward the goal of eliminating my own position. I just thought I had more time.
What I didn’t want was for our local teams to see any cuts. They were both too new and at too precarious a place in their life cycles to withstand losses. Mahoning Matters had just celebrated its first anniversary in October, and Longmont had just turned the corner on seven months.
Both sites have small teams (five full-time staffers at Longmont, six at Mahoning Matters) and tight budgets. We were operating as lean as possible to get through the pandemic with a plan to grow as our communities opened back up. To cut from such a small base would have been soul-crushing, and I’m just relieved I didn’t have to do it.
So what now?
As disappointed as I am to have had to leave at this point of the story, I have no regrets about joining this project. I never do when something like this happens. I learned so much from this experience and I’m proud of all we did in my time with McClatchy.
I entered into Compass with the goals of hiring the right team and building local news products for audiences that deserved better news. I did that, we did that, and it still matters to those communities. The people I hired continue to do great work. The stories they write and the relationships they have built locally are worthy of celebrating (please give them your support if you have the means).
I hope to continue to share more of my learnings and experience here, too. I don’t know if I’ll ever get back to my blogging heydey like it was early in the lifecycle of this site, but I would like to continue to be part of the conversation about making local news, sustainability, running startups, etc. as I consider my next moves.
On that note, I'm looking for my next role and picking up some training, consulting, and short-term projects along the way. It's a weird and scary time to be unemployed in journalism, so please keep me in mind if you or someone you know needs a me.
Today marks one year since we launched Mahoning Matters in Youngstown, Ohio. In some ways, October 9, 2019 feels like it was a decade ago, in others it feels like yesterday.
Nobody could have predicted the ups and downs we’d face in our inaugural year. We knew we’d have a long road ahead to grow our audience and build relationships with local advertisers in Youngstown. What we didn’t foresee was the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact it would have on our business, community, and staff.
As I said in a post marking our six-month anniversary in April, this year has been a terrible and inspiring time to be working in local news.
Terrible in that the coronavirus pandemic not only took the life of a member of our team, it has also struck a major blow to a region that was already struggling.
We’ve worked hard to find out what people in the Valley need to know — through events, focus groups, and audience surveys — and we’ve adapted our work to meet those needs. And it is working. This year, we have grown to reach more than 200,000 monthly website readers and 8,000 email subscribers.
In addition to creating good journalism, we started The Compass Experiment to find ways to make local news financially sustainable. To do that, we knew we’d have to pursue a variety of revenue lines and be ready to adapt as needed.
This year, we have built relationships with local businesses, some of whom have become advertisers and partners even during these difficult times. We have been able to expand our coverage with new series built with the support of key local business partners through our Community Leaders Program.
The Movers and Makers series, sponsored by Farmers Bank, highlights the work of local entrepreneurs. Eastwood Mall stepped up to sponsor Difference Makers, which brings attention to the work of everyday local heroes serving the community.
Our readers have also made investments in our work. Earlier this year, on our six-month anniversary, we launched a voluntary giving program that asked readers to financially support our newsgathering. So many stepped up to give us what they could, be it in monthly payments or one-time donations, to keep our site free and accessible to all.
Mahoning Matters has also been fortunate to have found strong allies in the local philanthropic community. In close collaboration with Report for America, we have been able to get support for the concept of donor-funded journalism in the Mahoning Valley.
Today, we announced the creation of the Mahoning Matters Journalism Impact Fund with the Community Foundation of the Mahoning Valley, which ensures our future contributions are managed professionally in the community. This fund will help support our accountability and solutions-oriented reporting in the months and years to come and will give us an avenue to begin accepting tax-deductible donations with our fiscal sponsor, the McClatchy Journalism Institute.
That is all to say the pieces are coming together. We’re still a ways off from breaking even, but we’re building the framework for a local news business that can succeed long-term.
