NARRATOR: Reporters who want to find out what's happening in a community need a place to start.
One good entry point is a so-called "third place," a location where people gather and often talk about things that are important to them.
Churches and community centers are third places that journalists may already know about.
An auto service center....or the sidewalk benches across the street are third places a reporter might overlook.
Journalists with a good ear and the right interviewing skills can join the conversation and tap the thinking of ordinary people.
They can listen for how people describe their concerns or where they are confused.
They can find new stories and enrich old ones by providing local context and perspective.
At a diner, reporters can get a cup of coffee and a list of local problems to go.
In the gym, they can break a sweat and, perhaps, get a tip to break a story.
At a basketball court or a neighborhood bar.
A bus stop or a bingo hall.
The farmers market or a neighborhood park.
There are readers and viewers who are talking to each other and could be talking to journalists, too.
(MUSIC AND PRODUCTION OPEN)
THIRD PLACES: Other Voices, Different Stories
RICHARD HARWOOD, PRESIDENT, THE HARWOOD INSTITUTE: This is what we call a third place. I think what you hear here are natural conversations that people are having. Where they're really exploring what they think about something, how they feel about it, what they believe the truth is.
NARRATOR: Richard Harwood is a sort of civic life detective who often begins his cases at third places like the Tastee Diner in Bethesda, Maryland.
With his help, we're going to demonstrate how journalists can use third places to:
Journalists should try to go beyond the "usual suspects" in reporting their stories.
- Find the news in communities reporters may have had difficulty accessing... [ACCESS NEW COMMUNITIES]
- Build the skills to tap into the conversations of people journalists don't know and develop them as sources... [TAP NEW SOURCES]
- And find new voices and information that will improve coverage. [IMPROVE COVERAGE]
Third places are places where they can find some new views to augment what official sources tell them.
RICHARD HARWOOD: We have reflexes that tell us to run to our Rolodex when a story comes about and to go to the people we've seen before or heard before because a) we know they'll answer our call; b) we know they'll be articulate; c) we know they're going to have a quote, position; d) we know they're probably going to be able to back it up with facts.
Well, you may need people like that in your story. But that's a definition of knowledge that does not fit with the knowledge that we know exists within a society.
If you come here, before you get too far down the track with your story, you'll find out that, in fact, the story you're pursuing is not the story at all that's on people's minds.
Or you might find out, better yet, that how the planners talk about this community and how folks who live in this community, they talk in fundamentally different ways. Not that one's right or wrong. But that they talk in different ways.
That has all sorts of implications for how you decide to frame your story. For what we would call what kind of fence you're going to put around the story. What's really going to be in it? What its focus is going to be?
About the kinds of voices you need in your story, who can speak with authority about the points that need to be made.
If you want to write about a planning story, well, a lot of times the planners can speak with authority.
If you want to talk about the kind of community people hope to have here, sure planners can add to it. But I would say these folks sitting around this booth, this counter, can speak with the greatest authority about what kind of community they want.
That's why if you're sitting in here it gives you all sorts of new possibilities for writing a story, not from a marketing point of view, but from a point of view of what is meaningful to this community.
NARRATOR: To find some third places, journalists need only to keep their eyes open.
Politicians often know where they are and reporters may spend time at several every week without even noticing.
RICHARD HARWOOD: It would be easy for a reporter to just zip by here going to his or her destination.
But what happens, actually, if you just keep going down here you find something that is a kind of third place that actually we don't see that much of any more in America, which they've created here. It's right outside this bookstore.
On weekends and at night, this place is just teeming with people. And you've got a good mix of folks.
You'll see people sitting around and -- just like in the Tastee Diner -- where we were, you'll see people who don't know each other starting to talk to each other because they're in such close proximity.
NARRATOR: While some third places, like the Tastee Diner, are available most hours of the day, others, like the bookstore plaza, may not be.
For example, this is what the plaza looked like at 10 a.m.
And this is what it was like nine hours later, at 7 p.m.
So, as a journalist, when you look can be as important as where you look.
RICHARD HARWOOD: Now this neighborhood's interesting because this is the quintessential neighborhood that a lot of journalists tell us they have very difficult times tapping into. It's largely suburban. During the day there's not much happening here. These are mostly homes where both parents work. Their kids are usually off to school.
Now if you come here after 5 o'clock you'll see this place filled with kids and you'll see lots of people on their lawns talking to each other and people gathering here. And that would be one of the ways that you would learn about this neighborhood. You would find out, just by driving around at first, where people hang out.
KEN KOEHN, GOVERNMENT REPORTER, TAMPA TRIBUNE: You get out, you find some people working on their yards. Stop your car.
NARRATOR: Ken Koehn, a government reporter at the Tampa Tribune, had to overcome a natural reluctance to engage strangers in conversation when he began to explore a community targeted for redevelopment.
KEN KOEHN: Tell them who you are, that you're covering the neighborhood and you'd just like to meet them, get their phone number, talk to them sometime. You know, sit on the porch, have a glass of ice tea, or whatever. And it's easier, the more you do it, the easier it gets.
RICHARD HARWOOD: Now if a journalist wanted to come talk to some folks here about the economy or about schooling, they face a special challenge.
This space that people create here is their space. It's not the journalist's space, it's not some kind of public space at a baseball game. This is their space.
So if I were a journalist or working with a journalist, what I would suggest to them, in coming to spaces like this, is that you have to understand really clearly what the norms of this space are.
