Wick Communications

Time to listen up

In journalism on 22 Jul 2016 at 8:44 am

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The best piece of journalistic advice this week – or in a long while – comes from City University of New York Journalism Professor Jeff Jarvis. It will take you six minutes to read his blog post, “Learning to Listen,” but it may just save your career.

As he points out, there has been a bit of a convergence around the idea that our communication with readers is no longer a one-way street. Yes, yes, all of us say we hear our readers loud and clear. But do we really?

Jarvis (riffing off of New York Times Public Editor Liz Spayd) notes that newspaper reporting too often works like this:

Editor: Hey, reporter, why don’t you do a story about the new bridge over the river?

Reporter: Good idea. I’ll rehash the construction process, get a quote from the city manager and assign a picture of the ribbon-cutting. Have it for you in two hours.

Reporter and editor intuitively know what readers would find interesting about this bridge, mostly because they know what would be easy to get by talking to the usual suspects and they know how they have always done it. I submit to you that the readers in the scenario above are likely to have interests that aren’t immediately obvious to those two – and that aren’t contained in the city staff report. Every newsroom is set up to eliminate friction and minimize change. In fact, that is true of most organizations. As a result, we make some things automatic. In order to be more machine-like, we have to hold change agents — readers who are demanding something different — at a distance. …

Here’s Jarvis:

Listening turns journalism’s process on its head. It means we start not with our story ideas and news judgment — Spayd says journalists “subscribe to the view that editors and reporters have the most cultivated sense of which stories are most important, and which subjects most worthy of attention.” Social journalism starts instead with a community’s needs — which we can’t discern unless we listen — and judges its success not on circulation, traffic, page views, attention, or engagement with our so-called content but instead with our impact on people’s lives: journalism as service. That requires even more radical cultural and organizational change.

Notice, please, that he isn’t merely saying we need a bunch of metrics to see what readers want. He’s saying we need to ask them and then to aim our pens at changing their lives for the better. That suggests a profound new way of doing business. It also represents a lifeline in these deep waters in which we find ourselves. Listening – and not just long enough to get the quote to plug into the story we’ve already written in our heads – is a labor intensive process. This will not be easier. But It’s time to open up the doors to the Fourth Estate and let the people in.



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