In the meantime, we are running forward. We have an election coming. The coronavirus pandemic is far from over. Our community has questions about what its leaders are going to do to improve their lives. We’re going to keep on telling these stories that matter in the Mahoning Valley for the next year and many more to come.
A global pandemic probably seems like a bad time to be building a new local news website.
Economies both global and local are in precarious positions, unemployment is soaring, advertising has disappeared and nobody is up for in-person events. And yet, the need and demand for local news and information has never been greater.
The circumstances call for some bold action in local news. If now isn’t the time to show up for our communities, then when?
This is why The Compass Experiment will soon be launching our second local news website in Longmont, Colorado. We hope to have this new publication, The Longmont Leader, ready to go by the end of May.
Our team learned a lot in launching our first Compass site, Mahoning Matters, last year. We had to rush to build and launch a new local news site in the wake of the closure of Youngstown’s local newspaper. We managed to get it up just 40 days later. To do that, we had to cut some corners and improvise a few things. For the second site, we had big plans to take our time and do everything just right.
Last October, we were hustling to get our site launched just 40 days after the Vindicator closed its doors to ensure that Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley still had accountability journalism. Today, we are finding ourselves in the middle of an unprecedented news event that will have untold implications for our community, our business and our very existence.
In the past 30 days, we’ve seen our traffic rise and our priorities shift to meet the needs of our readers. We’ve lost a member of our team to the virus that has been driving all of this change, and have been unable to mark his passing in any of the usual ways. We haven’t been able to stop.
This is simultaneously a terrible and inspiring time to be working in local news.
First, my doctor told me the variety of breast cancer I have, triple negative, is more aggressive, harder to treat and more likely to return than other types.
Then I found out the pain in my neck that had developed the weekend before was not, in fact, because I slept wrong, but was a swollen lymph node pushing up under my collarbone, indicating the disease had already spread beyond my chest.
Later, a genetic test would reveal the BRCA1 gene mutation that had been hiding in my DNA all my life, like a ticking time bomb.
Those weeks of terror are not unlike the news cycle we are all living in now.
Every day reveals new horrors and challenges brought on by the spread of COVID-19. As time passes, we find out someone else from our overlapping social circles has it, or has died from it. Much like the cancer support groups I joined after my diagnosis, the attendance in our daily lives is slowly decreasing.
At Mahoning Matters, we make it our mission, above all, to be useful to our readers in Northeast Ohio. In the midst of the public health and economic crisis created by the arrival of COVID-19, we’ve found ourselves constantly evaluating if we are keeping to that mission.
Like many newsrooms across the nation and the world, we’re in a constant state of upheaval in covering the biggest story of the century so far. Our day-to-day has become anything but, and it’s forced a shift in our editorial strategy while attempting to keep to our mission.
Prior to the arrival of coronavirus to our nation’s consciousness and living rooms, we were just really getting our footing as a news organization and small business in the Mahoning Valley. We set out to differentiate ourselves from other local media, which includes three TV news stations, a business journal and a daily newspaper out of nearby Trumbull County. We tried to avoid chasing the same stories as everyone else, instead linking to them in a new curated email newsletter called “Morning Matters”.
Instead, we spent our limited staff’s time focusing on telling exclusive stories through an accountability lens and featuring information that was, above all, useful. In February, we had what was, by far, our highest traffic month yet, driven largely by extensive coverage of local nursing home inspections and a guide to Lenten fish fry in the area.
Then came March, and with it, news of the coronavirus closing local businesses and schools and generally throwing life as we knew it into a tailspin. Now, we have found ourselves chasing the same story as everyone else, because there is only one story. Our readers are coming to us more often than ever to find out the latest developments in regards to the coronavirus and its effects on the community – and we struggle to support that bottomless need for information while attempting to stick to our principles of what news we cover.
So every day we look at our coverage and ask, “Is this useful?”
What I found while studying news, disinformation and the audience they (mostly) share
How could someone possibly believe that?
