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Andrew Donohue: How to redesign the beat for engagement, impact, and accountability

The former editor of Voice of San Diego, now a Knight Fellow at Stanford, wants to rethink how journalists think about and find stories in the community.

We wanted to cover city council elections at Voice of San Diego. But not like they’d always been done: Talk to the candidates. Print up what they had to say. Wait for a debate to happen or a campaign finance report to be filed.

Instead of going to the candidates and talking to them about their agendas, we flipped it. We made a public call: We’re coming to your neighborhood. Show us what needs fixing. We then sent a reporter into each district for one week. The reporters did ride-alongs with locals, quizzed residents, and found out what city-level issues mattered to them.

People loved it. They drove us all around their communities to point out the tangible problems that needed fixing.

We wrote about those community needs. Then, we took that residents’ agenda back to the candidates and asked what they would do to address it.

The approach sparked a series of revelations that have reshaped how I look at the fundamental choices we make as journalists. It turns out our coverage for years had been focused on things that didn’t seem to matter all that much to even active San Diego residents. However well intentioned and important we felt our coverage of issues like a pension crisis, a convention center expansion, and a new Chargers stadium were, residents never once mentioned them as top priorities.

What did matter to residents? Things like transit, infrastructure, parks, and development. A promised bus route that never came. A park that never got built. A broken drain that’d become a rubbage dump.

Perhaps that’s all obvious, but damn it was powerful. People loved it. They drove us all around their communities to point out the tangible problems that needed fixing. We immediately had a stronger connection with San Diego’s neighborhoods.

Now, those other city hall issues need scrutiny too. Otherwise the public pays the price for bad deals. And we need to uncover the problems that residents don’t even know exist. Still, our goal was to engage the highest number of San Diegans — something our donation-based business model depended on. If their needs aren’t reflected by a publication, how loyal to that publication will they ever be?

Our starting point had often been the obvious and vocal agendas — whether they were those of politicians or of interest groups like the hoteliers or the pro football team. There was an agenda we’d been missing.

Recently, we’ve seen wonderfully civic-minded calls for increased attention by the media to a citizens agenda and to solutions journalism. Those calls, and my city council anecdote, highlight a problem with our current structure of how we as journalists often do and see stories: It’s one-dimensional. We tell the story we find.

There’s a step before and a step after the traditional story, however, that could add important dimensions to our work at a time when the users, and not advertisers, are increasingly being asked to pay for a larger share of public-service journalism by both nonprofit and for-profit organizations.

Here’s how it could work, in three clearly marked stages.

Step 1: Finding the needs and the story

As we did with the city council coverage, throw the story open and begin a public, documented exploration of the community’s needs. Then decide on what story should be the top priority. Attack it.

Step 2: The traditional story or series

This is the step that already exists. No need to explain any further.

Step 3: Push for fixes

When the story’s done, you begin with a new mandate. If no clear answers exist, create them. Release a five-step plan for how they get fixed. Become a part of the resolution.

Keep in mind: This won’t work for every beat or investigation. Maybe not even most. But I think it can work for many — especially local stories.

Here’s some more meat on steps 1 and 3.

Step 1: A public need-finding journey

Let’s say, for the sake of illustration, we’ve decided to dedicate a reporter to public-service journalism on neighborhood development in San Diego.

We throw it open to the public: We want to investigate neighborhood development in San Diego. What are the biggest city-level issues impacting you? What are your community’s biggest needs? The reporter then embeds in neighborhoods across the city to spend time with residents.

We host simple meetups or open-mic nights in each neighborhood. We run design thinking bootcamps to get residents in each community to go out and find their neighbor’s needs and engineer solutions.

Then there’s the old-fashioned way: comments and emails, coffees and lunches with sources. Everyone you meet and interact with gets put in a simple database so they can be pinged to contribute as the endeavor unfolds, creating a powerful and engaged crowd.

The site (now on hiatus) offers another twist. There, residents submit documents, photos, and videos on a neighborhood problem they have and invite their circles to contribute to the file. Then editors decide whether to put a reporter on the story.

