What are the power dynamics that exist between news organisations and their communities? Who holds the power and how is it transferred? And more importantly, how does that affect who is represented in our coverage?
These are just some of the questions we tackled at our recent Engaged Journalism Accelerator event, where we brought together 47 practitioners of community-driven journalism from 10 European countries to reflect on the idea of building power into communities.
Our goal for the day was to find out how best to establish relationships with communities based on mutual trust and shared values, which could eventually result in solutions to common concerns.
“We’re building long-term trusting reciprocal relationships, not based on hierarchies, but on how we can help each other,“ Fiona Morgan, facilitator and engagement specialist.
During the day, we used conversational methodologies to create an environment where all our attendees became experts who could learn from and teach each other.
Our aim, by bringing people together face-to-face, was to share knowledge across borders, organisations and areas of expertise and to generate new, concrete ideas that participants could take away, and test in their own context.
Here’s how we did it and what we learned in the process.
Creating a space where everyone is an expert
To help attendees implement the ideas from our workshop into their organisation, we invited two people from each publication to the event. The reasoning behind that was that they would support each other when it came to translating the learnings back to their colleagues. And it worked.
“When you come back it’s hard to explain what you’ve experienced in a conference. I’m glad that the chief editor is here. He’s the one who will ensure in the long run that engaged journalism is something that we’ll stick to,” said one attendee.
One of our grantees sent two of his team and said he had never seen the excitement in his team that he saw now. “It’s much stronger to engage the whole team, than when I was the only person who had realised the need of changes,” he said.
How to drive a powerful conversation?
In order to have productive conversations and go deeply into a topic in a short time, we used the Open Space technique. Participants were invited to suggest a discussion topic and post it on the agenda wall. Eight people volunteered to lead a session and the rest of the group then broke up and selected the discussions they wanted to join.
As well as being an engaging tool for our Accelerator events, the Open Space format is something that news organisations can use in their own communities — for audience research, or perhaps to discuss local challenges in their neighbourhood.
Highlights from our conversations
1. How to reward users that contribute to our journalism to develop loyalty?
“People love to learn how journalism works, what a news organisation looks like from the inside,” said one attendee. Many publications reward users by providing training, workshops, mentoring and/or online courses. Topics include fact-checking, infographics, live-streaming, and newsgathering, but also developing the user’s skills to help them tell their own story better.
Some users have a strong interest in learning about a certain topic, like climate change or a specific neighbourhood. Organising them into specific shared groups is one way to build a network where users can connect with each other to further discuss and share knowledge. It could also respond to the sense of community that they may be looking for.
Some attendees suggested upgrading highly involved contributors to ambassadors of the publication. These would then get privileges, such as access to ‘behind the news’ sections, workshops, events, or the ability to share stories with their friends and family for free.
Users who are looking to address an issue could be given exposure and/or recognition. For example, one attendee from Denmark is running a week-long course with local youth to empower them to change the narrative of their school, which has a bad reputation. It could also be done by hosting awards, with prizes for the most meaningful story or contributor of the year.
Tip: Instead of guessing how users would like to be rewarded, why not ask them what they would see as suitable — through a survey or focus group?
2. How do we fund and produce local journalism in and with low-income communities?
Many publishers make an effort to go beyond only serving audiences that are able to pay for subscriptions. However, finding a business model that allows for such journalism to remain freely available is a challenge. What options are there?
Revenue from awards, grants and advertising was common among participants but not something that any of them believed was sufficient to make their organisation self-sustaining. One attendee tried partnering with another local publication to increase ad sales, but it didn’t work. “However, we could share funding applications as we’re not competing,” she added.
Several participating publications also have a donation scheme. Attendees agreed that it should allow for small contributions. The threshold to donate should be low.
“Make sure that people don’t feel they can’t afford a contribution,” said one attendee, “nothing is too little.”
Some suggested learning from NGOs, where ‘direct ask’ is common practice. Others raised the point that, for journalism, impartiality could be at risk, so the message needs to be phrase carefully. “Be transparent about why you’re asking for money and what you’re going to do with it.”
It was agreed that news organisations, in general, need to better explain their impact in order to convince people to fund it. “Great journalism creates financial success,” said one attendee. “If people see you’re holding power to account. That’s when they will contribute.”
Tip: One publication has a “Buy a membership, donate a membership” offer, allowing low-income families to have free access.
3. How to have a productive conversation with people who might “sabotage” your work?
Being a participatory news organisation can carry risks. Hidden agendas and users intent on trolling may derail a story or, if left unchecked, pose a threat to the news organisation’s brand. What can be done to minimise this negative influence?
Moderation is the most common solution, but it can be time-consuming. “Those people steal your time, are destructive, and demand your attention, but the impact of what they’re saying is small,” said one attendee. Having a person with authority moderate the conversation could help.
A selection process could filter out potential trolls. This could be a (small) survey at the sign-up stage. “Ask them what they know about the platform, how they can help. It shouldn’t be an obstacle,” she added.
Another publication is trying out an invite-only supervisors scheme. They provide online courses for selected users about debunking, and hand out certificates. “If they do a good job, we check their background, and invite them to become supervisors,” said the attendee.
All selection methods carry a risk of excluding less educated members of the community or those with less money. To keep your journalism accessible to everyone, you may want to consider organising events, as people who want to sabotage your community are less likely to go to an event, according to one attendee.
Tip: “Always answer trolls with love. It works.”
After the event: bringing ideas into practice
As with any workshop, we know that the real work starts as soon as it finishes and that it can be hard for participants to bring back the ideas discussed to their news organisation and colleagues. To inspire others, we asked participants to share how they implemented ideas conceived during our previous event in Madrid.
One attendee re-ran an exercise from Madrid with her team during a strategic planning session. “We asked people to imagine their ideal world and what their impact could be in that world. We used this scheme to break down the big ideas and concepts to understand what they really mean on our day to day basis,” she said. This helped them discuss their mission and vision in a way that made sense to everyone in the team.
Another attendee implemented project-management into his news organisation. “We notice that the most successful projects are those where we now have journalists work as team leaders or project leaders.”
His team also did an audience survey to understand why people like the publication, whether they would like to support it, and in what way. “Big news organisations might do it quite regularly, but smaller publications tend to think that they understand their audience already. We thought we might be wrong and it was a good choice.”
Several attendees suggested that the experience of the workshop should not only be shared within their news organisation but also with their communities. “It’s our job to bring the conversation to our community. Communities should be a part of this conversation too.”