Like many journalists and media researchers, I’ve found myself asking this question about disinformation that has gone viral via social media. Though I’ve spent years learning how and why disinformation is created, I’d never had the opportunity to explore the motivations of the people who believe and share these stories. That is what led me to do more in-depth research during my year as a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford.
Over the course of six months, from December 2018 through the spring of 2019, I conducted in-depth interviews with nine Americans who were selected for their relationships with both disinformation and mainstream news. I had planned to interview more participants, but life circumstances got in the way.
Through these conversations, I came to the conclusion that the media industry isn’t facing a disinformation problem as much as an engagement problem. It isn’t merely the insidious and convincing nature of disinformation that drives people to consume, believe or share false news, but is also a profound disconnection from the mainstream media and how it works.
When I started at The Compass Experiment a few weeks ago, I got right to work in trying to figure out where to launch our news operations. We spent a lot of time poring over data on markets across the U.S., seeking out communities big enough to financially support a digital news provider, but small enough that a startup-sized staff could still make an impact.
And then we heard the news that The Vindicator, Youngstown’s 150-year-old newspaper owned by the Maag-Brown family, would be closing its doors for good on August 31. Pretty much from the moment the story broke, I started getting messages from my former classmates at Kent State University, located about 40 miles away from Youngstown, worried about what was going to happen next.
The Vindicator kept its eye on the local city and county governments, tracked the campaign of local Congressman and presidential candidate Tim Ryan, and reported on the actions of police, courts, schools and businesses across a region of more than 500,000 people. Who would take up that mantle now?
We at The Compass Experiment want to help Youngstown find a path forward, which is why we have selected it as our first launch city. We are already on the ground working with people in the community to set up a digital news outlet that will launch in the fall.
In case you’re reading this and haven’t heard of us, The Compass Experiment is a local news laboratory founded by McClatchy and Google to explore sustainable business models for local news. Over the next three years, we will be starting three digital-only news operations in small to mid-sized U.S. communities that have limited sources of local, independent journalism.
At first blush, Youngstown doesn’t seem like the sort of place where an experimental digital news project would put down stakes. It is a shrinking city in a region that has been suffering financially for decades, but it is also an area that has a distinct local identity and a need for a public watchdog now more than ever.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve spoken to many people in Northeast Ohio who care deeply about what happens once the Vindicator shuts it doors. They want to take action, and we want to help them do that.
Starting now, we are recruiting a small local team to drive the creation of this site with the needs of the Youngstown community in mind. For the sake of transparency, all of those local roles are posted here. Note that we will only be considering applications from those working in or with strong background in Youngstown or the surrounding region.
For those who want to help from afar, we are also hiring a couple of central roles who will work remotely to support the Youngstown staff and the teams that will be behind our next two sites. Those roles include a Central Editor and a Business Operations Manager.
As I said in my first post about Compass, we don’t plan on doing this alone. Since the announcement of the Vindicator’s impending closure, I have been heartened to see regional and national news outlets express interest in expanding their coverage in the Mahoning Valley. Instead of competing, we welcome the chance to collaborate with these and other news providers in the area to best serve the local audience. This is a region too big and too complex for us to tackle alone.
When I first took on this job, I dreamed of opening a new news provider in my home state. While our accents are a little different, Youngstown is not all that different from my hometown of Zanesville, which is about 100 miles southwest, as the crow flies. Both are cities that were decimated by the exit of manufacturers and mills that used to provide a steady income and a good life. Both are places that are losing their children to joblessness, to drug abuse, or the best case scenario, to a job far away from home in a bigger city.
Naysayers might say Youngstown’s best years are past, but there are many others who celebrate the community, who honor its history while fighting to create a brighter future. They are revitalizing the downtown, opening new businesses and nurturing a growing student body at Youngstown State. Those are the sort of people we need on our team in Youngstown. I hope you’ll join us in writing the next chapter.
