This is an overview of tools and techniques that we've been building to connect better with readers.
We've been working on refining at least three different tools in the toolbox.
1) Civic Mapping - a systematic way to diversity our news reports and our Rolodexes by tapping into our community differently.
2) Coverage of Master Narratives - deep-seated, trends or franchise issues in our communities that can easily be lost in coverage of breaking news.
3) Civic Journalism - building an interactive journalism that really engages the community.
Our communities are changing rapidly. The geography is changing, the demographics are changing, and the appetite for using new technologies is changing.
The census is clearly painting a picture of a new, much more diverse America. In addition, Gen Y -- the kids born between 1978 and 1995, between 6 and 24 years old - will, in this decade, become the largest generation on US history. By majority, it will be a non-white generation. Technologically, this is a generation raised with a computer mouse in one hand and a Nintendo controller or a GameBoy in the other.
And the geography of journalism is very different. In a recent poll by the Pew Center. a solid one-third of the editors responding said they are now covering more towns and more school districts than they covered only 10 years ago. If they have more staffers to do it, it's only about four more.
We need to build some new journalism models to adapt to these and other changes. A New Media for a New America, if you will. One that is not just a watchdog, and certainly not only an attack dog. But a journalism that can be a guide dog as well. A journalism that reflects people's desire to be part of something - a community, a special interest group, a demographic or ethnic slice of America.
We need to build it with a new, and much more interactive, toolbox - one that has some new journalistic conventions. We need:
- New definitions of news - news that starts from the bottom up, not the top down.
- New ways to diversity our Rolodex and our news reports.
- New interactions with the community.
- New ways to involve the public.
- New ways to use technology.
One way to change the journalistic conventions is to try to change some everyday reflexes in the newsroom.
Those reflexes are very strong. Often, we:
- Go to the Rolodex Commandos who we can count on for a good, crisp and fast quote.
- Find the two, and often only two, main sides of the story - the conflict.
- Listen quickly until we get the quotes or soundbites we need, the building blocks for our stories. Then we're outta there and onto the next story.
- Treating people simply as the "color" or "wallpaper" for our stories.
We've been working for the past couple of years on trying to find ways to build reporters' skills so that they automatically do some things that will enrich their reporting. A big part of that effort has been what we call civic mapping, which we've done with newsroom consultant Richard Harwood and the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation. Some places do geo-mapping and crime data mapping. This is very methodical community mapping.
Considering we only introduced this idea in 1996, 15 percent of the editors we surveyed said they were now doing civic mapping.
So what is this thing called civic mapping? It's is simply a systematic way of getting to know our community, of building a database of people who know what's going on in our community. This is also a way to test our stereotypes and pre-conceived notions of parts of our community.
Harwood has developed some frameworks for doing this, based on his work in newsrooms at the Orange County Register, St. Louis Post Dispatch, Arizona Republic, Colorado Springs Gazette and the Virginian Pilot. He has also worked on the Journalism Values Institute with ASNE.
In addition, we have developed some training seminars, bringing in reporters and editors from more than 16 different newsrooms to try civic mapping and collect stories on the results.
Well, here's the nut graf: This stuff really works. Reporters come back telling us they are getting all kinds of new sources and scores of fresh story ideas. They are quite energized because they have a whole new picture of life -literally in their backyard.
Some of their stories and the strategies are in a new workbook, "Tapping Civic Life."
A lot of readers and viewers are telling us: They don't recognize themselves in our news reports anymore.
Civic mapping is one thing we can do about that. Civic mapping requires journalists to plunge a little deeper into the civic layers of our communities, beneath the official and quasi-official zone of elected officials and designated community leaders.
We are all comfortable in that public zone where we can quote officials and people with titles. But research is showing that that is only part of community life. And it contributes only a piece of our stories, and sometimes a very off-putting piece. It may be that our readers and viewers don't validate the same quote machines that we do.
The middle is a very gooey, sticky, swampy place. We journalists don't like it there. It's too messy. One of the reasons we don't like it there is because sometimes we can't get our arms around the stories even when we know they exist.
- It may be that they simply frame the issues differently than public officials do. Our stories are written from the perspective of official documents and official people.
- It may be that we are focusing on extreme points of view in our stories - the pros and cons, the two sides - when our readers and viewers are not really on either side. They see merit in both positions and they are in the middle.