This isn’t just beat-building though. It’s content. It’s a series of dispatches from the neighborhoods detailing the biggest needs in the community. You can highlight what’s working, and what issues are universal across all neighborhoods. They become a living part of a news organization’s website, a list that can be updated and checked off as progress gets made. Or, even better, it is the news organization’s website — a small staff running a story-specific platform dedicated solely to this storyline, à la Syria Deeply.)

Public journalism has been done with success in the past. And now it’s urgent. We need residents to pay directly for public service journalism, either through nonprofit donations or subscriptions. They’re going to be more likely to contribute if they see you in your community working on the things most tangible to them.

After the reporter has catalogued the community’s needs, it’s time to chose a big wicked problem to dive deep into and investigate.

Step 3: Pushing for fixes

Come on, let’s admit it: We all want our big stories to spark change. We’re excited as hell when they do and mad as hell when they don’t. We’re just not that honest about it publicly. We often drop a big story and then just wait for people to react. Hope a politician calls for an audit. Hope that an advocate issues a scathing press release. Hope, in our heart of hearts, that a district attorney launches an investigation.

I know I’ve often finished a story and secretly hoped someone would call me and ask me what to do next. I know reporters who’ve wanted to write unsigned editorials laying out where to go next after their big story.

Isn’t there a way we can avoid becoming political but stay true to the spirit of this story that we’ve decided is terribly important? We know the issue well. We’ve earned authority.

Let’s focus on detailing or even crafting potential resolutions. Let’s offer clear examples of fixes or systems that have worked elsewhere. But go beyond that: Let’s put on the pressure. After all, many of us don’t have that editorial board lurking behind us like we did at newspapers, waiting to pounce on our stories and push for change.

If you don’t know what the fix is, then that means there’s more reporting to be done. Who should specifically be held to account? Is it incompetence, or corruption, or just a lack of priorities? We can’t just drop problems off at the community’s doorstep and run away.

You could lead a problem-solving team. You could convene a group of people of very different backgrounds and design a fix. And what if there’s an expiration date? You have a start, a middle and an end — like a documentary. Throughout, there’d be explainers to help people who haven’t been following along since the start catch-up.

So let’s say you just have two years to tackle all these wicked problems. At the end of two years, you can detail all the change. But what if you haven’t gotten any change? Imagine the reckoning we’d have to do as journalists if we had a deadline for our reporting to impact change and that change hadn’t happened.

I’ve spent a lot of time on some stories that didn’t do much of anything. What if I’d been forced at the end to acknowledge that and diagnose why? First, I’d be forced to explain to users why city hall didn’t do anything. Second, it could be a great accountability mechanism for me too. Why did all this time you spent on this story lead to nothing? What did you do wrong?

Perhaps we’d be less likely to always fall back on the softest of notions, that our reporting “increased community conversation.”

To be sure, there’d be plenty of landmines and potential problems. But we’ve rethought so much about journalism in the last few years — like the very basics of our business models and how we present and distribute our stories. Perhaps it’s time now to rethink how we go about putting those stories together.

Andrew Donohue is a John S. Knight fellow at Stanford University and former editor of Voice of San Diego.

Photo by Niclas used under a Creative Commons license.

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  • AW

    I really like Step 3,. In my experience, reporters are often hugely reluctant to take it on, for a variety of reasons. The top two: 1. They’re afraid of being perceived as advocates. 2. The skills that make you good at digging up an reporting a single story do not necessarily make you good at follow-through.

  • Nom de plume du jour

    Where is this being tried? Or could an entity from the outside do it, by asking journalists to “sign up”?

  • Andrew Donohue

    For step 1, Voice of San Diego continues to do this in a couple of different ways. It’s using the election-coverage model mentioned above and also doing what’s called “The Quest” — starting off with big open public question and trying to figure it out. For step 3, California Watch is paying particular attention to impact and follow up. See its Broken Shield investigation for more.

    I’ve also submitted a proposal to the Knight News Challenge to try the full three steps out.