Summer Fields of Hearken, Andrea Faye Hart of City Bureau and Julian Hayda of WBEZ discuss audience engagement
On February 27, 14 East hosted an engagement panel featuring Andrea Faye Hart, a co-founder and community engagement director at City Bureau; Summer Fields, an engagement consultant at Hearken; and Julian Hayda, a producer for the Worldview at WBEZ. The event, moderated by Carina Smith, an Associate Editor at 14 East, discussed ways to incorporate the community in reporting.
Engagement is essential for the success of a news organization. There is a distinction, though, between typical definition of engagement and the type discussed at the panel. Some newsrooms consider engagement to be clicks, views and social media interaction, a numerical measurement that determines an organization’s reach. This can be true, though Smith, Hart, Fields and Hayda discussed a different form at the panel.
The panelist discussed engagement in terms of audience participation in the reporting process. This means deferring to readers, viewers and listeners about what they are interested in and what they care about to determine what to report on. It means building relationships with your audience and including them in your reporting. It’s crowdsourcing information, outlet transparency and direct interaction with an audience.
Fields, Hart and Hayda further discussed the meaning of engagement, how they incorporate it into their work and how college media can do the same. Below is the transcription of the event, and linked here is a survey to take if you’re interested in learning more about the magazine.
Carina Smith: So how about we start by going down the row and talking about your day-to-day experience in the workplace.
Summer: Sure! I started at Hearken actually as an intern a couple of years ago, and I since became full-time. That was right out of college I got into it, and it was awesome. So basically, Hearken is a small Chicago-founded and based start up where we work with newsrooms on audience engagement, so we help them actually implement people power and public-powered processes of reporting, and it started at WBEZ with a show called Curious City. Our founder Jen Brandel started that. Basically the premise is, let’s say that the audience asked you questions about what they want to know about the city, letting them vote on their favorites and coming along for the reporting process. So basically, when she got that up off the ground, a lot of other public radio newsrooms started asking her, “how do I do the same thing?” And so she founded Hearken to make that possible. So I’ve been doing that for a couple of years, and I work with a couple dozen newsrooms directly.
Andrea: Before I explain what engagement looks like from the City Bureau perspective, I wanted to just clarify what engagement is to us, how we define it. It’s very much a consistent thing. It’s not a one-off, project-based thing. I think a lot of times, when you look at newsrooms, they think about engagement specific to a project and they don’t necessarily have it baked into all of their programming. But City Bureau does. So I serve as the director of community engagement, but it is something that everybody is thinking about. And for me in particular, a lot of it is around looking at community organizations that we can be partnering with for our documenter’s program, which is where we train and pay folks to cover public meetings, but they can go — level up into other opportunities. With that, I’m also always vetting community partners where we can do bootcamps. There are a lot of people really interested in engaging in the journalism process, reimagining civics and bettering their neighborhoods, and so part of engagement in that is identifying partners that want to collaborate on that project. And then the Public Newsroom, which we host every week, Thursday night from 6 to 8, that is — we both get journalists and non-journalists to present. For us, it’s a two-way street: both like the presenter is learning something and then the audience is as well. That, to us, is the most easy example of what the engagement process looks like. But it’s really designed around learning, folks can take things with them — it’s not just a straight lecture. I’m always thinking about how what does engagement look like in that way, when it’s a two-way learning street, it’s not just telling someone what to do or telling someone where to go. Those are some of the things we do on a daily basis, but, again, it’s not just me thinking about it. We have a fellowship three times a year where they’re thinking about it in their story process, and then each of the co-founders is thinking about it in the respective work that we do.
Julian: So I think I’m the only person on the panel who doesn’t have engagement in my title. But I do what could be considered the oldest form of engagement in modern media, and that is work on a daily talk show. And what is really interesting about working with a daily talk show is, unlike print media, where the journalist mediates and selects quotes, or in commercial broadcast television, where a correspondent or editor chooses soundbytes into a three-minute package, talk radio, particularly talk shows, are unique in that a journalist is present, but is just forced to shut up and listen, which is the root of engagement. There’s a lot of debate as to whether or not the medium in its own right is relevant, whether or not it’s interesting, but I think it provides a lot of inspiration for people who for example follow an issue very closely, or care about an issue and feel that journalists sometimes get in the way of what people are trying to say, that they have preconceived notions of what an issue might be that a journalist has that, when they repackage something in a story or TV spot, gets lost. We do things like calling shows which are imperfect, but it’s a very old-fashioned way of including an audience. My background, too — I didn’t come to radio very intentionally, while I was covering the revolution in Ukraine, there’s something about being a non-profit media, kind of not having to worry about the bottom line of an organization. There’s a lot of gray area between non-profit media and commercial media, but when you’re able to cover a mass social movement like a revolution, that requires a certain level of engagement that is grassroots. So if we think of engagement journalism as being grassroots in nature — I learned a lot about finding a story, finding people who wouldn’t traditionally be featured in commercial media. At the time in Ukraine, commercial media was state-owned. There was no way in hell that anyone was going to end up on state-owned media, so to see dozens of grassroots media organizations that by definition were engagement journalism — they brought people on who didn’t have formal journalism training to really dig into why a social movement was happening, I think is very exciting. And I think the U.S. has a lot of social movements that are happening, and engagement journalism in the formal sense (that I’m not involved in) has the potential to uncover a lot of where Americans are. But you wouldn’t be able to tell in legacy media, especially in the kind of sound bite format that is so pervasive.
So let’s take it back and talk about what you were doing before you worked in engagement journalism — how did you wind up in engagement work professionally?