- It may be that we are prisoners of journalistic conventions, so busy covering the "news" that we are missing the stories.
We have to tap that private life, I would suggest, to really report on public life.
To figure out how to do that, I want to throw out a question.
Think about this question for a minute. What is the story that you could do that would make your community squirm?
(Enter responses on easel)
Now, how many of you are doing these stories?
For the most part, they are not things that "happen." Often, nobody's fighting about them. Maybe they're not even openly talking about them.
One observation: Most of these stories are about internal tensions rather than external conflict. Does that mean they are not stories? How do we make them stories?
The tools are simple:
Life in our communities is a very rich stew. Yet journalists only skim the top. Journalists generally tap only the top two layers of civic life: The official and quasi- official realm.
- Talk to new people.
- Talk to them in new places.
- Ask different questions.
- Engage them differently.
In mapping your community, you need to find the third places, the places where people in a particular neighborhood gather and trade information. This should not be too hard. The politicians all know where these places are, and they know the value of spending time in them.
To enter, however, a journalist has to put away the notebook at first. You can be a guest but not a pest. Sniff out the norms. Ease into conversations instead of conducting interviews. Once there, you will find new types of leaders. People not just with information, but people with knowledge.
Are journalists allowed to quote people without titles? If you are an editor, you need to think about giving your reporters permission to do this.
We all know who our official leaders and many civic leaders are. But participating very actively in the life in our communities are so-called connectors and catalysts, often more important leaders for everyday folks. They are extremely useful for journalists to know.
You all know some of them. If I were to ask you who in your neighborhood you could call to find out about new plans for soccer field, for the school, for the church, I'm sure you all could think of a person.
Connectors are the civic bumblebees who move between various organizations and know what's going on. They don't hold official titles.
Catalysts are the "go-to' folks in our neighborhood. They always know how to get this done. They are respected and trusted. If they ask you to do something, you do it, simply because they asked you.
Most civic mapping starts inside the newspaper, gathering from other employees at the paper lists of people they know in a particular community. And not just the newsroom, but other departments as well.
Then you actually visit the community. Once there, you need to ask:
It's important to let people talk at their own pace, not require rapid-fire responses to the rapid-fire questions journalists like to ask. Let them talk at 33 rpm instead forcing them into the 78 rpm that journalists always expect of people.
- What are people talking about? What are the issues of concern to them?
- Where do people gather to talk about things? Go there yourself.
- Who would you talk to find out what's going on?
- Get beneath the buzzwords. Take nothing at face value:
Ask: "What did you mean by that?"
- Ask open-ended questions:
"What do you make of that?"
- Square contradictions, but not in a "gotcha" way:
"Unpack that for me..."
"You just said this and that. How do you square those?"
- Coax more explanations:
"Tell me more about that...."
- Piece together what they are saying and test it with them:
"This is what I am hearing, do I have it right?"
- Beware of stereotypes and preconceived notions.
Test them with the community: "People always say this about this part of town. What do you make of that?"
Many newspapers are putting this information on a database for other reporters to access: Key sources, issues, places in the community.
The payoff for asking different questions is new stories.
- Stories based not just on anecdotes, but on patterns.
- Stories that get at the essence of the issues instead of the superficial shouting
When you start seeing patterns, you will often end up with a better sense of the so-called "master narrative" in your community.
Usually, master narratives deal less with obvious external conflict between two different stakeholders and more about figuring out subtler internal tensions that are manifesting themselves in a wide variety of ways in communities. Less about covering the noise in our communities and more about covering the silences. Often the uncomfortable silences.
The coverage goes by other names as well: franchise issues, common themes, trend stories.
Put together, they are a body of work that pieces together and makes sense for readers the forces that are reshaping their world - the demographic, economic, social and cultural realities that would have been hard to imagine only 10 years ago:
New demographics in San Francisco or new venture capital in Northern Virginia. An influx of Hispanics in Nebraska or senior citizens in Savannah. Growth and sprawl in Denver. Rural vs. urban tensions in Idaho.
The Chronicle-Tribune in Marion, Indiana, did a conventional New Year's Day story on the first baby born. Twins. Then they found out the mother was not married to the father. It was her 2nd and 3rd birth; his 8th and 9th children. The mother was white, the father black. A reader called to complain.
