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Nov. 20, 2014, 12:52 p.m.

The newsonomics of telling your audience what they should do

At WNYC, a public radio station is getting more aggressive about telling people what to do: go vote, get more sleep, stay healthy. What happens when a news outlet starts talking about behavior change?

You should.

Two powerful words. If they come from your mother or the government, they pack a particular weight. But what if they come from media? Should media be in the “you should” business?

WNYC, the flagship of New York Public Radio, now tests the virtue and value of those powerful words. Just Vote Already served as a first effort, pushing people to the polls with robocalls, door-knocking, and more. Who is a large public radio station to tell people they should go vote?

“We think it is part of our job to empower people to change outcomes that make their lives better and their communities better,” says Jim Schachter, vice president for news at WNYC.

Schachter is a serial collaborator, one of those connectors in digital public service news that I wish we could replicate. He’s now involved in NPR’s regional collaborative network project — first focused on military issues — in progress at eight NPR stations large and small. He’s recently collaborated with New Orleans’ public radio WWNO on a post-disaster contractor investigation. You may remember him as a key player in The New York Times’ experimental teaming up with the Bay Citizen (since absorbed into the Center for Investigative Reporting), the Chicago News Cooperative (folded) and The Texas Tribune. Though Schachter left the Times for WNYC in 2012 as the Bill Keller era ended, the Texas Tribune experiment continued until just recently, when the Times pulled the plug.

Now WNYC is moving onto issues wider than election night — its listeners’ health, for instance. The station received a $1 million lead grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to create a staff of nine wholly devoted to health coverage. It’s coverage that connects up wonky end of health policy to what newspaper feature sections like to call “personal health” — in other words, how we as individuals and families can maximize our well-being. There’s not much scolding in the intent here — not the finger-pointing kind of “you should” that nobody should like. Rather, the admonition here serves as a civic and personal statement: Better health, like participation in a democracy, is a public good.

Longtime WNYC staffer Fred Mogul has served as the station’s lone health reporter. He’s already been joined by three new colleagues, with five more on the way. They’ll bring a new wave of skills to the coverage, as reporters, producers, editors, and audience development and engagement specialists produce multimedia, social-aware journalism. Expect good enterprise reporting, first-person narratives, data news tools, and lots of audience engagement. Schachter’s goal: “to tell health stories as compelling as those on This American Life and Radiolab.”

WNYC’s health beat drills down into three overlapping areas:

  • Healthy living and wellness, focusing on what WNYC can do to help people make better-informed decisions on their own health care
  • Health care economics and policy, taking the intricacies of policy down to understandable levels, like a recent comparison of New York and New Jersey implementations of the Affordable Care Act, or why the Bronx is the least healthy county in New York state
  • Medical science and discovery, focusing on the major research advances by such New York-based institutions as Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Mount Sinai, and NYU — a big local industry

In today’s media world, WYNC is really launching a national, multiplatform product as much as a local one. Certainly, it will use its local broadcast airwaves, but that’s just the beginning. Expect to hear health coverage on WNYC’s local editions of Morning Edition and All Things Considered, as well as on national programs such as The Takeaway and Marketplace. A national podcast will be well promoted. Its anchor personalities, like Brian Lehrer, will host shorter segments. The goal: to reach at least 10 million people in New York and across the nation.

The idea, then, is this blend of idea and personal impact journalism. It’s a topic New York Public Radio CEO Laura Walker understands all too well. Five years ago, her then-18-year-old son was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphona. He’s since recovered, but Walker’s experience of the health care system added dimension to her health care thinking. Her reading at the time included Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. Now Ken Burns’ adaptation of the book becomes six hours in the spring on Washington public TV station WETA, and WNYC’s own collaboration will include two related series, broadcast and digital, in January and March. For Walker and for us, health care often moves between our own world and the greater world beyond. (Further reinforcing that point, WNYC rethought its own idea of office health, adding a new wellness room to good staff reviews.)

Let’s consider where the genesis of the expanded health coverage. It awoke out of WNYC’s earlier sleep project in the city that never sleeps. In spring, Clock Your Sleep involved 5,200 listeners in a project that involved good reporting and then invited people to join teams, led by WNYC hosts, to “compete” for better sleep, tracking their results. The quick data:

  • More than 40 percent of respondents said they noticed a change in their sleep since they started tracking it.
  • 19.4 percent reported getting more sleep.
  • 77 percent of respondents reported learning something while participating in the project.

Clock Your Sleep has also given birth to a zeitgeist-grabbing project we’ll hear more about soon. Bring Boredom Back aims to remind us of us before our smartphones. Manoush Zomorodi, host of the station’s New Tech City, will tackle the topic of downtime, both exploring research on who we’ve become and offering some interactive notions on how to wean ourselves off our screens, now and then. Pro-space-out device detox, here we come.

