From empathy to community

“Empathy may help discover unmet needs in the short term, but community will allow news organizations to scale solutions and build greater trust in the long term.”

Empathy. The term has been used quite a bit in recent years, but in 2016, it seemed to take on a particular weight.

emi-kolawoleThere were those who outlined its limits, and others who found there wasn’t enough of it. This year, Michigan State published what it claimed was a first-of-its-kind study ranking nations by empathy. (In case you’re wondering, the United States came in seventh.)

This marks yet another year news organizations spent investing in and growing their empathy muscle by way of incorporating the creative problem-solving process known as design thinking. The push to better know their audiences and be more inclusive of their views and experiences has been underway for quite some time now.

As I approach the end of the year, however, empathy hasn’t felt complete. It falls short as a term to describe the type of connection news organizations will be called on to make with readers, viewers, and listeners in 2017.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that empathy will be set aside. In fact, I’m predicting quite the opposite: I believe that news organizations’ understanding and use of empathy will grow and mature in the coming year. Rather than merely work towards empathy with journalism consumers to create better products in the short term, news organizations will better network those connections to form greater community among their audience members.

A move from empathy to community may seem regressive. After all, wasn’t community the news industry buzzword of the last decade or more? Did it ever even go away? It was the dream of comments section moderators everywhere: If only we could get people to stop screaming past one another and build greater community…

The scenario is different today, however. We’re seeing people on both the editorial and business side of news organizations be aware that thinking like a designer is not merely the realm of the design department, and that executing on this way of thinking can be powerful and unique to each team. Empathy is now a tool anyone and everyone in the newsroom can and should be able to use.

That said, establishing an empathic connection with a reader, viewer, listener, or contributor is much easier to say than to do, and I fear much more is being said about empathy than is being done.

It’s not enough to run out and ask some quick “whys” and “how’d that make you feels” to a few users and then run back to use what they tell you. A deeper, more persistent connection is and has always been necessary. It’s even more necessary now as calls become louder for greater news literacy and facts become frighteningly fungible. What good is empathy for news organizations if not in service to the lasting connections that form community?

I recently finished Courtney Martin’s latest book, The New Better Off, the message of which she sums up in a simple phrase: “Community is everything.” The book is a tour through the big questions around success, achievement, work, family, and, yes, community that I have often found myself asking and heard from peers.

I was in the middle of the book as the election results rolled in and the conversation around journalism and media turned reflective. There were calls for greater connection across lines of difference and claims thrown around that journalists had lost touch — even as I was witnessing how diligently many were working to connect. That was when I realized how and why empathy could evolve in the coming year.

I was further inspired by the Stanford’s director of teaching and learning Carissa Carter, who outlined the institute’s approach to teaching design thinking. Beyond merely addressing design thinking as a process of five stages (including empathizing), she presented how the endeavors to teach their students eight abilities, including learning from others and moving between concrete and abstract.

In 2017, I see news organizations making a similar evolution from formula to ability. I see them incorporating empathy into their day-to-day work across the newsroom in order to form a more lasting interconnectedness as well as a set of shared goals and expectations with and among their audiences. Empathy may help discover unmet needs in the short term, but community will allow news organizations to scale solutions and build greater trust in the long term.

For example, empathy with a few readers may help unearth a need for more shortform stories, or a new app dedicated to fashion coverage. Community is built on a number of those types of connections, each one going deeper than the last. It allows organizations to place new products into a stronger web of connection between the organization and the audience.

Where empathy implies a more finite engagement, community implies one that is ongoing. So, as newsrooms continue to grow in their learning and application of design thinking, I predict they will build on their empathic connections with their audience for the purposes of product and experience to form broader, stronger and more robust communities.

Here’s to 2017, the year of empathy in service to community and, ultimately, greater trust and understanding.

Emi Kolawole is founder and CEO of Dexign LLC.

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