In 2002 NPR’s vice president for diversity, then a faculty member at the Poynter Institute, described an idea he called “The Listening Post.” “Journalists interested in telling more of a community’s ‘truth’ need to establish listening posts in the places that fall outside the routine of journalism,” he wrote. “They have to leave the office, the neighborhood, maybe even the comfort of personal likes and dislikes in order to make this happen.”
More than 10 years later, Internews and local New Orleans public radio station WWNO launched a project with the same name and built on some of the shared values. The New Orleans Listening Post combines digital recording stations across the community with text messages and online engagement to “establish a two-way conversation with the citizens of New Orleans” where they can both contribute ideas and commentary to the newsroom and also receive news and information about their community. Internews and WWNO partners with Groundsource for the project which is building a mobile first, text message based platform for listening.
Almost 1,000 miles to the north, Jenn Brandel is pioneering a different kind of listening project called Curious City at Chicago’s public radio station WBEZ. Curious City is part journalism project, part listening platform, and in the words of Brandel, is “powered by open questions.” The Curious City team has collected thousands of questions from Chicago residents in the field, via a toll-free number and online via their custom-built platform. The public gets to vote on what questions journalists pursue, and the Curious City team brings the public into the reporting project along the way.
From Transactional to Transformational Listening
Last November I wrote about the need for listening and empathy in journalism, arguing that “better reflecting and responding to our communities has to start with better listening.” A year later, I’m encouraged by the growth of projects like The Listening Post and Curious City as well as the many newsrooms who are hosting events dedicated to listening to the diverse voices of their communities.
While these promising experiments and new startups are proving the value of deeper forms of listening, as an industry we still have a lot to learn. Listening is after all not a passive act, but rather an active skill that we can learn and employ strategically. As the examples above make clear, there are many different kinds of listening with different goals and outcomes. Below I’ve tried to map out five models for listening at the intersection of newsrooms and communities.
- Listening to sources and interviewees: One of the most fundamental parts of journalism is listening to the sources who make up our stories. Too often, however, we turn to the same voices. Part of listening better will be listening to find new sources and looking for new perspectives. (See for example the SourceOfTheWeekTumblr run by NPR.)
- Listening for story ideas: Journalists listen to their communities to discover new story ideas. Curious City takes this idea further by not just listening for story ideas but also listening to community priorities. Rather than an editor deciding which story gets covered, the community gets to decide. There is also interesting work happening in social listening at organizations like Upwell.
- Listening for feedback: Listening shouldn’t stop once a story is published. Newsrooms should actively invite community feedback on stories. This goes beyond having a comment section, to actually creating venues for stakeholders to respond to the reporting in a sustained way. For example, Chalkbeat has a Reader Advisory Board and holds separate reader feedback events like this one.
- Listening for understanding and context: Sometimes in newsrooms we describe these kinds of interviews as “on background” but my notion of this idea goes beyond that. Most newsrooms could do much more listening to the concerns, passions, challenges and hopes of local communities. Understanding the lived experiences of people in different parts of our community will help us rethink the role of our newsrooms, ask new questions in our stories, and challenge our assumptions. This kind of listening, and an awareness to these contexts, will make other forms of listening — specifically those in points one and two above —easier and more impactful. (See for example Jay Rosen’s partnership with the Guardian around the Citizen’s Agenda)
- Listening for relationships: We often talk about community engagement, but to what end? Engagement is a means to building more meaningful relationships with our communities, relationships rooted in trust, empathy, transparency and accountability. This effort to build relationships around the news is at the heart of newsrooms’ push into new membership and event models. It is about doing better journalism and hopefully making that journalism more sustainable. But, sometimes in a relationship we just need to listen because someone else needs to be heard. Listening for the sake of listening, for the sake of showing up and being present for others, is critical to building trusting relationships. Newsrooms should be places people can come together and have their voices recognized and heard.
Adding a Listening Layer to the Entire Journalism Process
Too often newsrooms approach listening as a transaction – you give me info, I’ll give you journalism. We need to move beyond transactional listening to something more transformational that helps reshape newsrooms, communities and the ties that bind us. To do that, we have to make listening a part of the entire journalism process. It can’t just be a tactic used during planning or publication — it is fundamental to both.
And we should create better infrastructure to capture what we hear, synthesize it and measure it. But listening is a form of engagement that can’t be easily captured in analytics dashboards, so we need new ways to recognize the role listening plays across online and offline interactions with the public. Done right, our listening gives us new material to build stronger stories and stronger relationships.
We can’t strengthen the practice of listening if we can’t see it. We should recover listening from its largely invisible place in journalism and place it at the core of what we do.
Many thanks to Anika Anand, Jeanne Brooks, Rekha Murthy, Melody Kramer and Laurenellen McCann for conversations and feedback that helped inform this post.
Josh Stearns directs the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation’s journalism sustainability project, designed to develop new structures and strategies to support a robust future of news. Prior to joining the Dodge staff, Josh spent 7 years running national advocacy campaigns in support of freedom of expression and media diversity. Most recently he served as Press Freedom Director at Free Press, a national nonprofit fighting for all people’s rights to connect and communicate. Josh is an award winning journalist and the author of numerous reports on local news, public media and media policy. His articles have appeared online at the Columbia Journalism Review, PBS MediaShift, Orion Magazine and BoingBoing. He is a founding board member of the Freedom of the Press Foundation and served for almost 10 years on the board of the Student Conservation Association. Find him on Twitter at @jcstearns.