Andrea: My background is a hybrid of journalism and education, so most immediately, previously to City Bureau, I was working in youth media organizations in the city, and I think it’s really fascinating to see how a lot of formal journalism is taking a lot from that space, and getting respected in a way that it doesn’t get respected in the media space, which I find fascinating. I worked at Free Spirit Media, which was one of the best, greatest youth media organizations I think in the country, but was managed by its parent organization, the Museum of Mexican Art. But a lot of what I was doing — I transitioned back into teaching and into that space because I thought I could be a lot more experimental and actually work with people in the communities to tell their own stories and talk through narratives that weren’t getting covered, and also just this idea of, what does it look like to share information that matters to you, instead of getting told what should matter to you. That was a lot of what I was doing and incubating. Also, this conversation of civics — if your media is really exclusive, your processes are probably also, or just not as accessible. So that’s where Real Shot U really came out of, conversations around: how can you also be disruptive in civic spaces through this kind of journalism? But again you can train young folks to do this kind of work. But if people aren’t taking them quite as seriously, it’s still limiting — they’re only going to be relegated to these cute, little non-profits, but not necessarily taken seriously. But I think now there’s a lot that I’ve pulled from that experience and pulled into the City Bureau experience, which is also why we have and encourage our fellows to encourage young people, because they’re often the most affected and most immediately affected by things happening in the city, but also the most talked to, like they’re talked about, but they’re not often engaged in that process.
Summer: Back at UChicago, in undergrad in sociology, at the time I was trying to percolate on what do I want to do when I graduate. So I founded a podcast at UChicago — a podcasting organization, not unlike you guys getting together in this room — to teach other students how to produce audio stories with a focus on the community we were in, and the people that were doing cool organizing work or creating things or professors studying fun things, like Bob Dylan from a musicology lens or bugs having sex. Just, everything. And that was fun, and really I was just thinking, okay, podcast, maybe I’ll just audio produce full-time, sure, but I was passionate about that, about audio art and podcasts. Also at the time, I was hearing a lot of discourse about public radio, being something I was just getting into tangentially, about how public radio was not representative of the public, which is supposed to be the very mission of public radio stations. And about how there’s this idiom, or voice in a literal and metaphorical sense of like, you know, you picture Ira Glass or 99 percent invisible, it’s this very sort of white, middle class coastal voice. And it’s fun, but it’s not the mission if everything sounds like that. So I heard a lot of people talking about that, talking about how we need to diversify newsrooms, hearing the word diversity invoked in those spaces. And I was like, I think I want to study this, actually, for my thesis. And I used that as an opportunity to talk to dozens of fellow people of color working within public radio industry, and some white folks that were in it to, as a way of asking, you know, “What do you think about all these people talking about diversity in these big sentences? How does that make you feel as the diversity?”
And so that thesis somehow got me into the world that I wanted to be a part of after college, so at that time I met Ellen Mayer, who’s a good friend of mine now, and she said she’d heard about my thesis, said that she was doing podcast stuff and about to work at Hearken, and a few months later, she said, “I don’t know if you’re into this, but there’s an internship at Hearken!” So I hopped on that, basically working on the community team, managing the newsrooms that wanted to be doing public-focused work. So that’s how I ended up there — it was all because I decided to think about how the structure of journalism is starting to all level. Not necessarily being a foot soldier, just day in and day out doing journalism. I didn’t have a ton of experience in newsrooms before I got to Hearken. And I definitely defer to wisdom, and people who have years and years of it. But I decided I just wanted to get started. Summer before that I worked at a really boring think tank, worked at ABC politics during the summer when every Republican was announcing their run for office — which was hell also, but good experience — and I decided I wanted to do a different kind of thing.
Julian: I kind of alluded to it before, but didn’t finish the story. So while our non-profit was working in Ukraine, I became the go-to voice of the people on the ground who happened to speak English and be from Chicago.
Summer: Can you explain what the revolution was about? Sorry to interrupt, but —
Julian: Right, so, the thumbnail version. A little over four years ago, fall of 2013, there was — started as a political movement where Ukrainian young people wanted Ukraine to integrate with the European Union — maybe a couple hundred people from two universities, which are rare in Ukraine. And they, over the course of a couple of days, really got the government really mad at them. And the government had worked very hard to pretend that they had basic human rights, civil rights, and after a couple of days — and after a summer of silence about instances of police brutality — about 300 university students from all over Ukraine of several ethnic and racial groups were beaten and arrested and carted off. The next day, there were a half a million people in the streets saying, well the government shouldn’t really do that. They set up an encampment in the main city square of Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, and they demanded to know who ordered these arrests. It turns out, it went all the way to the top, and it ended after three months of peaceful protests of resistance with the president on a helicopter to Russia and the entire national reserve with about $30,000 — so imagine running a country with socialized medicine and having that to pay for 45 million people — police were liquidated, all the cops were fired and the president for all intents and purposes was impeached and fled. I was there during most of that as a senior DePaul journalism student, and I happen to have gone to events where — and I think my colleagues would agree — events are like the best way to do engagement. One of the best ways, because it’s one thing to sit on Facebook and look for questions and things like that. It’s another to meet people face to face.
I had been to several events that this talk show — Worldview — it’s the only thing of its kind, a global media organization, if you can call it that, based in Chicago. I mean, the Chicago Tribune, the Sun-Times, they all used to have foreign correspondents. There’s one guy at the Trib whose job is to curate AP stories. Outside New York, Boston, D.C. and and LA, nobody does international journalism. So I was participating in these events, and when they found out that I was from Ukraine, they said “we just can’t figure out what’s going on there.” We have these Americans in D.C. telling their version of the story, we have the government pushing their version of the story, we don’t know who to trust. How about you just tell us what happens? So I was regularly, almost weekly, telling them, well this is what’s happened, barricades are being built, and we built a rapport between our non-profit and this kind of big-time legacy radio station. And that is I think the asset of our show.