Anyone watching the headlines lately knows that local newsrooms across the country are hurting, and some have disappeared altogether. Many more still are barely operating, publishing news as a shadow of their former selves. Amid these closures and cutbacks, news deserts — areas that have no locally-based media — are blooming.
In losing their local media, these areas are losing some of the vital ways they used to connect as a community. Births, deaths, local sports, city council, and businesses opening or closings are all left to be passed around as rumors on social media.
This is where the Compass Experiment comes in.
We are a local news laboratory founded by McClatchy and Google to explore new sustainable business models for local news. Over the next three years, we will launching three digital-only news operations in small to mid-sized U.S. communities that have limited sources of local, independent journalism. Our goal is not only to support the dissemination of news in these communities, but also to make the local operations financially self-sustaining.
Local news is where I started my career and I feel it is the bedrock of our industry’s connection with the audience. Local news tells their stories, lives in their communities and earns their trust through the kind of accountability that comes when you might run into your area reporter at the grocery store. We cannot ensure local journalism will survive for the long-haul without a focus on sustainability, which is why I sought to be a part of this initiative in the first place.
While we are very early in this project — so early, in fact, that I technically haven’t started yet — but here are a few things I want to share about our plans so far.
1. We aren’t going to be in the business of parachute journalism.
I have no interest in dropping journalists into unfamiliar places and giving the locals the news we want give them. The best community journalism is created by people who know it best. This is why we will be actively involving communities in the development of the sites and hiring local journalists who already know and love the area.
2. All sites won’t be the same.
All communities are not the same, so why would we assume they all need and want the same out of their journalism? We won’t be replicating the same cookie-cutter approach to every site’s coverage, but rather taking a custom approach dictated by the needs of each place.
3. These sites will have to be self-sustaining at some point.
To help solve the problems facing local news in the long-term, we have to focus on the business model. The reason this is an “experiment” and not a “project” is that we are using this opportunity to innovate and adapt new potential sources of revenue for these local sites.
4. We won’t be doing this alone.
We know there are many bright minds already working hard to create sustainable local media across the U.S. and the world. I believe we can get further, faster by working together. So I’m going to ensure we also are learning from what’s already going on out there and collaborate with those who share our goals to find new paths to what can help community news operations everywhere.
5. We won’t be doing this in the dark.
As part of the aforementioned collaboration, we’ve set up this site to share our progress and our failures along the way so that others can learn from them, adapt them and spread them as needed.
Where we are now
Right now, we are in the process of selecting the location of our first site. The sort of communities we have in mind would ideally meet the following criteria:
Has a population of roughly 60,000 to 300,000
Is not part of or close to a major city — we’re looking to cover communities where people work and live
Has an engaged citizenry that votes, volunteers and is already focused on making their city a better place
Has no or few sources of local news, or recently lost a local news provider
We want to hear your ideas. If you live in a community that is hungry for local news, let me know.
If you want to be a part of what we’re building, drop me a line.
If you’re already working on this problem and want a collaborator, I’m here for you.
I didn’t join The Compass Experiment only to make incremental improvements to the three communities where we’ll be starting new sites. I want to be part of a movement to make local news sustainable everywhere. I hope you’ll join me.
How the JSK Fellowship is teaching me to learn to lean on others
The last year has turned my life upside down in so many ways. The JSK fellowship gave me the time, space and perspective to find out what I want to do with my life and my career. It gave me a home and a community when I felt adrift. And more recently, the fellowship has given me a protective cocoon during what has been one of the hardest times of my life.
Nothing could have prepared me for April 1, 2019. As a journalist, I’ve always hated the carelessness of April Fool’s Day and the hoaxes it inevitably spawns. In 2014, I lost my job on this day. This year on this day, I found out I have cancer.
It felt almost Shakespearean. The heroine is on top of the world, confident of her life and its direction, only to be felled by a major setback at what should have been her time of triumph. While it is never a good time to find out something like this, I’m lucky it came at a time when I have had so much support. All I had to do was learn to take it.
