Journalism as relationship building

“By reaching out with targeted calls for information and keeping the conversation going, these journalists created stories that were deeply informed by their audiences — and that wouldn’t have happened without those interchanges.”

Two experiences in 2015 — researching the state of crowdsourcing and mentoring CUNY’s first class of social journalism students — opened my eyes to some striking possibilities for demonstrable journalistic impact.

jan-schafferThe impact I saw, though, resulted from discernible front-end investment. The journalists focused from the start on how they would engage their particular communities. They didn’t just try to measure who consumed or commented on their efforts at the back end.

Future journalists should take note: Journalism as an act of relationship building can create a different value proposition. And it can produce better journalism and more meaningful metrics than journalism as an act of reporting and distribution

As we move into 2016, I think more attention will be paid to what kinds of journalism, not just what kinds of tech tools or delivery platforms, can fortify audience connections to the journalism and help trigger impact.

Take, for instance, the student ventures in CUNY’s social journalism class. This is the degree that Jeff Jarvis and Carrie Brown architected that seeks to “recast journalism as a service that helps communities meet their goals and solve problems.”

In just one year, students were tasked with focusing on a particular community and measuring their impact. They are now reporting out notable results, including:

Striking to me is how often the student journalists focused on language as a first step in creating meaningful conversations and connecting with their communities. One student launched LGBTQLexicon as a language tool to discuss her chosen community’s issues. Make Queens Safer campaigned for journalists to call a motorist striking a school child as a “crash” not an “accident.” Soon to launch, Black Narratives Matter will focus on language around the Black Lives Matter movement.

Likewise, in coauthoring a guide to crowdsourcing for Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, I saw amazing journalism being produced by the likes of The Guardian, which has invited people to help count people killed by police in the U.S. in 2015. Or ProPublica’s Patient Safety series, which collected stories of people who have been harmed in a medical facility. Or WNYC’s solicitation to New York residents to help the station map the city’s storm cleanup.

By reaching out with targeted calls for information and keeping the conversation going, these journalists created stories that were deeply informed by their audiences — and that wouldn’t have happened without those interchanges. Many of these conversations have continued after stories were produced.

They are demonstrating that journalists who specifically ask for input, personal experiences, documents, or other contributions, will get community contributions — but only if they see that the journalists are listening, interacting with them, and making use of their information.

Jan Schaffer is executive director of J-Lab.

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