There is a network of people in Chicago who cover state politics, and it’s very important to cover that or city politics, and often times what happens in non-engagement circles, it’s a lot of inside baseball. It’s a lot of wonks talking to wonks. So-and-so political reporter talks to the same source he’s had for 20 years in the mayor’s office, they know the lingo, and people don’t click the stories because they’re boring and they don’t know the lingo, even though they’re not boring and they do care. Our show is unique in that there is no network of international foreign policy think tanks in Chicago. Even schools in Chicago are tightening their belts with international studies programs. So Worldview depends on events, in the city, things like the Global Activism Expo, a globally-oriented meeting in the UIC forum to just talk about what they do. Or ethnic groups here in Chicago — just today we did a segment with the creator of Radio Islam. And he a couple of months ago created something called the Burma Task Force, which is something that — a group of Muslims who are driving to D.C. today to pressure people to pay attention to what’s going on with the Rohingya. Chicago has one of the biggest Rohingya populations in America, and if you are one of the coastal, international journalists or some think tank person, you’d be calling someone in Bangladesh or Myanmar and you’d be talking to some kind of official or bureaucrat instead of Imam Mujadid, whose cousin is in a refugee camp and lives next door to us in Chicago. So I think that’s the value of things like involving non-government and non-academic groups to interact with. We still have the opportunity to curate that engagement, but we also have the ability to step back with things like the Global Activism [Expo] and roundtable discussions or there’s a million ways. I like events. That’s how I met these people, that’s how I got this job: building that relationship.
Why is engagement important?
Summer: I’ll take it back to how we’d define engagement, because that’s important to know. At Hearken, what we have found and really stand by after working in 100 plus newsrooms is that engagement is not just metrics of extraction, like clicks, shares, comments on Facebook. It’s not just extraction from the audience either, not consumption not extraction, user-generated polling, stuff like that. If there’s no pathway for your audience to have some kind of input on the content and editorial decisions, that is not engagement. So we define engagement basically as — first you as a news organization is inviting feedback from your public, then you’re using that feedback as a newsroom, or the public engages, then you use it. You have to take the input and have that shape the editorial content that you’re doing. We’re trying to fundamentally reshape the way we think about the way we interact with these people.
It’s not just viewers, it’s not just people that are supposed to consume our content, and bringing in money through ad dollars, because that’s not really working for newsrooms anymore. A lot of them are closing and dying because they’re not going back to the basics of figuring out what people actually need to know, because audiences are the ones that are actually deciding what’s relevant and popular. We cannot afford to not change our relationship with our audience, you know, because there’s a thousand ways we can all get our information, but what we’re looking to newsrooms for is — I want to trust you that we can get to the truth in some way. But I can get information from any avenue. So I’m not just looking for information to be delivered to me as an audience member, I want to build trust. That’s why it’s important that newsrooms evolve in that way, but it’s not really an evolution — it’s a return to the core of what journalism is supposed to be.
Andrea: I think it’s an accountability thing. City Bureau Public Newsrooms always happen face-to-face, and I think all of us, the co-founders don’t really care about national stuff or not space-related work, because of that accountability perspective. If you are effectively engaging your audience, they can hold you accountable, a lot of transparency. But also, for us, it means, and it’s important because journalists are supposed to give up some of their power. That’s also why it’s important to do in the way that we do it, because if you can give up some to the mystique of journalism and allow folks to produce it with you — not necessarily a full-fledged story, but attend a public meeting and document it and submit those notes, you then your work is more enriched and people are going to use it, because they feel connected to it. That’s how we further the definition of engagement journalism. Part of it is that there’s been a lot of problematic power dynamics in traditional journalism — that hasn’t been engaged. So the importance of engagement is that it shifts those power dynamics and also opens up the accountability process more, both to hold you accountable but also hold officials accountable where they live. It helps people [be] better citizens — not just citizen journalists, but better citizens.
Julian: To build off that, I think there’s a constant tension between arrogance and humility. I think arrogance often wins, the arrogance to say I know what the audience wants, I know what the audience needs, I read about this thing and because of that it’s interesting to me, therefore we need to talk about it. And that works sometimes, especially if your audience is like you, but I think it takes a lot of humility and a lot of, to step back and say, I don’t know what’s important to some people. And I have the skillset as a journalist to go after something, perhaps a skillset that a member of the public doesn’t have, or even the time and resources to do that, but I don’t always know what is the story that the community needs as opposed to the story that I want. And it’s really difficult to do that. There’s the old adage, crap what’s the phrase … comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable? It’s easy to become comfortable as a journalist. And if we’re supposed to speak truth to power, well power isn’t supposed to, isn’t necessarily elected positions. It’s not necessarily government. It can be your public radio station’s underwriters. It can be people who say that engagement journalism doesn’t work. We do know what’s best because we pay for it. There’s a lot of power.
Summer: And newsrooms aren’t necessarily buying into what we do. It takes a culture change.
Julian: I mean, racial dynamics — I mean, I have a talk show. And I say this fully knowing that I’m a white man that works in public radio, but it’s really easy to find a white man willing to talk because they have the power to do so. And often the time and resources. And to find someone willing to talk about something [that] maybe is equally or more important to someone else is hard. And it’s our mission to do that. When we have powerful people, whether it’s because their social standing talking about social issues, that’s not holding power accountable. And so we try to go out of their way to have people speak for themselves. Journalism isn’t there yet culturally. It is at City Bureau, it is a Hearken newsrooms, sometimes, but it is always a struggle.
What does engagement do for a newsroom?
Summer: It depends on how much you put into it, your commitment, and it depends on how much you put into, whether it’s a single project where we let our audience have input, ask questions, and it doesn’t really permeate how to do the rest of our coverage. but the ideal could be: every time you think of a new project or beat, could you think about where does the audience come into this in the process, and what are the editorial strategies we can use to bring this to our audience. So I think if people are doing engagement to that extent, it means they’re fulfilling a public mission. Not every newsroom has to have that mission, but they should. And the audience responds well to knowing they’re represented in the work you do. More traditional metrics can go up for a newsroom too, like, people do want to read this more often, more newsletter subscribers that become public radio members more often. So you can get bang for your buck with this, but it’s not the only thing you’re going after in the newsroom. It’s a lot.