And to do that, you're going to have to sort of gently go into that space but not do much.
- [NO NOTEBOOKS] Don't go into your notebook and start taking notes because people are already suspicious enough of journalists.
- [NO BIG QUESTIONS] Don't start asking questions like: "What do you think about what the president said last night in the state of the union?"
- [GO WITH THE FLOW] Get into the flow of their conversation so that they know that you know what their conversation is really all about.
At some point, maybe not even the first time, but the second time, you might start to ask questions when someone brings up a related topic like about the economy.
- [EASE INTO ISSUES] I think at that point you can ease people into a conversation about economic issues or growth issues in this community or education issues. But you, again, have to be careful.
- [AVOID RAPID-FIRE QUESTIONS] The rapid-fire journalist questions will not work in this kind of environment. It will shut people down. Nor will any kind of...if people start to disagree or if people will say something that doesn't quite jibe with what the journalist knows...
- [DON'T PLAY "GOTCHYA"]... playing "gotchya" will surely push people away from the conversation.
NARRATOR: Reporter Koehn has found that people are more forthcoming when he talks to them in person instead of on the telephone.
KEN KOEHN: They're a lot more trusting. If you've taken the time to meet them where they live, they're a little more at ease on their own turf. A faceless person on the phone, there's suspicion. How many times are you at dinner and the salesman calls at dinner and you're going, "Ah...," and you hang up the phone.
Well, I think that instinct is there with reporters but not so much if you're dealing with them on a human level and you're eye to eye, you're expressing genuine interest in what their concerns are and you don't come to them with your agenda. Some of those barriers fall, I think. It's hard to persuade reporters of that, but it's true.
DAN CHAPMAN, GOVERNMENT REPORTER, THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVER: I just go and plop down in a barbershop for a couple of hours, and once you make the acquaintance and get on good terms with the barber, well, he'll introduce you to everybody else who's in the shop and you just sit there largely as a sponge, a fly on the wall, whatever sort of clich? you want to use and you take it all in.
NARRATOR: In the days before a municipal election, Charlotte Observer reporter Dan Chapman left his desk at city hall and walked through parts of a half dozen city council districts. He learned that broad themes being discussed by the candidates grew from a variety of very real and very specific problems.
DAN CHAPMAN: It's not hard to find out what's on people's minds. Everybody's worried about crime. Everybody's worried about schools but then, again getting beneath the surface you find out, well, you know, maybe my issue over here is I don't like that convenience store because that's where a lot of bums and drug addicts hang out and I don't think they should be selling 40 ounce beers and those little glass vials that can be turned into crack pipes. We perhaps may not have known that unless we spent time, and I did spend time, in stores like that talking to people.
Or the issues become much more local, obviously. Yes, traffic in general is bad, yes, I'm tired of driving 45 minutes to get 10 miles to downtown to work. Well, why is that? Well, maybe it's because at that intersection there the lights aren't working. So you really, you do indeed have the time to peel it back, peel back the skin and just really find out why, as opposed to what, why these things are problems.
NARRATOR: Breaking down big issues into small problems makes them easier to understand and, ultimately, to get fixed.
DAN CHAPMAN: Our role is not to solve things. Our role is to shine a light on these things. And so when you say, for example, at this such and such intersection, here's the problem, hopefully the candidates for that office will go, "Yah, I heard that from somebody else too. And if a lot of people are saying that, maybe that is indeed something I need to look at."
NARRATOR: When Chapman's editor, Steve Gunn, thinks about ways to check the public's pulse, he thinks about the quarter of a million computer owners in the Charlotte area.
STEVE GUNN, METRO EDITOR, THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVER: Clearly when people talk about. "Oh, we need listening posts in the community and we need this and that," the fact is that 250,000 listening posts have been installed in Mecklenberg County.
NARRATOR: Gunn believes the Internet may be he ultimate "third place" by offering journalists an efficient way to dip into vast streams of community thought.
STEVE GUNN: There's a big school desegregation case here. We put a forum up just letting people vent or talk about the decision the day it came out. I was amazed. We have literally 150 pages of forum comments by people who wanted to talk about the case. It was genuine debate over where kids should go to school. And it really was remarkable.
NARRATOR: Gunn has found that people are more cogent and candid in their e-mail than they are on the telephone. Not only is the e-mail more pertinent, there's a lot more of it.
STEVE GUNN: We get, probably on average, unsolicited, one or two good story ideas a day, legitimate, great journalism type things from our internet general story idea account on our web site.
NARRATOR: Whether reporters are on line...or in a line at the coffee shop...listening to what people have to say about their world can help make stories better.
KEN KOEHN: When you get out and just meet people without a preconceived story and say, "Hey, I just want to talk to you," it's amazing the complex conversations you can get into. They discuss issues more openly, they're not as suspicious of you because they feel like you're calling them up just for a quote when that's exactly what you're doing, and your stories just, they ring more true. They sound authentic because they are.
TRANSCRIPT: TAPE 1
Interviewing: New Questions, Better Stories >>
TRANSCRIPT: The Robert Lane Interviews >>
TRANSCRIPT: TAPE 2
Framing a Story: What's It Really About? >>
TRANSCRIPT: TAPE 3
Finding Third Places: Other Voices, Different Stories >>
TRANSCRIPT: TAPE 4
Tapping Your Community: What Don't You Know? >>
Order Form and Table of Contents >>