When I lost my job at The Compass Experiment in March of last year, I will admit I was a bit lost. I hadn’t really planned what was going to come next. I already had my dream job! I was at a bit of a “now, what?” point.
For several months, I worked independently on a full-time basis, picking up a variety of rewarding projects ranging from freelance story editing to news production, product research and competitive analyses for a variety of companies and products. I worked on some very cool projects and teams, but I will admit I missed really being part of a team, not just a frequent guest star.
At the time, one of my many side projects was serving on the advisory board for Factal, a breaking news platform serving some of the world’s largest companies and NGOs. I had been a fan of Cory Bergman and the team’s work since their Breaking News days and was eager to do what I could to help them grow their business. It helped I had a little bit of experience in running a social media news-gathering business from my time at Storyful, so their mission was near and dear to my heart.
I was a bit taken aback when Cory suggested I consider applying to be Factal’s first Head of Product, I didn’t think I had the right experience. I quickly discovered the work that the job required was all stuff I’d done before in one way or another in my journalism life.
Talking with users (directly or via the conversations of Factal’s talented member success team) was an old hat to me as a local news GM.
My job required me to pore over event reviews and feedback from readers, members and funders of all sorts to figure out the next steps. Prioritizing which new features we’d want to build into future editions of our various apps and platforms was also familiar.
Any manager with limited resources has to learn how to sort the needs of audiences, staff and sponsors/advertisers into “must-haves” and “would be nice somedays” – and walk the fine line of explaining those choices to the stakeholders.
Since I started in August, I’ve been learning so much from the team, who are some of the smartest people I’ve ever met.
I would have thought my years of customer service in retail, fast food and newsrooms taught me how to get good feedback and insights from customers. But no! Sitting in on meetings between Factal’s member success team and clients (or prospective clients) was a master class in drawing out and shaping feedback into actionable proposals and tasks for the product team to take on.
I remind myself daily to try to avoid feeling the biggest dummy in the room when working with Factal’s developer team, who do all of the actual hard work in making our products work.
I have to sometimes remind myself to keep out of the news team’s Slack exchanges, as their work is what is most familiar to me. I tell myself, “You have a different job now, they’re doing fine!”
(More than fine, actually)
The part of me that loves organizing information is reveling in learning to use ProductBoard. This is where we distill all of the incoming information into actionable steps for improving our product and business.
My husband and many former colleagues can tell you how much I love to make lists of upcoming priorities to check off. Now I can finally put that habit to good use in setting out the order of the next tasks the developers need to complete to continue keeping staff and clients happy.
I’m also learning so much from Factal’s founding team of Cory, Charlie Tillinghast and Ben Tesch. They each bring so much to the table in terms of experience and vision.
I’ll admit that some days I really miss working on the news. I’m thankful to feel like I’m growing my skills and still making vital news and information available to those who need it.
These last few months, I have been talking with my friends who work in product development – especially those with similar backgrounds – to learn how they made the transition. I want to learn how they structure their teams, plan future projects and schedule their time. If you have insights or tips of your own to share, please let me know in the comments, via social media or the contact form. I’m all ears!
I’m calling it now: Working from home is here to stay.
I suppose it is my experience in working remotely that leads many of my friends and former colleagues to ask me for advice on how they should adapt to that WFH life. They were forced into it by a pandemic — but I chose it.
In the pandemic, we all had to find a way to work effectively outside the office. Now I suspect many will be lobbying to keep working from home, even for just a few days a week.
The Nieman Lab published my prediction for the future of journalism in 2022 and it is a shocker: I surmised the future of journalism is going to remain remote.
To help others who are still transitioning into this life, I shared my lessons learned and tips for working from home more effectively, so go check them out there.
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.
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.
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.
I’ve spent the better part of my career focused on people who live in the internet. Some of them were everyday eyewitnesses who happened to share newsworthy photos or videos. Others were not so everyday – they were trolls, bots or, worse, architects and foot soldiers of disinformation campaigns.
How might news organizations fight misinformation by learning from the people who believe it and share it?
While I still care very much about disinformation,I’m not particularly interested in giving its perpetrators more of my time. Instead, I want to better understand those at the receiving end of these campaigns – the regular people who happen to get caught up in spreading false stories – and what we in media can learn from their experiences.
I came to Stanford because of an interest in design thinking and using that approach to help solve problems within the information system. If you aren’t familiar with the design thinking approach, it is best illustrated as follows:
For the next five months, I intend to focus on the first two aspects of this process, empathizing and defining.
In this study approach, I will be meeting consumers of disinformation where they are – in their homes and communities – to better understand their media habits, their motivations and the struggles they face in trying to find out what is going on in the world. My end goal is to identify common pain points and useful insights from these case studies that can be shared with local newsrooms around the country, in hopes we can work together to find paths to improve audience reach and engagement.
I have discussed this research project with many journalists. About half of those – mostly newsroom executive types – said “I already know why” and proceeded to tell me about the assumed political affiliations, intelligence level and nefarious intentions of this audience.
One newsroom executive at a large news company that covers middle America told me, “I’ll save you the time, it is because they don’t care about the truth.”
That reaction is precisely why I feel this study is important. Journalists, especially news executives, think they have all of the answers as to why a huge swath of their former audience has turned away from the news. If they actually had any of these insights, or made an effort to critically evaluate this group and ask them questions, they might find they actually didn’t know the problem in the first place (let alone the solutions). Assuming we already know all we need to know about the audience and THEY are the problem is pretty much why the journalism industry is in such dire straits.
But on to the next steps:
Right now, I am identifying six to eight broad user types (in design thinking parlance, they are called “extreme users”) within the US to help focus my study. Most people who share false news stories are not activists, trolls, politics junkies or meme creators, but those sort of users in the disinformation ecosystem are well placed to help us identify the needs of a wider population. These users will not be representative of any one group or demographic, but rather, they are case studies focused on the individual and their worldview.
Exactly how I’ll identify my “test subjects” is still in the works, but will largely involve finding individuals who have followed particular sharing patterns on Facebook associated with one of the user types. From there, it’s on me to convince them to participate in the study. This winter, I will go into the field to meet my case study subjects face-to-face, ideally at their homes, to observe their environments and empathetically interview them to better uncover their tension points, media habits and more.
Right now, I’m learning in my d.school classes a bit more about this stage of the process. I’ve found that while I’ve spent my career in journalism, interviewing people from a design thinking approach is very different from doing so as a journalist. We have to keep questions open and without judgement, to observe more than just hear responses and to lean into discomfort and tension instead of away. We have to leave our humanity at the door, to some extent, to record real insights.
The plan right now is for me to have these interviews done by early spring so I can transcribe them, pull out insights, note surprises and identify problem areas for the users, with the hope there will be some commonality between user types. I will then compile those findings into a very basic report, along with case studies on the (not identified) users, to share with newsrooms, who are best placed to take this work into the next stages of ideation, prototyping and testing with their own audiences. Fingers crossed I can get everything done in time.
So what do I need?
For one, I’d love to find partners and collaborators in this endeavor. If you have ideas or feedback for my potential extreme users, identifying text subjects and or best practices in the field research – let me know.
Also, I’ll eventually need some funding. I will be traveling in person to conduct this study in six to eight different locations around the US, which will involve flights, rental cars and likely a few nights in various shady roadside motels. I’ll also want to prove a small payment to my test subjects for their time, as they would expect in any other research study.
If you have feedback, questions, ideas or money you want to toss my way for this project, let me know. This is my first time ever really conducting a research study, so I have a lot to learn, and I’d love for all of you to join me for the ride.