What’s this kind of journalism about, when a public radio station starts talking about “behavior change”? Is this nanny-state-by-public-media, in a city where Michael Bloomberg tried to reduce diabetes by banning Big Gulps? Laura Walker draws a clear line between telling people what to do and giving them better options. “We’re not trying to be prescriptive,” says Walker. “We’re helping you look into your own behavior.”

Where does this kind of civic journalism come from? I think, deep down, it derives from journalists’ belief that knowledge is good. You, dear reader, should know things. We as journalists help you know things. It’s that simple.

Over the years, we’ve gotten tied up in knots around abstract nouns like objectivity. Looking back, it’s clear that as daily newspapers became monopolies in cities across the country — recall the hubris of how newspapers “owned” their markets — publishers and editors worried about their power. Understandably, most shied away from taking strong partisan stands in the news pages. Unfortunately, at the same time, they positioned themselves above the fray, and disengaged from their readers’ and communities’ problems and lives. They mistook objectivity — that faux “view from nowhere” that Jay Rosen has best deconstructed — for fairness. They mistook advocacy — voicing a singular “right” solution approach to a controversy — for agenda-setting.

WNYC’s approach is the kind of agenda-setting for which our times plainly call. The big notion: Assess some of the greatest needs of the communities you serve and set an agenda of how to do journalism around those issues. And figure out ways to involve readers and listeners in the work, so the journalism isn’t just being done to them.

Consider what’s going on today at WNYC (and at too small a sample of like stations, papers, and websites) the hazy beginning of a impactful new wave of journalism. Certainly, it might just flicker briefly and die back, as previous iterations of civic journalism have. More powerfully, though, I believe this kind of “news” position is a powerful building block in the rebuilding of local, digital-led journalism.

We, and I, have chronicled endlessly the woeful decline of U.S. local journalism. More than a third of its newspaper troops have lost their jobs over the past 10 years. Many of the remaining have gone without raises since the second Bush Presidency. The tragicomedy of Orange County Register reporters asked to deliver their own Sunday papers may be a new low — but then again, who knows what to expect out of 2015, as publishers tell me they’re budgeting for continuing high single-digit losses of print ad money. We’ll see in the Digital First Media sale and dissolution exactly who buys the properties. Odds are that few of the buyers will come from the Bezos/Henry/Taylor wing of longterm investment in the future of strong print/digital local news enterprises. Most are likely to come from consolidators of one kind or another — companies that believe continued cost-cutting is the main route forward.

Could owners or buyers raise their sights? Could they believe that an enthusiastic embrace of community-building journalism is more than a noble idea, that it could be the basis of rebuilding the business — and the very reason to exist — of these tired franchises?

What are the newsonomics here? They’re tough to chart. For WNYC, it’s that big foundation grant that gets the health team off the ground, with other foundation grants supporting the seven-figure budget required for the undertaking.

Much of the foundation money going to journalism projects like this has focused on two to three years of funding. What then? That question came up in Las Vegas this week, as I spoke to a conference of public radio station execs and moderated a panel on “Public Media’s Possibility in a Parched News Landscape.” Stewart Vanderwilt, general manager of KUT in Austin, which is investing in local news coverage, noted that his investment could be considered unsustainable. He doesn’t know where the money to fund it — and more — may come from in 2017 or 2018.

My response: Join the club. Name a news medium that knows where its funding — advertising or underwriting, subscription or membership, foundation or fairy godmother — will come from three years from now, and we will form a short list together.

What Vanderbilt and fellow panelists Steve Bass (of Oregon Public Broadcasting) and Laura Frank (of Rocky Mountain PBS), in addition to WNYC’s leadership, believe is simple: Build it out and see how many listeners, readers, members and underwriters come. It’s an optimistic strategy, but it is a strategy. And it’s encouraging to see the numbers of new members and underwriters responding to their work.

Where are the limits of “you should”? That’s a fascinating discussion, and one that should be had in every journalistic operation. Is it still impermissible to say “We shouldn’t let the planet overheat” because somebody somewhere can find a few residual global warming doubters? Is better education for the next generation a permissible position, or is that going too far? Health care has become highly politicized, so does that mean that we can’t separate the politics of Obamacare from the real-life health experiences of our citizens? WNYC’s projects point a way to thread that needle. Walker: “It’s okay for us to say, ‘You should vote.'” What else is okay, and what crosses the lines of our journalistic traditions?

WYNC’s dance alternatives between leading and listening. Just two weeks ago, the station — rapidly becoming an agenda-setter of public media leadership nationwide — announced another grant, this one from the Deborah Wadsworth Fund. Teaming with Public Agenda, WNYC will conduct research and focus groups to further identify the real-life concerns of New Yorkers — concerns that we’d expect will be tackled in projects still ahead.

Photo by justine.k used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Nov. 20, 2014, 12:52 p.m.
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