Posts about social journalism

What could social journalism do for Ferguson?

It took too long, but finally the attention of American journalism turned to Ferguson. Is the crush and focus of network cameras and big-paper reporters helping Ferguson or exploiting its struggle? The answer to that is obvious; see, for example, Newtown.

The better, more constructive question is: How could journalism help the residents of Ferguson?

The rationale behind our new, proposed M.A. in Social Journalism at CUNY — the thinking behind my argument that journalism must see itself as a service — is that journalism should start by listening, not speaking. It should start with hearing the needs of a community and then and only then deciding which tools to bring to bear to help a community meet its goals and improve its lot: reporting, explanation, education, convening, connecting, organizing.

As I try to apply these notions to Ferguson, a few observations:

It is, of course, possible now to listen in so many more ways. I was struck by this tweet that pictured community talking points about Michael Brown.


When I retweeted that, a journalist objected that this is from an advocacy organization. Well, yes, of course. This group speaks for some people. The first question is: For whom does the organization speak? For whom does it not speak? What are the goals of the various communities in the town? Where are their disagreements? What in their discussion is correct? What is incorrect? What questions does the discussion raise? What information is missing? How can journalism help answer those questions? This document is a helpful starting point.

See, too, this post by a teacher in Greece advising members of a community — whether Ferguson or the Gaza Strip — how to use the tools now at their disposal to affect the conversation: don’t rely on or trust mainstream media but still cultivate them; use your own networks to distribute your own content; use Creative Commons to control use of your content in media. Now some would say that is the community as not only advocate but as flack: media manipulator. Of course. But that’s a mediacentric way to look at this. See it from the community’s perspective and it’s a statement of power: We have a voice at last.

There are more ways to listen to communities now because communities have a voice and ways to be heard. But the social journalist cannot just sit back and hear what people are saying on their blogs, in Twitter, and in their press conferences. The social journalist must also talk with the people who aren’t speaking and listen to them, asking them what their goals and needs are, what they know and don’t know and want to know and why.

When I posed my first question above — about service v. exploitation — on Twitter, I got a response from a resident of Ferguson:

But then I realized I was asking the wrong question and so I probed more:


That is telling. But the conversation is still mediacentric, not communitycentric, telling the world about Ferguson rather than serving the people of Ferguson. So I keep asking:

I asked whether reporters had asked him questions. He said no but was confident they would. Indeed, they did — though from Spain:

My conversation with Mr. McCleery never left media: telling Ferguson’s story outside Ferguson. But what about telling the stories that will help Ferguson? It’s clear that showing up on someone’s doorstep and asking them what they need — “Hello, we’re corporate and we’re here to help” — is inadequate: journalism as focus group. This is why we will teach students to understand communities as best they can before they engage. They will use the tools I’ve listed above plus data skills to do that. But that is not sufficient. They will go meet people in the community — geographic or demographic, built around interest or event — and listen before speaking. They will observe and discern the community’s goals without imposing their own. That is why we think that social journalism must bring elements of social anthropology and community organizing to the task.

But what will be hardest to teach — what is hardest for me to learn — is tamping down the journalistic reflex to start with the assumption that we know what’s needed and that our stories will meet those needs. As I watch the news in Ferguson, I can’t help but do what an editor does, imagining stories to assign: on, say, the racial composition of the town and its history and tensions, on prior cases of police brutality, on the politics of the town — who’s in charge and how does that match the composition of the community, and so on. We call that news judgment.

But the truth is, of course, I don’t know Ferguson worth a damn. I don’t know what its needs are. I am in no position to decide how best to use precious journalistic resource to help them — let alone tell their story to the world.

In classic journalistic structure, the best person to try to do these things is the beat reporter, whose first job is to learn about the constituencies she covers, whether that’s a town or an agency or a topic. This is why I am working to grow the news ecosystems of New Jersey and New York with more beats; this is why we study their businesses at CUNY; this is why we are going to give intense training in running a beat business at the school this fall.

