This is a version of a talk I gave this morning at the Green Shoots in Journalism Education event at the Reynolds Journalism Institute.
Appropriately, a lot of what we teach in journalism school is about the craft of gathering information and telling stories.
But too often missing is a discussion of who it’s all for.
- Who wants it?
- Who is it helping?
- Who will seek it out?
- Who will pay for it?
- Who gets to decide what “good journalism” is?
If we want a future full of relevant, well-funded journalism, we have to be teaching students to ask those questions.
We can’t work in a vacuum, publish, then pat ourselves on the back and move on to the next story. We need a plan to:
- aggressively reflect a community’s priorities and voices
- identify the audience for what we do
- invest in bringing audience and content together
- track what works so we can continually experiment and improve
My Participatory Journalism class makes up my staff at the Columbia Missourian newspaper. And our task as the paper’s community outreach team is to ask and answer those questions on behalf of our product and our newsroom. We work to infuse audience-focused philosophies into our newsroom’s processes and products.
What I’d love to see is a journalism curriculum that infuses this focus on audience into all our classes. I’d like there to be no need for a Participatory Journalism class or a community outreach team. We all need to focus on making journalism that the audience wants and finding the audience for the journalism we think is important.
Here’s an example of what that looked like for a package of stories that my newsroom published a couple of weeks ago.
I kicked off this semester’s Participatory Journalism class with a new reading — a blog post that has become like a mental ear worm for me. I keep chewing on it and getting more from it.
Scott Rosenberg published an insightful story last month called Doing is knowing: “Sweet Jane” and the Web. It’s a wonderful reflection on how a participatory culture and digital innovation have opened up possibilities of creation, not just consumption, to the masses. Plus, Lou Reed is awesome.
From the post:
“But I’ve learned what musicians have always known: Playing a song changes your understanding of it. Playing music changes how you listen to it. Doing changes knowing.”
I’d love to hear thoughts from others about how this might relate to their own lives and work. In my class, we talked about the differences between “Sweet Jane” YouTube tutorials that had thousands of views versus dozens. We talked about the rise of Let’s Play videos on YouTube, and how my 11-year-old son watches them but also wants to record himself playing Minecraft and share that video with others. We talked about the ways we invite readers of our news product to contribute, and what might motivate them to do that.
I suspect I’ll keep this music theme going throughout the semester.
One more excerpt, then go read the thing yourself:
Millions of people today have the chance to feel what it’s like to make media — to create texts or images or recordings or videos to be consumed by other people they may or may not know. Whether they are skilled at doing this is as beside the point as whether or not I can play “Sweet Jane” well. What matters about all this media-making is that they are doing it, and in the doing, they are able to understand so much more about how it works and what it means and how tough it is to do right — to say exactly what you mean, to be fair to people, to be heard and to be understood. If you find this exciting, and I do, it is not because you are getting some fresh tickets to the fame lottery; that’s the same game it’s always been. It’s because we are all getting a chance to tinker with and fathom the entire system that surrounds fame — and that shapes the news and entertainment we consume every day.
I’m not usually shy about sharing my personal data. When it comes to where I am, where I’ve been or where I’m going — on the Internet or in person — I’m typically okay with sharing it, as long as I have a say over who in my network gets to see it.
I’m much pickier about which friend requests I accept for tools that display my physical location, for example, than I am for other social networks. But in general, I’m not creeped out by select people knowing where I am. Location tools have come in handy so many times to meet up with people I otherwise would have missed seeing (as in, “Hey, you’re there? I’m right around the corner!).
But something totally odd happened to me last week. For what might be the first time, a location-sharing tool felt sort of intrusive.
How do we know if the information we’re providing is having an impact? How do we know if our efforts are worth it? If our plan is “working“?
Those questions don’t come up much if your ultimate business success can be easily quantified (dollars, users, sales, reach, etc.). But what if your goals aren’t so easily measured?
In a web analytics training earlier this year, I was the only person in the room who didn’t have a clearcut goal for my website. Everyone else had a page that all other pages were driving users to — a “thank you for purchasing” or “thank you for confirming your subscription” type page. Journalists tend to just want more of all of it — more views, more new users, more return users, more time.
And what about all the offline work we do?
I’ve been doing a lot of work recently on measuring the impact of mission-driven information. A lot of that work has been with journalists, but some of it has been targeted more generally to nonprofits. A few months ago, I brainstormed a whole host of possible metrics, and I figured I’d go ahead and share that list here.
Here are a few things to think about before diving in:
- Think through the story of your work from beginning to end. What do you hope will happen? You have to be clear on your goals before the metrics will make much sense.
- Look for correlation, not just causation. Metrics are imperfect, and cause and effect aren’t always neat and tidy.
- Focus on metrics that will help you solve problems or be more efficient. You could measure many more things that will actually be useful, and your time could be consumed in measurement that won’t actually make you better at your job.
I hope this list helps some folks think through what can be measured. I also hope it doesn’t feel overwhelming. A lot of this likely won’t help you measure the work you’re doing, so don’t consider it to be prescriptive. But if you get a few ideas, and someone else gets a few other ideas, I’ll be happy.
I’m delivering a webinar for the Knight Digital Media Center next week, and I wrote this blog post introducing it. It was originally published by KDMC.
If you sell shoes for a living, you have a clear metric for success: How are my sales, and are they enough to keep me in business? When you do or fund mission-driven work, the metrics are much less obvious, but it’s still natural to crave them. If you think your work is making a difference, it’s important on many levels to have evidence that you’re right.
But when your primary goal is not something concrete like dollars made or products created, how do you know if what you’re doing is “working?”
One good plan of action is to define what “working” means to you, find some metrics you can attach to those, then commit to the time it will take to track those metrics.
As a preview, let’s look at each of those three steps individually.
1. Set goals.The important first step is defining what you hope will happen as the result of your work. If this is hard for you, roll around in it for awhile and get comfortable, because you can’t move on unless you get really specific here. Do you hope people will get more involved with your organization? Take action on an issue? Attend an event? Or how about this one: Learn? Often, one core goal is raising awareness. Think about those days you leave work feeling really satisfied. What has likely happened? What drives you and your organization? What is success?
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Next week is How To Get A Job week in my Participatory Journalism class.
If you’re a journalism student or other interested Columbia-area party, you’re welcome to join us. We’ll be in 101A Lee Hills Hall from 12-1:15 Monday and Wednesday.
I’ll go over the basics of resumes, cover letters, interviews, etc. But those aren’t the most important lessons. Most important is how to tell the story of yourself. What’s your personal narrative as a journalist and potential employee? What do you want people to really know about you? Think about the intangible things that make someone a great coworker, boss or new hire. It likely matters more that you fearlessly dive into new technology than it does that you learned how to edit video. It might matter more that you challenge the people around you to do their best work than it does that you’ve covered a specific beat.
Let your resume do the listing of skills. Make sure you know how to sell yourself. Students in my class will practice selling themselves on video. See some previous students’ contributions in this post about learning to market yourself.
Other blog posts and links about job hunting:
I just watched this archived talk from September 2013 from Ethan Zuckerman, director of MIT’s center for Civic Media.
Zuckerman is smart about a lot of things. Today, I especially enjoyed the last section of this 15-minute talk, when he talks about:
- news judgment and accompanying responsibilities
- encouraging the right kind of civic action
- reaching a new generation of media consumers with impact-oriented messages
What we can’t keep doing is building news that is disconnected from peoples’ ability to have an impact. We can’t continue to say, “We’re going to put this information out here, you’re going to be an informed citizen, and then something will happen and it’s all going to work out from there.”