I’ve never been good at leaning on others. I hate asking for favors, but I love fulfilling them (blame my Ohio Methodist upbringing). For the past several years, I followed the advice of many a management book and “faked it until I made it” and part of that was also pretending I never needed help along the way. Admitting vulnerability and weakness was not an option, or so I thought. I’ve learned in my time at Stanford to embrace my vulnerability in the workplace, but I wasn’t prepared to have to do so in my personal life.
But then April 1st came.
At first, I tried to stay my usual self. Less than an hour after my diagnosis, I got on the phone in my doctor’s parking lot to interview for two different jobs. Then I had to call my mom and tell her the news. Looking back, I can’t decide if that chain of events was possible due to toughness, denial – or outright insanity.
My first instinct was to hide it, not only from all of my friends back East, but also the people who see me every day at Stanford. I didn’t want anyone to see my eventual deterioration. It quickly became evident that I couldn’t entirely keep my illness to myself. How do you reasonably answer a question like, “How are you?” without lying?
When I finally told the other JSK fellows, I felt a sense of relief I hadn’t expected. It didn’t feel like a defeat, it felt like a weight had been lifted. After the initial hugs and promises of support, my friends in fellowship really showed up for me in a ways I didn’t know I needed. In fact, I was a little embarrassed at first, to accept it.
They started delivering dinner to my house every day to take the load off my supportive and overworked husband. They offered to run errands and rides to where I needed to go. They’ve given me excuses to bail on things I didn’t feel like doing and taken notes in classes I had to miss due to my appointments. Within our circle, we can laugh at the absurdity of what I’m dealing with, whether that’s trying on hilarious wigs in pursuit of the one that’ll make me feel most normal or taking advantage of my newly minted designated driver status. They even all got temporary tattoos in homage to the one on my right arm reading: More. I have never been so touched.
Above all, my fellowship group has given me the confidence to keep dreaming and planning for my future, despite cancer being an unavoidable part of it. To many people in my life, my day-to-day health and status as a patient is an all-consuming aspect of our relationship. I’m encouraged not to worry about what I have to do, to just focus on getting better and let the future happen later, when this is all over.
But that’s not me. The other fellows know it and didn’t let me forget it.
I’m taking on the future I want regardless of what cancer has planned. I can learn to lean on my friends and colleagues, to ask for help when I need it and take time off (and naps) without guilt or fear of looking weak. I will take a new job and give the best of myself despite the fact that I’m sometimes tired, nauseous and have no hair of my own anymore.
As Sheryl Sandberg said in her 2017 commencement speech at Virginia Tech, “There are times to lean in and there are times to lean on… If you are there for your friends and let them be there for you…that won’t just make you more resilient, it’ll help you lead a deeper and more meaningful life.”
As much as it dominates my life right now, I can’t afford to let 2019 be my lost cancer year. This is the year of completing my work on disinformation and trust via Project Disconnect. It’s my year of establishing new lifelong friendships through this program. It’s my year for finding myself.
Thanks to JSK, 2019 is my year for new beginnings.
In my second quarter as a John S. Knight fellow at Stanford, I have been largely focused on my research project, which has taken me into the homes of strangers to talk to them about their relationships with news, disinformation and the communities where they live.
I always planned to approach this study not as a journalist, but as a neutral observer, combining the empathetic methods of design thinking and the analysis of the social sciences.
What I didn’t consider going in was just how much I didn’t know about what it really means to be an observer in the first place.
This past quarter, I took a sociology course called Ethnographic Methods, which I had hoped would be beneficial to helping me structure my research project to be a bit more rigorous. I was a journalist in a class of social science and communication Ph.D students and much to my surprise, while there I rediscovered some fundamental truths about journalism itself.
To put it simply, ethnography is the study of people and cultures. One might say that’s also the job of journalism, though with a less systematic approach. It is difficult to see where one might end and the other begins, as the two fields similarly approach observation, interviewing and how they report back what they’ve found.