Andrea: Yeah, as I was saying before it gives that, makes the newsroom give up some of its power and control, and I think that’s a lot of what it means. With our fellowship, we tell the fellows straight up, some of what they may produce may become a story, other terms it may never become a story. They give that up based on the engagement they’re doing. They let the process dictate what they write or don’t write, they trust the process. So I think that in that way, the question — I think in that way it is definitely a giving up of control and power, it can make the newsroom feel chaotic but not necessarily in a bad way.
Summer: It destabilizes initially, because you really have to think about how you’re going to change your editorial process, and it’s hard. And often there isn’t staff available to think full-time about how to make engagement long-term possible. You have to commit to it.
Andrea: Totally. And I think it allows ideally and hopefully your newsroom to take more of an asset-lens approach to the places its reporting on, rather than a deficit lens. It allows you to see there are already these amazing community groups that are highly organized in this neighborhood that’s often only covered around when a murder happens and things like that. So I think it allows you to think more asset lens. And the other side of that, and this is a theory we talk about a lot at City Bureau, we operate in a space of abundance rather than a space of scarcity, so you sort of realize that there’s a lot that we can work with rather than instead getting weirdly competitive and be secretive. If you do it well and consistently, I think those are some of the benefits, but it’s a process. A painful process.
Summer: Can I speak to that point, on scarcity and hard news bias? So a lot of what we’re animated by with the projects we work on at Hearken. It started by Curious City, and the premise of that was that people have questions about the place they live, often, or about a topic even, but usually the place they live, they walk down the street, they see things. They observe things about the place they’re in that are not just trauma, or just exceptional thing. In news, sometimes you’ll see that whole thing, “If it bleeds it leads?” Something horrible happened in this community, we’re going to parachute in for this terrible thing that just happened, and sometimes you’ll see, for whole communities, that’s the only way they make it into the news. And communities come to resent that. Like, if you talk about this from a certain lens or side, in these broad strokes, and you don’t really serve them, just talk about them, there’s no reason they should trust you. Or, you could go into this community, say, “Oh you have this 7-year-old who just broke this world record,” and then you also just leave. The idea is that there’s this whole idea in the middle gulf of the mundane, and curiosity, and often just I need practical information about where I am. So the idea is that a newsroom, you want to open it up to that gulf — a curiosity series where people can just ask questions, and newsrooms will do stories. It just lets you be more open-ended and have the humility of, I’m not necessarily going to set the agenda for my audience. Let them say, “This is a curiosity I had!” This is where it starts. You have to be humble, and the audience has to be humble in that exchange, so whether or not it’s a specific topic they’re asking about or if it’s just what you want to know about Chicago, they’re not asserting some things for you to cover. They’re just saying, “I would like to know something in collaboration with you,” instead of the constant lack of humility on the side of journalists in newsrooms — there’s this space where we could all be humble.
Julian: To talk about how sometimes journalists just parachute into a place and not focus on the mundanity on the place, as a funny example — not out of an engagement project, necessarily, but I think it does destabilize your audience and what your audience is expecting, particularly that audiences have come to accept news as sort of a passive act, where they just sort of let it wash over them. Dave Eggers, famous writer, he wrote a book based on the doorman in his condo building who was traveling to Yemen to work on revitalizing Yemen’s ancient coffee industry. They say mocha was invented in Yemen, and coffee in general, coffee has its roots in Yemen. So he would go to Yemen as a young man, and he met this author, and so we have this guy — doorman turned coffee importer — from Yemen, which is as most people begin to describe as a war-torn country. And he was just a guy, a U.S. citizen, his parents were from Yemen and he’s from San Francisco, and he just wanted to talk about the coffee. And of course you have to talk about the war, but oftentimes people talk about the war and feel like the coffee isn’t worth mentioning. There’s a template: this is a war-torn country, — or in Chicago, a “war-torn neighborhood” — there’s nothing unique about it. But when you talk about the coffee, you talk about the people and the place like it’s important. When we published that story, we got angry tweets! Like, how dare you talk about something as cute as coffee in a country where tens of thousands of people have cholera. We mentioned the cholera, but in addition to the cholera there is joy and coffee, and people live there, and I think that it humanizes people — which is vital. Engagement for a newsroom, it helps people draw connections.
We often hear from our bosses as international talk show, with topics like race, class, gender, corruption, environmental issues, there are global issues — they don’t have borders. But when we talk to someone, when we engage with ethnic global organizations in Chicago and we meet someone who’s Congolese, well, a lot of Congolese people and a lot of Ethiopians living on the North Side live this hybrid life. They’re not white Americans, but they’re Ethiopian and Congolese, so they care about the conflicts in those countries, but they also participate in the day-to-day life of their neighborhoods. It may seem like two different stories, but when it comes to an international story in the New York Times or in the Chicago Tribune — they’re separate stories. For a lot of people, those stories are the same story. Police brutality in Chicago, police brutality in Ethiopia — what we can do is say both these things are happening in Ethiopia and happening in America. Let’s open up a dialogue. What’s going on here? And that better represents people’s lived experience as opposed to partitioning those things [as] being global news, national news, local news. Because oftentimes people are international, national and local. And I think realizing that is something that’s missing in media that is hyperlocal.
Summer: So there’s a tension here on the panel, because you [Andrea] said you’re unapologetically rooted here, and you [Julian] are thinking about how we c0-suffer as a global community —
Julian: We’re also local though.
Julian: Like, we’re a local talk show about global issues.
Summer: And a lot of public radio stations are cutting their local coverage.
Julian: That’s a rabbit hole. You can draw connections, people will find solidarity and engagement.
Summer: Yes. And that’s the secret mission of Worldview to help people struggle and fight, but they’re not allowed to say that because they’re objective journalists, which brings us to the question you had.