But not every community is lucky enough to have a beat reporter dedicated to its coverage and needs. And beat reporters classically still operate as story machines because that’s all they could do and that supports the economics of their business. But now, in the age of the net and social media, there are so many more ways to not only publish (and promote) but listen, so many more ways to understand a community’s needs and meet them, so many more ways to see people as individuals and communities rather than as a mass served with a necessarily one-size-fits-all product we called news.

It’s not going to be easy to turn journalism on its head, starting with listening rather than publishing, with serving the needs of a community over telling its story to others, and with judging one’s success on the community’s terms rather than media’s (those are the terms of service Jay Rosen has been challenging me to provide in this vision of service journalism).

I don’t know what Ferguson needs. I know that the country needs to pay attention to what is happening in the town and so I’m glad that social media — that is, people using social media to report what they witness — forced Ferguson’s issues onto national media. I also know that it won’t be long before the town will get sick of that attention and of the sensationalism that will emphasize everything bad about Ferguson and nothing good: simple stories that can be told in 1:30 of time or 13″ of type. I also know that when the reporters leave Ferguson’s McDonald’s and the satellite trucks rumble off its streets, then Ferguson will be left little better off for all the journalism that occurred there. It will still have needs and goals and could use help to meet them. That is where social journalism begins.

The social journalism degree proposal

Some have asked for more detail about the MA in social journalism we are developing at CUNY. Here are major excerpts from the formal proposal that I wrote (well-edited by our dean, Sarah Bartlett). I’m sparing you sections on the facilities. The syllabi will be works in progress until we bring on the faculty to teach the courses; I’ll share those later. As ever, I am eager to hear your thoughts and questions. Link to the Google doc here; PDF here.

A degree in social journalism

I announced this on Medium; reposting here….

community centerSome big news at CUNY: We are developing a new master’s degree in social journalism. We’ve considered calling it a degree in community information and engagement. I will also argue that it is a degree in outcomes-based journalism. It is all those things. Allow me to explain.

I have been arguing for some time that journalism must shift from seeing itself primarily as a producer of content for masses to become more explicitly a service to individuals and communities. Content fills things; service accomplishes things. To provide a service with relevance and value requires knowing those you serve, and to do that requires building relationships with those people. Thus, we must learn relationship skills.

I’ve written about these ideas in the first third of a white paper on new relationships, new forms, and new business models for news that I’ve been working on for a while. (I posted that first third, on relationships, at Medium.) On a trip to California to talk with Reid Hoffman, Ev Williams, Dick Costolo, Vic Gundotra, Bradley Horowitz, and other technology leaders about the future of news, I subjected my new dean, Sarah Bartlett, to the unfinished essay so she’d be forewarned of what I’d be preaching. On the flight out, having completed everything else she had to work on and with a three-hour delay ahead and a crying baby behind, she had nothing left to do but read it. When she got off the plane, Sarah said she agreed with much of what I said. But she also asked whether we would need to find new ways to teach the new skills I’d outlined.

So she suggested a new degree to add to our core MA in journalism and entrepreneurial journalism degrees, and she sketched what it might look like. I wrote a proposal, outlining the curriculum and goals. She presented it to the faculty. My colleagues did an incredible job writing syllabi, which our curriculum committee and faculty just approved. There are more steps yet to walk in this process — seeking approval from the university and the state — before we can formally announce and recruit students. But since we are on the path, I thought it was time to put a stake in the ground and welcome a discussion regarding social journalism and what it is.

First, let me say what it is not. In a series of interesting posts, Ed Sussman has been labeling as social journalism what Forbes, Gawker, the Guardian, and others are doing in inviting contributors to write for their sites. I disagree. That idea continues to keep the focus of journalism on us, our products, our content; it’s a more open (to its credit) and less reliable (to its frequent discredit) way to feed the media beast.

