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January 20, 2015

Building Journalism With Community, Not For It

build with not for

At the end of last year Kristin Hare of the Poynter Institute was collecting tech resolutions for 2015 and asked for mine. Here is what I wrote:

In 2015 I want to help more journalists build with their communities, not just for their communities.

At so many publications, journalists are rebuilding their newsrooms around new technologies from smartphones to social networks. But for the most part, the community is left on the other side of the screen. In 2015 there is a huge opportunity to engage communities in the work of helping build powerful journalism.

I want to help newsrooms design reporting projects, engagement strategies, web apps and more, through deeper collaboration, listening and empathy with our communities. Building for the community puts people at the end of the process. Building with community puts them at the start.

In the new year, let’s start the debate about journalism and technology with our communities.

At the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation we believe that journalism sustainability is rooted in building stronger relationships between communities and newsrooms. The distinction between “building with” instead of “building for” feels at first like semantics. However, when we begin to use it as a lens to examine journalism as both a process and a product, we see numerous small and large ways it challenges the status quo. 

In the words of longtime editor Melanie Sill, it begins to “reorder the fundamental processes of journalism toward the goal of serving communities.” But it does so by recognizing that to serve a community we have to work with that community.

Transactional versus Transformational

The chart below by the former head of digital engagement for the Guardian, Meg Pickard, offers a pretty good indication of the gaps and opportunities that exist.


The old model of building for audiences is rooted in a transactional approach to news. In Pickard’s chart the transaction is essentially the Y axis when the journalist hits publish. We create, you consume. We report, you decide. The importance of this transaction is baked into the business model for much of the news industry. We print, you pay.

But we are starting to see the disruption of that transactional approach. Community engagement increasingly tries to fill the gaps identified in Pickard’s chart above. At their best, membership programs focus on building community around the news, not just building a paying subscriber base. Solutions journalism is recognizing the expertise that exists in local communities and is finding ways to share it. Listening projects are helping reshape what stories get covered and whose voices get included.

The diagram below from WBEZ’s Curious City is a prime example of how building with can reshape every part of the editorial process.

Screenshot 2015-01-18 14.46.12

Together, these and other shifts hold the potential to help journalism move from a transactional product to a transformational process for local communities.

Creating in-roads for community participation and giving local people more power to contribute to local journalism efforts is complex and time intensive. However, the end result can be a public that is more engaged in their communities and in supporting local news. After participating in a Curious City reporting project Janice Thomson wrote, “Many times I’ve asked myself ‘Why am I doing this? Isn’t electricity a tedious subject best left to experts?’ Knowing that the staff at WBEZ’s Curious City cared what I did, that they valued citizen input as much as that of experts, kept me going.” Based on her experience with Curious City, Thomson created Electric Community, “a series of interactive community-based activities to engage Chicago residents in ‘greening’ our electricity. Who knew a radio program could have so much power?”

Prior to this experience Thomson didn’t think local energy issues or journalism were any place for non-experts. But having reporters at WBEZ honor her curiosity and respect the expertise of her lived experience was transformational. When we build with our communities we build space for more people to shape our stories and cultivate a sense of ownership over the process. This shifts to locus of journalists’ authority from the act of publishing to the process of engaging. It makes journalism more accountable and more valuable.

Regardless of your business model, having your community deeply invested in what you do, is key to the long term sustainability of your work. Building with community is also about building more resilient organizations, rooted in relationships that can help both challenge and support you.

Close to The Ground

With funding from the Knight Foundation, we are working with local news start-ups in New Jersey and New York on how these ideas can help strengthen their work and their organizations. We are experimenting with creative revenue ideas rooted in community engagement and developing ways for newsrooms to listen more deeply to communities.

In my work with local news start-ups I see a hunger for new tools and models to help small teams of local journalists build new networks with their communities. These local journalists have the benefit of being close to the ground, deeply enmeshed in their communities and nimble enough to listen and adapt. But they are also stretched incredibly thin trying to run every aspect of the newsroom. Every community and every newsroom is different, so while we are looking for replicable intelligence, we are not searching for silver bullets. Building with our communities means that while we might share strategies, those models have to adapt to diverse local contexts.

We need to be more intentional about finding spaces and places across journalism to build with, rather than for our communities. But to do that we have to understand even more clearly what those two models look like.

Laurenellen McCann offers this description:

“With” implies togetherness, a network: a larger group, possibly, a messier group, but a group (meaning 2 people+) nonetheless. Acting “with” others implies certain degrees of collaboration, collective action, coordination, and even unity. You run a three-legged race with your partner (or you’re going to fall). When you use the word “with” it means that, however many people are involved, whatever their individual roles, they’re acting as one — or at least, towards a shared goal.

By contrast, when we use the word “for” we center on the experience of individuals in a relationship, with one unit acting on behalf of or doing something to another. (“For another.”) In the “for” universe, there’s usually a receiver and a giver. There can be many people involved or few, but there are almost always actors and those acted upon. In a democracy like ours, where we have government of, by, and for the people, we understand that when we vote for an elected representative, they are then empowered to speak and act for us. To govern for us….but with our consent.McCann argues that “‘For’ is the thorn in the paw of the ‘civic’ movement today. We espouse to build new, collaborative systems, new technologies, new relationships […] but we do so wielding old systems of power.”

And this last point is one we don’t talk about enough. When we talk about building with our communities we have to talk about power, and about new systems of power where we gain strength and sustainability from connections to each other not transactions between each other.