Right, so my next question is, when it comes to incorporating the community into your reporting, is there a point — hypothetical or not — at which public engagement crosses a line? Can your audience ever be too involved?
Summer: I thought you were going to ask us about objectivity.
Andrea: The question is, where’s the line?
Julian: Where’s the line in any journalism?
Andrea: I mean, we don’t necessarily have community people doing full-fledged reporting. We have this even with our fellows, we discuss this, where fellows have lived experience in Chicago and we use that as an asset. We’ve had activists come into our fellowships, but they get when they have the fellowship that their goal is not necessarily to be an advocate, but be more of an organizer and let folks make decisions for themselves — but using the lens of the problematic stuff you’ve seen as an activist. The line for us depends on which program you’re engaging. If you’re a fellow, there are certain expectations. If you’re a documenter, there are different expectations. If you’re a participant in the Public Newsroom we want you to bring in your lived experience even more explicitly. The line, it fluctuates depending on which way you’re engaging us. But as long as we’re abiding by truth and being factual, being accurate, that’s the line that shouldn’t be crossed.
Summer: With Hearken, the vast majority of it is a public-powered process. And often that helps codify the process between the newsroom and audience. Like in the pitch phase, you have your audience ask you questions, in the assignment phase they get to vote on what they most want to see and sometimes in the reporting phase they come along for the reporting process. So it is a very formulaic process way to go about it, and it helps for both members of the exchange to be productive, so it comes from a place of questions because the audience knows how to ask questions — it’s the atomic unit of all journalism, because we ask questions as the starting point of telling stories. But I would say sometimes it only goes as far as who your audience [is] for your newsroom to begin with. And you have to do outreach and try to really be critical to reach beyond who we’re already reaching. I’d say that’s been a really productive relationship between audience and newsroom, and a lot of newsrooms have gone out of their way to realize.
The reason I want to use Hearken to inform my education reporting, for instance, is saying, “Well I’m sick of engaging just the policy-focused education folks in Milwaukee and I want to talk to parents and kids.” So what outreach strategy can we develop so that they ask me questions and stuff like that, so they can find me? It usually doesn’t go too far when you can say, “Hey audience, this is the process.” But you know, reporting is a skill, and people can learn it, get the skill, reporting can be democratized — every day folks and community — but reporters have a lot of priorities put on them. So I get when it comes to be too much not from a vague moral journalism standpoint but just like not everyone — journalists just have way too many expectations put on them in day-to-day life in newsrooms. Just have way too many competing priorities, and that’s not fair while their budgets are being cut left and right, so hopefully we can get to a place where fundamentally where you’re engaging the community as part of the work you do, and it’s not siloed and extraneous. But not all newsrooms are set up for that.
Andrea: Right, and the other thing you’re making me think about too, is that I think some of it is — well part of what City Bureau is addressing so directly — the issue of diversity in newsrooms is the problem that, when people think of objectivity and when people use that in the face to not do certain kinds of engagement, really objectivity has meant like, a white male perspective, and that’s what has been objective. So I think it’s hard to answer that question a bit, because we kind of don’t know if you can ever obtain objectivity. For us the biggest thing is, as long as we’re not centering that, were doing a good job. And it’s sort of a case-by-case basis on what’s the line in engagement.
Julian: Has anyone had Jason Martin for a class here? Anybody? Talk to him sometime, because he teaches a class — not always — about law, ethics and journalism, has anybody? It’s very good, he has some great takes. I think there’s this myth that objectivity means like, non-ideological, to be fair and balanced, and we all know where that phrase is most popularly used and it’s pretty funny. But like, of course there’s ideology in journalism.
Summer: And even the people that you could look at and be the arbiter of issues without being invested in it —
Julian: And what I mean by that, and what Jason’s take is — I’m going to take this, borrow it, fully attribute it as is good journalistic practice — we couldn’t do our jobs if it wasn’t for the right to a free press. We couldn’t do our job if there were no right to assembly, no right to free speech, and there was a time in this country where, to be for free speech was a political stance. And there are parts of the world where, to be a free press is a political stance. It is an opinion. And there are many people who still don’t believe in a free press. It is a political stance to not have a free press. The kind of gaslighting around the term “fake news” is an example of that. It’s an erosion of the free press before our very eyes. So objectivity is a whole other issue. But to bring it back to engagement, to recognize that people are human and there are certain things that allow, principles that allow or restrict their movement within the world, and to let someone speak for themselves is among the most true-to-journalism things you can do.
Summer: Don’t use the phrase “give voice to the voiceless” ever, because that’s not what it is. You’re amplifying conversations that are already happening, because there’s a world outside our newsrooms. There are community pathways we can really refer to.
Julian: And then basic human rights are journalistic values. We choose our stories because people are being killed. We can choose to not care, but that’s — is that objectivity? If a white man cares about a place, does that make it — there’s a global map of journalism tragedies, and it happens like — if a civil war happens in Africa, what’s the meter of people caring? High or low? If there’s a bombing in Paris, everyone’s familiar with the tri-color, the Facebook avatar. When do they care? Who decides to care? A lot of that has to do with journalists who don’t care about objectivity deciding what is important. Whereas when there is a church bombing in Egypt, and Chicago’s massive coptic community comes to us and tells us that 300 churchgoers have been killed before it’s even on BBC, you know there are people that care about this that can’t even turn to local media to learn about what’s happening to their loved ones. And I think that channel of communication needs to be maintained and respected. This is a political stance: that every person’s joy and suffering matters. And I hate to say that radical equality has to be argued for, and that’s somehow not objective when you show a church bombing in Egypt versus a concert bombing in Paris.
Journalism has historically removed itself from the world in order to judge it objectively — how would you respond to the idea that becoming enmeshed in a community causes you to sacrifice that judgement?