No, I say that social journalism must turn the telescope around and start with the public, with the people being served. The first skill we will teach in this new program is listening to a community, hearing and discerning its needs and then thinking about how best to help it meet those needs. The answer sometimes — often — will be reporting and content. But it can also mean connecting the members of the community to each other to share information themselves. It can mean sharing data and tools rather than developing narratives. It can mean helping a community to organize itself to take action (yes, that’s community organizing). It can be education. It must be collaborative.

Social journalists will judge their success not by the old-media metrics of reach and frequency — or, translated to digital argot, of unique users and pageviews — for those measures are still about our stuff and who sees it. Though social journalism may sound like and use many of the tools of what is known as social media, I will also argue that the proper measurements of success are not likes and friends and shares and even how much time and attention we get from the public — the things we have been calling engagement — for those, too, are about engaging with us and our stuff.

Social journalists will judge their success instead by whether the public they serve and its members accomplish their goals, meet their needs, improve their lots and their communities — and whether they connect with each other to better understand each other through discussion and information. Thus I see this as the discipline of outcomes-based journalism: We take responsibility not only for making a product called news, hoping people consume it and then hoping that they and their communities are better for it. That’s all we could do before, in print and broadcast. Now, online, we have new tools and new means to hear the public, to serve the public, and to measure our impact and value. There lies the essence of social journalism.

So, yes, it’s social but it’s not just about social media. Yes, it’s about engagement but not engagement with us but instead about a community’s engagement with its own work. It’s about results, outcomes, impact.

To teach these skills, we are proposing a three-term, year-long program with:
* two journalism courses — one on identifying, meeting, and listening to communities, the next on presenting information to and helping inform a community;
* two listening courses — the first helping students to interact with and learn from diverse communities, the second about the ethics (and legalities) of working with and serving a community;
* two data courses — about using data as a means to listen to and learn about a community, to gather information with and from a community, to present information to a community, and to measure the impact of working with a community;
* two tools courses — understanding how best to use the many platforms communities use and will use to connect and share, and also learning how to work with technologists to adapt tools to help communities;
* intense business training (a subset of beat-business training we are offering this summer at CUNY — more on that shortly); and
* an intense practicum serving a community of the student’s choice, working to meet goals of the community’s definition.

We will bring in teachers with various skills to work with students — journalists, of course, and also data specialists and community organizers and social anthropologists and more.

If approved, this new degree will be taught alongside CUNY’s MA in journalism and MA and certificate in entrepreneurial journalism. Each will attract distinct cohorts of students seeking a variety of jobs (note that the Center for Investigative Reporting depends on six engagement editors and Al Jazeera’s new AJ Plus is hiring 13 people of that description) or starting their own ventures. We have talked with many leaders in the field and they have convinced us there is a need and demand for this program and its graduates. Each of our degree programs will have a positive impact on the others, bringing new skills and perspectives to the school and adding courses and options for all the students. At CUNY, we pride ourselves on being a startup still, on learning as we go and adapting our curriculum to new needs and opportunities. This new program is also part of that process.

We are operating on what passes — in our field — for a fast track. If we pass all our tests, we hope to offer the new degree in 2015 (we haven’t decided yet exactly when). Between now and then — and here is the reason I am writing this — I would like to hear your suggestions and questions about what and how we should teach. We’ve received very helpful reaction from our school’s board of advisers and other friends. On that trip to the Bay Area, Sarah and I discussed our idea with most everyone we met and met in turn with gratifying enthusiasm.

Indeed, I am honored to tell you that Reid Hoffman — who has given me very useful advice about the entrepreneurial journalism program since its inception — is generously seeding the development of the new degree. And we just learned that the Knight Foundation — the preeminent funder for journalism in America — will match Reid’s gift. Thank you, both.

We will be raising additional money to fund scholarships, research on engagement and impact, and events bringing together researchers and practitioners from various fields to discuss social journalism and engagement under the auspices of the Tow-Knight Center.

Just when I thought things were starting to settle down in our eight-year startup of a journalism school…..