But one thing ethnography seems to do a lot better is analyzing the role of the practitioner in conducting the study, and how who they are impacts the quality of the work. This notion of reflexivity has taken on a huge role in modern social sciences and I believe journalism would also benefit from its application in reporting, editing, community engagement and story selection.
What objectivity is — and isn’t
In journalism, the quest for objectivity started as an effort to report the news fairly and accurately, whether or not the individual journalist agrees with the facts. What it has become is a Frankensteinian monster of “bothsiderism”, false equivalencies and a fallacy that good journalists have no biases, on or off the clock.
We each have lived experiences we carry with us every day that affect how we think, who we talk to and what we believe. Ethnographers know this intrinsically and write those assumptions into their work.
Kathy Charmaz, Professor of Sociology at Sonoma State University, literally wrote the book on qualitative research methods. In “Constructing Grounded Theory”, she noted a researcher’s identity and background is key to the quality of data they can collect in the field.
“Just as the methods we choose influence what we see, what we bring to the study also influences what we can see,” Charmaz wrote. “We are not passive receptacles into which data are poured. Neither observer nor observed come to a scene untouched by the world.”
Objectivity isn’t a lack of belief, but rather it is an ability to critically assess one’s own biases and be transparent about them.
Or, as sociologist and Pulitzer Prize winner Matthew Desmond described it in his book, “On the Fireline: Living and Dying with Wildland Firefighters”, “Objectivity comes to the ethnographer who knows themselves and can critically expose and assess own position relative to the field site or subject.”
Instead of putting up a facade that we don’t have any biases, let’s critically evaluate them and be hyper-conscious of them when approaching our work. Let’s be honest with the audience about who we are and what we bring to the table as journalists — and let them decide if we are being fair and truthful in our work.
In other words, journalism needs go back to the original concept of objectivity, as described by Walter Lippmann back in 1919: The method of journalism needs to be objective, not the journalist.
We can change a story just by being present
One element of reflexivity is understanding how the presence of a researcher — or, in this case, a journalist — changes the environment. We show up to a crime scene, a protest, etc. and everyone changes their behavior when they see a notebook or camera come out. Every field reporter or photographer has run into this dilemma before, but how can they account for it in the final product?
Familiarity is a major factor in capturing an authentic scene. How long the journalist can spend in the neighborhood or with the subject in question will naturally lead to some familiarity. All too often, journalists don’t have this luxury. We are in and out, the story filed, and on to the next.
The ethnographer can spend weeks, months and years at a field site, becoming an invisible part of its fabric, and still note in their final work what may have been different because they were there to see it. While we might not need to write these observations into final works for publication, the question of, “How much of what I observed was meant for me to see?” and “What did I miss?” should come up in the discussions between reporters and editors before reporting and as the story comes together to help ensure the story we are telling is the right one.
Others’ views of us can affect our access to information
Journalists and ethnographers may both consider their professional missions to be inextricably linked to the relationships they form with sources. To do our jobs well, journalists often seek to tell the story from the vantage point of the source; to get a sense of how their life experience has shaped their impressions of the world. Often missing in this narrative exercise is….ourselves.
How the source sees us — the observers and storytellers — very much shapes what information and insight they will allow us to access about them. In my own research so far, I have found interviewees’ opinions not only about me as an individual, but also the profession of journalism, has had a major impact on what they are willing to discuss.
In his ethnographic study of a public housing complex in Chicago, urban ethnographer Sudhir Venkatesh found out how the neighborhood residents viewed him over his time in their midst greatly affected both his access and what information he was able to collect. To reflect this in his study, he incorporated what he called a “reconstruction of the informant’s point of view”, or, rather, the subjects’ impression of the field researcher and the ultimate goal of his research.
In journalism, we need to be comfortable with this practice of positionality, carefully evaluating how we look to the people we are covering, and how that might affect their interactions with us and the stories we tell from those interactions.