Summer: That’s just so ridiculous. It’s a racist and f—d up — it’s funny. I’m a Black woman, and I care a lot about Black people being killed disportionately in the street. Is the fact that I want to cover that a fair and equal amount somehow biased? A lot of newsrooms would say yeah, there’s a limit on how much you can talk about this very obvious issue. Like, if you’re a part of any ethnic or you know — you can’t talk about an identity issue too much. But then if you’re somehow a blank receptacle and you can look at the world with this objective gaze and choose anything you want to pitch — so it’s ridiculous, like do you want your newsroom to be an equitable place where everyone can bring their selfhood to bear on? Do you really care about diversifying your audience, about whose voices make it on to your airwaves or publication? You have to let people show up. Be fair, be truthful, be factual, but bring your whole selves, and don’t act like okay, I’m a Black woman but I’m not going to talk about anything that relates to the thing that I suffer and care about because I don’t want to seem unobjective. We have to change our standard for what that would look like.
Julian: You can be invested, but objective.
Summer: And everybody is in their community.
Julian: If your personal mission is to serve or help a community, you know, a lie of omission won’t help anybody. So I can say, yeah I know what’s going on, based on my research, using this toolbox that I picked up in J-school, I’ve discovered that these are some of the faults with our community, or the people who interact with our community, and where journalism stops and activism begins is when you say, “Well with this information, this is what we’re going to do.” The best that you can do is provide the most accurate information, and you can be invested to do that. But I think a lot of people, particularly the gatekeepers, are afraid of that — very, very, very afraid of that because they just don’t trust you to be thorough with self-criticism.
Andrea: I don’t think you can ask questions of objectivity when internally you’re not an equitable workspace. Like if you’ve already thrown equity out the window, I don’t trust you to be objective. Those conversations need to happen first, because you’re never going to be objective if you’re not equitable. You’ve already made a choice to prioritize something, or someone over someone else.
What are some examples of engagement done well?
Andrea: I mean I really love ProPublica’s recent investigation into Black mothers, the pregnancies and how the mortality rate is so high. And their real thoughtfulness in approaching women of color having babies and how they were so transparent about it is really invaluable — it shows that they’re really invested, and it also allowed people to engage with it in different ways. I didn’t have to have read the story in order to get the data, and I think that’s really interesting. I think that appeals to different kinds of readers, someone interested in the investigation versus someone just interested in the issue.
Julian: I think as I mentioned earlier, by nature, places where there is conflict do engagement very well. They don’t call it engagement. When people are untrained in journalism, I think it comes to them a lot more naturally. And as I mentioned in my personal experience, when I was on the ground of a revolution — a literal revolution — it changed the course of a country forever, you know it was the people who walked, who built a reputation of objectivity and criticism in a way that was relatable. You know, when you read something and you can say that makes sense — that builds trust. A system is shattered and has to get rebuilt out of nothing, and so I’ve seen engagement journalism well, really well despite itself — it doesn’t call itself engagement journalism — journalism that doesn’t interrogate, of half-heartedly question bureaucrats. In places like, there’s a newspaper created by Rohingya refugees over 150 years ago with no journalism experience, they live in Thailand — they have a pulse on what’s happening. Because they don’t really follow the same formula.
I know there’s been — there’s been a couple years where the idea of you can’t just be a journalism major. You have to have something, anything else. I think finding expertise in something else is invaluable, just because it will make — the Chicago Tribune has an international editor, and sometimes when they have an in-your-face local angle on something, they’ll send a general assignment reporter abroad, someone who best-case scenario has a couple of days to read up about the subject they’re about to cover. It’s really easy to do that, because it makes you very marketable as a journalist. It’s easy to hire people who have journalism experience, covering a beat or subject area. I think a lot of media organizations are moving away from that. But when you have expertise in an area in your own right, I think you’re willing to talk to more people than if you’re a general assignment reporter, and you just go to the expert and/or government official who’s listed on the website and ask them what they have to do. You can network better, I can just go on and on and on — engagement journalism despite itself, it’s a dying —
Summer: And how did we get to that?
Julian: I’ll tell you later.
What about engagement done poorly? Or not being able to capture readers?
Summer: When people use the word “engagement” wrong — when they’re talking about social media. If you’re a person who retweets stuff, that’s not engagement. But that’s unfortunately what people think of.
Andrea: I think the Sun-Times has provided a lot of good examples of not good engagement lately. I think even when you have folks who are like, we’re going to humanize the issue where you have some danger, where the engagement is [more] to placate white folks than it is to engage an issue. I think any time you’re saying “engagement” to be a sensational thing, or when it’s this exotifying thing, that’s where we see it not working.
Summer: And sometimes it’s wrong in how it’s addressing the way in which a newsroom covers stuff. And even with curiosity-based theories, it’s frustrating that — well I don’t want to go that far — isn’t just for transplants, like, what’s this quirky neighborhood or people that live in the area.
Andrea: And actually in that regard, I kind of wish that people were a little bit more explicit like about what this is for. When I think engagement is bad is when people are lying to themselves about who they think the piece is for. I think about, I had some issues with the hour-long radio piece from Linda Lutton about The View From 205, because like it felt like the story had been told before and a lot of people are involved, so then my question is, who is this for? And I think for her, she thinks it’s for everybody, but it’s not. And I wish more people would be explicit about who this stuff is for. If your thing is really for people who are out there trying to understand what’s happening, and then also in particular people who might be able to leverage their power to be able to do something about it, be more explicit about it. Whereas I think that people lie to themselves when they think it’s for everyone. I’m not for everyone, and that’s fine — I don’t want to be.
Julian: It’s really really funny you mention that, because I was at a presentation — can’t say too much here — but it was about the expansion of the education desk at WBEZ. And one of the first rhetorical questions on the slide show was “Who is this for?” And they were like, “Well it’s for parents of children in CPS, it’s for voters in Chicago, and it’s for general interest, because it’s for those who have a general interest in education.” And so it’s for everybody. And when we as a show, Worldview, have to defend our existence, we have to say, it’s for everybody? They say, no it isn’t, why would anybody care about that — you don’t care about it, you’re all excited about this soap opera that is Chicago Public Schools, you think it’s [this] sort of exciting, exotic thing you’re into from your suburban lifestyle… sorry I’ve revealed too much.
