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.

Amy O'Leary   Not just covering communities, reaching them

Trushar Barot   API or die

Umbreen Bhatti   A sense of journalists’ humanity

Valérie Bélair-Gagnon   Truthiness in private spaces

Guy Raz   Inspiration and hope will matter more than ever

Ariane Bernard   Better data about your users

Priya Ganapati   Mobile websites are ready for reinvention

Liz Danzico   The triumph of the small

Felix Salmon   Headlines matter

Tanya Cordrey   The resurgence of reach

Cory Haik   Navigating power in Trump’s America

Steve Henn   The next revolution is voice

Olivia Ma   The year collaboration beats competition

Reyhan Harmanci   Bear witness — but then what?

Lam Thuy Vo   The primary source in the age of mechanical multiplication

Michael Oreskes   Reversing the erosion of democracy

M. Scott Havens   Quality advertising to pair with quality content

Amie Ferris-Rotman   Вслед за Россией

Scott Dodd   Nonprofits team up for impact

Kawandeep Virdee   Moving deeper than the machine of clicks

Mark Armstrong   Time to pay up

Rubina Madan Fillion   Snapchat grows up

Elizabeth Jensen   Trust depends on the details

Peter Sterne   A dangerous anti-press mix

Carla Zanoni   Prioritizing emotional health

Claire Wardle   Verification takes center stage

Eric Nuzum   Podcasting stratifies into hard layers

Pablo Boczkowski   Fake news and the future of journalism

Caitlin Thompson   High touch, high value

Jonathan Hunt   Measurement companies get with the times

Jon Slade   Trusted news, at a premium

Amy Webb   Journalism as a service

Anita Zielina   The sales funnel reaches (and changes) the newsroom

Tim Herrera   The safe space of service journalism

Swati Sharma   Failing diversity is failing journalism

Ståle Grut   The battle for high-quality VR

Dannagal G. Young   The return of the gatekeepers

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen   News after advertising may look like news before advertising

Andrea Silenzi   Podcasts dive into breaking news analysis

Emily Goligoski   Incorporating audience feedback at scale

Geetika Rudra   Journalism is community

Ashley C. Woods   Local journalism will fight a new fight

Sue Schardt   Objectivity, fairness, balance, and love

Corey Ford   The year of the rebelpreneur

Nushin Rashidian   A rise in high-price, high-value subscriptions

Cindy Royal   Preparing the digital educator-scholar hybrid

Laura Walker   Authentic voices, not fake news

David Skok   What lies beyond paywalls

Dan Gillmor   Fix the demand side of news too

Tracie Powell   Building reader relationships

Bill Keller   A healthy skepticism about data

Burt Herman   Local news gets interesting

Melody Kramer   Radically rethinking design

Ken Schwencke   Disaggregation and collection

Richard Tofel   The country doesn’t trust us — but they do believe us

Dhiya Kuriakose   The year of digital detoxing

Francesco Marconi   The year of augmented writing

Moreno Cruz Osório   The year of transparency in Brazilian journalism

Doris Truong   Connecting with diverse perspectives

Jonathan Stray   A boom in responsible conservative media

AX Mina   2017 is for the attention innovators

David Chavern   Fake news gets solved

Alberto Cairo   Communicating uncertainty to our readers

Hillary Frey   Forests need to burn to regrow

S.P. Sullivan   Baking transparency into our routines

Rebekah Monson   Journalism is community-as-a-service

Annemarie Dooling   UGC as a path out of the bubble

Michael Kuntz   Trust is the new click

Erin Millar   The bottom falls out of Canadian media

Andrew Ramsammy   Rise of the rebel journalist

Aja Bogdanoff   Comments start pulling their weight

Nicholas Quah   Podcasting’s coming class war

Jim Friedlich   A banner year for venture philanthropy

Robert Hernandez   History will exclude you, again

Ole Reißmann   Un-faking the news

Taylor Lorenz   “Selfie journalism” becomes a thing

Millie Tran   International expansion without colonial overtones

Andy Rossback   The year of the user

Jeremy Barr   A terrible year for Tiers B through D

Erin Pettigrew   A year of reflection in tech

Gabriel Snyder   The aberration of 20th-century journalism

Emi Kolawole   From empathy to community

Kathleen Kingsbury   Print as a premium offering

Ray Soto   VR moves from experiments to immersion

Maria Bustillos   “It’s true — I saw it on Facebook”

Mandy Velez   The audience is the source and the story

Tressie McMillan Cottom   A path through the media’s coming legitimacy crisis

Libby Bawcombe   Kids board the podcast train

Tim Griggs   The year we stop taking sides

Mira Lowe   News literacy, bias, and “Hamilton”

Zizi Papacharissi   Distracted journalism looks in the mirror

Sydette Harry   Facing journalism’s history

Andrew Haeg   The year of listening

Mike Ragsdale   A smarter information diet

Andrew Losowsky   Building our own communities

Juliette De Maeyer and Dominique Trudel   A rebirth of populist journalism

Renée Kaplan   Pure reach has reached its limit

Christopher Meighan   Unlocking a deeper mobile experience

Errin Haines   Chaos or community?

David Weigel   A test for online speech

Bill Adair   The year of the fact-checking bot

Matt Karolian   AI improves publishing

Samantha Barry   Messaging apps go mainstream

Ernst-Jan Pfauth   Earn trust by working for (and with) readers

Megan H. Chan   Cultural reporting goes mainstream

Margarita Noriega   From pinning tweets to tweeting pins

Vivian Schiller   Tested like never before

Mario García   Virtual reality on mobile leaps forward

Asma Khalid   The year of the newsy podcast

Joanne Lipman   The year of the drone, really

Javaun Moradi   What can we own?

Sam Ford   The year we talk about our awful metrics

Dan Colarusso   Let’s make live video we can love

Sarah Marshall   Focusing on the why of the click

Alexis Lloyd   Public trust for private realities

Carrie Brown-Smith   We won’t do enough

Julia Beizer   Building a coherent core identity

Adam Thomas   The coming collaboration across Europe

Molly de Aguiar   Philanthropists galvanize around news

Nathalie Malinarich   Making it easy

Mary Meehan   Feeling blue in a red state

Sarah Wolozin   Virtual reality on the open web

Almar Latour   Thanks, #fakenews

Helen Havlak   Chasing mobile search results

Lee Glendinning   A call for great editing

Mary Walter-Brown   Getting comfortable asking for money

Laura E. Davis   Show your work

Ryan McCarthy   Platforms grow up or grow more toxic

Katie Zhu   The year of minority media

Sara M. Watson   There is no neutral interface

Rachel Schallom   Stop flying over the flyover states

Mathew Ingram   The Faustian Facebook dance continues

Alice Antheaume   A new test for French media

Rachel Sklar   Women are going to get loud

Matt Waite   The people running the media are the problem

Liz McMillen   The year of deep insights

Coleen O'Lear   Back to basics

P. Kim Bui   The year journalism teaches again

Keren Goldshlager   Defining a focus, and then saying no

Juan Luis Sánchez   Your predictions are our present