Am I coming across as a person of privilege covering a low-income community? Could my questions reflect judgement of how this person lives? How comfortable is my subject with me telling their story if I’m a college-educated, white, upper-middle class professional (and they are not)?
Asking these questions of ourselves before and after interviews can help us get better insights into the communities we cover — and develop better relationships with our sources along the way.
Understanding power dynamics in the source-journalist relationship
Ethnographers take care to be keenly aware of the power dynamics in the interactions they have with informants. In the typical journalist-source relationship, the power balance may not be as even we might want to believe.
Author and communications educator Ruth Palmer found this out first hand when she interviewed people who had been at the center of news stories about their experiences.
Journalists seem powerful to ordinary citizens for several interrelated reasons. The first is that journalists have a much larger audience than most people can reach through their social networks. Journalists can be gatekeepers to publicity and fame. But, most important, they control how people’s stories are told to the public: what is included, how it is framed, and who is cast as the hero or the bad guy. Those decisions can have favorable or destructive consequences for the people they are reporting about — consequences that are magnified online. And yet, journalists seem to dole out those benefits or damages pretty cavalierly.
Understanding the source’s point of view towards the journalist and the media at large can help us to not only build trust, but also discover better stories. Charmaz wrote about how differences in power and status may affect the quality of an interview.
“Powerful people may take charge and turn the interview questions to address topics on their own terms, and control the timing, pacing and length of the interview,” she wrote. “[The disempowered] may recite public relations rhetoric rather than reveal personal views, much less a full account of their experiences.”
In this democratized age of information, individual journalists might not feel powerful, but we need to realize the significance of our role in the lives of our sources, who may feel they have no power at all. When we seek to interview those who are vulnerable due to their age, gender, economic status, legal status, etc., we hold all of the cards. The source has everything to lose, the journalist so much to gain.
In her interviews with former news sources, Palmer found most were pleasantly surprised to hear that reporters don’t often use their power unethically, but “it was not nearly as salient as the feeling that they always could.”
Realize it might not be your story to tell
We are entrusted with so much when we are given someone’s story to tell. Much like our counterparts in the social sciences, we have to be vigilant in analyzing when, how and even if we as journalists are the best representatives to tell these stories at all.
In many cases, allowing those with less power to be able to tell their own stories can be far more effective and a more accurate presentation of that person’s worldview. Sometimes our job is to just stay out of the way.
Write for the audience and the source (within reason)
Desmond wrote that social science studies have three languages they need to speak: That of his social science peers, the reading public and the subjects of the study. Journalists should keep a similar vein in mind in how we write about those in our communities.
While I’m not particularly concerned that we consider the feelings of every person we cover (most political reporting would probably go extinct), I feel we should consider the source who acts in good faith, especially those who are not public figures, as a key audience to the final product.
We should ask ourselves some key questions like, “Will this story make them look foolish, uneducated or immoral? Will they be embarrassed to see how they are portrayed? Will they regret talking to me?”
For example, I regularly read election year reporting from my home state of Ohio and find myself cringing at the portrayals of people, people who could very well be my family or neighbors, as “flyover state” caricatures. Maybe the reporter just thought he was describing them as they were, other than as how he saw them…but did he stop to think of how they’d see themselves after reading the article? I doubt it.
Show your work
Like all of the sciences, ethnographic studies meticulously detail their methodologies and references. An ethnographer would lay out why they selected their field site, chose informants, and cite any other studies that influenced their approach. Journalism should be no different.
If we want people to trust our work, we need to show the receipts. Why we chose this story over that one, how we found the right sources to interview, who else has covered this topic and what we added that was new. Think like a scientist; tell what you know, what you don’t and why you do what you do.
If you are interested in learning more about my ongoing ethnographic research into the relationship between news, disinformation and news consumers, or want to be notified when the final report is published, visit projectdisconnect.org.