Summer: You’re not allowed to be critical about your publication’s decision?
Julian: It’s a broken system when the people in power think they’re doing a good job. When the management of a system thinks, we know what’s best for our audience. Covering CPS is important, but our radio station reaches three states and 9 million people, a third of whom live in Chicago. There’s a lot to cover, and when most of your audience lives in the north suburbs, it becomes a suffering forum. “Look at this poor school district with all this corruption — aren’t you glad in Evanston that your schools are better? Why don’t you abandon Chicago because it’s so horrible.” I’m done.
I’m curious how you do engagement when your audience isn’t city-based — like when it’s mostly virtual or, with Worldview, how it’s all over the world. How do you engage with all those different levels of reporting and pitching and everything when they’re not there physically?
Summer: It depends on what your project is, scope is, like a lot of what we advise newsrooms on is a digital-first strategy as a core of it. You have this place where, you say you know, this is where you can ask us a question and see what comes out of the question that you asked, but we also come up with what the outreach strategy is for, how do you even reach beyond the normal listeners in your normal listening area, and go to people in the community that you want to engage but don’t already, etc. And I mean if it’s national, it’s a similar strategy of how you meet people where they are — that’s what we ask people: do you have a newsletter, are you talking to people in that way or social media, or are you actually hitting the streets and talking to folks, or partnering with your local library? But that’s local. So if it’s national, it’s having a really good digital strategy where you’re transparent, you tell people — here’s how the process works.
Julian: Our audience, we know where they live because our radio antennas only reach so far, even though we [are] often surprised where people download our podcasts from, which is everywhere. But in some cases we are unapologetically local in the sense that our audience is those who live between Indiana and Wisconsin and everywhere in between. It’s often difficult to figure out who’s listening. I think that particularly with the kind of ethnic communities that we engage with, there is a lot of — we often have to lead by example, where a local community group — for example, a couple of weeks ago, I drove by on the far North Side, there’s a Kyrgyz Cultural Community Center, and I was like, “No kidding.” It’s a country we don’t often talk about on the show, which in a lot of cases can be a good thing because you’re in the news for an unpleasant reason, but I started digging, and it turns out that Chicago has one of the biggest Kyrgyz populations in America. Curious stop! It’s a country that most people don’t even know how to pronounce. I emailed them, and they said they all listen to the show. They just said they didn’t know how to approach us. And I was afraid — there’s a lot of truth to this — the Chicago Tribune is leaving Tribune Tower, but it’s a tall building with gargoyles, looks like a castle. You can’t walk in and be like, “I have this story!” WBEZ is in the middle of Lake Michigan. It’s awful. And, people don’t — these are literal manifestations of how people feel. We are out of reach. People don’t know who to email or who to call, and when they do they just run into operators. And so, it’s funny they were so meek and didn’t know how to get to us. But we just have to keep doing that — inviting community organizations on — to make people feel empowered to approach us.Summer: You have to be meta about it too, which is a huge process — no matter how broad the audience is, you have to tell them, by the way, this is what we’re doing. We let you into the process, you’ll see it, and you’ll see how we potentially answer your question. Or we invite community groups onto our show — you can be one of those. You just have to be really transparent, which gets lost sometimes.
Julian: But now we know that we can make curious stops and people will be listening! Your audience can be anywhere, even if you aren’t engagement journalism. It’s always a challenge. You can really work hard to find who your audience is, but I think engagement journalism as a category within journalism is still young in the sense that people are still used to consuming media in a passive ways.
[inaudible — Andrea asked the questioner what her podcast is about]
Andrea: I mean, maybe, it depends what your podcast is about, but I think just having it be known how people engage with you. That can be done pretty easily. But depending on what you do with it, maybe.
Summer: There is the danger of when you say, “We want your questions, we invite you,” but if there isn’t a way to bring that into the editorial process to make it a priority, there is a danger in acting like it’s true. So you have to make good on it.
How can student media incorporate engagement into their processes, not just for one piece, but at a foundation of different outlets at universities?
Summer: Don’t be afraid to talk to people. It’s your job as journalists to get the hell over being afraid to talk to strangers — I heard about some Hearken students who were like afraid of that — we do work with them, with some colleges and journalism programs that are doing like, man-on-the-street gathering questions, doing their reporting. Some of them were afraid of going out gathering questions, so, get over that. You need to realize that your job is about, you know, who are we trying to reach with this, who are we actually serving with the work we do? So your friends can be that community, or, depending on the coverage you’re doing, it could be people across Chicago. How do we plug into community spaces where people are convening? Your local library is great for that — go to Harold Washington and approach them, ask if you can do a community engagement series. That’s a very efficient model of doing audience engagement. So yeah, make yourself available, make it a part of your job. You have to be able to talk to people.
Andrea: Some of it is like being realistic about the relationship your institution has with the students you’re trying to cover. I think having everyone on the same page about that is super important. But then outside of that, I think you guys can take more risks because you’re not businesses, and that’s the opportunity to do it. But be really honest about that relationship with your institution. I went to Northwestern’s Medill, and that relationship is very real — or, the lack of relationship I should say, between the city and the university. And so yeah, I think that’s the first step, then take risks. I think you guys do a good job of emulating the things you see being done well, which is great.