It was a "moment of truth" that led the editor to a deep-seated examination of daunting problems in the community. She said they were so busy covering the "news" they were missing the story.
This project was a runner-up for the 2001 Batten Award for Excellence in Civic Journalism.
A very similar undertaking in Lawrence, Massachusetts, framed things differently. In fact, The Eagle-Tribune deliberately chose to bypass a very tired master narrative of crime, drugs and political corruption and engage the community instead in how to capitalize on the towns "unrealized assets," its natural beauties, wonderful homes, old mills.
Portland, Maine's "Deadliest Drug: Maine's Addiction to Alcohol" grew out of an astute editor noticing a pattern of alcohol-related incidents in metro briefs.
Savannah's "Aging Matters" series grew out of the realization that the community's demographic was dramatically changing.
In Idaho, the news organizations began to realize that the state's lock-em-up mindset was leading to runaway prison costs. A print-TV partnership looked at how that affected tax dollars available for higher education.
The Virginian-Pilot mined the essence of a light-rail referendum - ultimately reporting that it was, in large part, a race-relations story.
Think about master narrative coverage this way: You could cover venture capitalists. Or you can cover venture capital. If you cover venture capitalists, you follow the money. But if you cover the master narrative of venture capital, you will find yourself following changing social norms, happy-hour hangouts, commercial real estate trends, even new tech language.
So much of the new journalism we need to build is figuring out what is the biggest force, or story, at work in our communities and then putting a lot of effort into covering them.
There are three basic goals in all of this. Harwood calls them the three A's.
1) Authority. In the 1950s, people had authority by dint of position. That's no longer true in America. Authority is not something that you claim but something you earn.
To write with authority means that you know something about your community. In order to write with authority, part of what you need is people who speak with authority. Not just people with information, which is data driven, but people with knowledge.
2) Authenticity. What does that mean in a world that is so good at manufacturing authenticity?
It means we can convey a semblence of reality vs. the talk shows that convey the extremes of society. People see more coverage of the aberrations than coverage of the reality they live in.
How do we use language? Do we substitute professional language for public language because it's easier?
3) Accountability. What does it mean for a journalist to be accountable? Is it enough to spell names right?
We emphasize things we can count: Ratings. circulation, filling the airtime or news hole, on-time performance. Story count.
Now, use the word differently: How do we account for ourselves and our actions, for our biases and preconceived notions?
With civic mapping, a little bit of investment goes a long way.
Editors can give reporters what we call "beat development" or "roaming" days, where they go out in a community and just talk to people without being required to produce a story. You can get a lot of mapping down in two hours or even over lunch.
And you can accomplish some ad-hoc mapping by simply adding - at the end of your daily interviews -some open-ended questions: What else is going in here? What other issues does the paper or station need to know about? Gather some string.
The bottom line: You get better stories. Better news. And you get them first.
Reporters will say, "But we may not come back with what we need." But how do you know what you "need"?
Be mindful that much of this work has everything to do with the difference between conducting an interview and having a conversation, the difference between listening and engaging.
When you engage, you come back at a person again and again with questions:
* Why do you say that? What make you say that?
* How do you come to see that?
* Why do you feel that way?
* What do you mean by that?
If you ask a person five times, "What do you mean by that?" you will get to the rock bottom of their value system pretty quickly. That will help you find the patterns.
Here are some tips:
1) Probe icon words and labels: What does "crime" mean to you? What you you meaning by better "education?" This will help you get at the essence of the story much faster. It accelerates the interviewing process.
2) Don't strip out the emotion or people won't recognize themselves.
3) Assume that people act out of their own self-interest. This isn't a reason to invalidate what they say but to get them to broaden the context.
4) Deal with ambivalence. Most journalists are trained to listen for concrete, opinions or facts. Most ordinary people, on the other hand, live their lives torn, somewhat ambivalent.
For instance, welfare reform is not just about kicking welfare moms off a free ride. People are worried about the safety net, training and accountability.
5) Strive for coherence. A complete story delivers on the nut graf. on what you promised. Think about making your stories smaller and letting them unfold over time, noting the connections.
6) Readers and viewers don't talk about political biases, but biases of omission. Who was left out, who did you talk to, what positions did you cover?
It's a bias of choice.