Julian: As a DePaul grad, I remember conversation — before 14 East — about the DePaulia, and who that serves. And also about who makes the journalism program, versus what the demographics are of the student body. I mean, DePaul is one of the biggest — between DePaul and UIC, some of the biggest commuter schools of four year colleges in the city. DePaul teaches a lot of non-traditional age students. But oftentimes the people you have volunteering to write and practice are dorm-living Lincoln Parkers. So I think the first step in doing effective journalism is getting to know who your audience is. And there’s a lot — I remember reading about the demographics of the journalism program. A lot are from out of state. So you have the Chicagoans coming to DePaul for computer science or whatever, and then you have out-of-state students who are just discovering the city, but then are also writing about it. So I think engagement is an opportunity for people to get to know who their fellow students are. Not just within their program, but also the university at large. Did you know that DePaul had seven campuses? Those have all closed, or are about to close. I wonder if a lot of it has to do with institutional neglect. And students there, the faculty there, not really being included in university culture. So much so, the university gave up on it. And I think that’s a terrible loss for the university. I remember being in a journalism class talking about — it’s funny. DePaul O’Hare campus, if anyone is familiar with Des Plaines, Illinois, where Rivers Casino is, that’s where the old O’Hare campus used to be. They demolished DePaul’s campus — a beautiful campus, like four buildings, fountain and quad — and they demolished it. Nobody talked about it. There were like 4,000 students. They moved into a new campus, but at one point I mentioned, “Oh my mom works at the O’Hare campus,” and they were all like, “What?” We’re talking about the struggle between humility and arrogance — you don’t know everything about university your first year, or your second.
Get to know the place that you’re writing about. Get to know who your classmates are. If you’re not — you shouldn’t be writing for yourself. If your mission is to serve the university and the student body — DePaul has military veterans. You never hear about that. A commuter student that participates in the military, it’s a different life than most people who think about college life. This triangle of best case scenario — Loop, Lincoln Park and my buddy’s house in Wrigleyville. That’s me being transparent about my lack of objectivity.
I work at the Sun-Times — what is it like when you go to newsrooms with this, this kind of [framework]?
Summer: It depends, there’s such a spectrum. With Hearken, we used to operate a lot, and still do, within this cheerleader model of — there’s like one really excited producer or supervisor who says, “We need to be doing Hearken because these are the folks that can help us engage our audiences in a certain way. They don’t always have the institutional capacity to make it happen. Sometimes they do and they make it happen, sometimes it’s uphill, sometimes they’re like, “Alright let’s see what happens.” In a better case scenario when like a newsroom gets Hearken folks, and they become a streamlined system for doing engagement on the management level and just like the footsoldier level of producers and reporters, and there’s this buy-in. We haven’t, until the last year or so, been like, how do we go out to newsrooms who don’t know they need us? It’s a lot of inbound interest with a pretty easy value proposition with places like public radio. Then there’s some newsrooms that are basically like, “That’s our mission, we want to be doing these things where we’re serving curiosity, it’ll help you survive and things like that.” And they realize that it’s critical to their mission. And then for some newsrooms, it’s a tougher sell. And a lot of them don’t feel that they need it. It’s a spectrum, definitely a challenge. But there’s a challenge on our end — how do we keep supporting tiny newsrooms? Two people, who are the only reporters for hundreds of miles around, and make sure they have the resources to do it? There is this gulf of people who want it and know the mission but can’t afford to do it, versus the people who can afford us. Do we want to focus everything on them? I don’t know.
Andrea: Yeah I agree. For us, we’re super collaborative, it’s just what we’re known for but a lot of times it is the champion of the newsroom — it is a journalist, not always the newsroom itself. But I mean, yeah, you pick and choose your battles. It wasn’t like Twitter beef, but I was critiquing Report for America, and then the dude who runs it was like, “Can we talk?” So I made the choice to have the conversation with him, because, at the end of the day, he says his long game is the same as mine — sort of. So like, how can I advocate — and you just got all this money and a platform — and so how can I have this conversation with you to basically tell you that you’re f—g up, and you know you are? How do you admit it and show that you’re listening to people? People recieve it very differently. We have newsrooms who will approach us and ask, figure out how to be more diverse, can you help us? A lot of that is, well here’s how you can pay us, one, but two… I don’t know. Part of it is, are they actually receptive, and in those instances, it’s like: is anyone receptive? Because if everyone is, great. But in those instances, it’s not good if you just have a cheerleader. It really depends on the issue and what’s being asked. There are some newsrooms that are great and pretty self aware. We’re partnering with WTTE in Detroit, and they know they’re not great with community engagement, and the general manager sets that tone — she’s aware and really open about it. You have traditional newsrooms like that — somebody in charge who gets it — but then you’ll have someone like the Sun-Times who gets upset and has Daryl come in to talk to them and critique them but isn’t really listening to us. They’re just trying to get us to see them as not as much of a bad guy. It’s a funny and weird position to be in.
Julian: My show has been trying to up our engagement game lately outside the traditional talk show and column format, which has its faults. So for about a year we’ve been trying to sign on with Hearken, which is a saga. Our station already has a saga with Hearken, per Curious City, but to get the shows to use it is a separate issue.
Summer: It’s one of those issues where at WBEZ, even though we started it, they have historically thought about it as, we have one show that does this, and Worldview doesn’t need to engage their audience in that way — why would anyone else need to? But then secretly pushing it from a lot of angles.
Julian: It’s an attitude of, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. They said, well, Worldview has an audience, Worldview has a staff, Worldview can do call-ins, but I’m like, we want to do email engagement. And they’re like, well you know we have a proprietary email list, you can’t do that because you’re just one asset in the station. It’s internal stuff.
Andrea: You’re the cheerleader, there.
Summer: He’s a real rabble-rouser. He’s also my boyfriend.
Julian: Speaking of transparency.
Summer: It’s taught me a lot about WBEZ, but —
Julian: It’s a great place to work.
Andrea: I think it’s a great place to —
Summer: No newsroom is a good place to work.
Julian: I love my job.
Summer: City Bureau isn’t a traditional newsroom, though. Media organizations are tough. There’s a lot of energy — interpersonal energy. That’s a big part of it.
Julian: Resistance to change.
Header image by 14 East magazine.