With Latitude News on hold, I’ve been taking stock. And not just about how to make the production of original journalism sustainable.
One of the optimistic conclusions of the Latitude News experience is how, with a tiny team, a shoestring budget and off-the-shelf technology, we managed to do something different – we discovered stories no one else had, we created a distinctive voice, we even scooped the AP.
Here’s the thing. The news agenda – the main stories journalists cover – remains surprisingly narrow and predictable despite all the digital tools we now have at our fingertips and despite the tsunami of information that we have access to every hour of the day. The fact is that is that too often we journalists are still acting like lemmings – we feel more comfortable in a pack.
One sure way to open up our story gathering – and to leave our comfort zone – is simply to listen better to our audiences.
That seems to be, for example, what Pierre Omidyar has decided to do with some of his First Look millions. First there were the journalism superstars Glenn Greenwald and Matt Taibbi and now, as he writes in his latest blogpost, “we will test an approach to journalism that starts with being part of well-defined communities of interest, understanding the people in them and serving their needs and aspirations in new ways. The digital world gives us unprecedented opportunities to meet this vision.”
Three cheers for investing in an experiment that starts at the grassroots, with the people who are consuming the information. There is no doubt, as Omidyar argues, that the web makes it easier than it has ever been to reach “defined communities of interest” – wherever they may, independent of time and space.
But after a career working to attract new audiences and communities to world affairs journalism both at the BBC in London and then Latitude News, I think it’s important to make the case for old fashioned physical communities. For what it’s worth, my “lessons learned” from years in the trenches all reinforce my conviction that geography matters more than we may think.
Don’t underestimate the pull of the local – especially when what’s happening nationally and internationally feels overwhelming and beyond anyone’s control. Where people live is part of their identity – when journalism relates to their backyard, they tend to pay attention. More than that – they’ll have a contribution to make.
People are curious about how they compare to their neighbors. When I was running a daily show about Europe for BBC Radio Five Live – the national 24 hour news and sport station – I decided to get beyond impersonal audience surveys (that put Europe on the very bottom of their interests) and canvas opinion directly by spending a day on the streets of London and stopping people with a “what do you find interesting about Europe” question. The results were unexpectedly encouraging. Yes, they were interested in coverage of Europe but not, emphatically, of politics and politicians. What they wanted – and there was wide agreement on this – was more reporting on how the UK compared to other European countries on the issues Brits were debating like the health care system, fishing quotas, and undocumented immigrants as well as reality TV shows. So that’s what we started to do – and broke stories while getting listener plaudits. Latitude News continued this local/global mashup experiment in the US. One of our most popular projects was our series on bullying in schools worldwide which included data comparisons as well as reporting on how different countries have gone about trying to deal with this problem (top marks go to Finland and Sweden). The feedback from our American readers was gratifying: “more approachable,” “more relatable”, “making international news feel closer.”
The simple act of connecting across borders between audiences and/or reporters can make for original and powerful journalism. During the Kosovo War we produced a phone in for BBC Radio Five Live where the invited guests were a Serb housewife in Belgrade and an Albanian Kosovar baker. The first caller, a truck driver from Birmingham (England), waded in with the question most of us wanted answered but many news hosts would have considered too “basic” to ask: ”why are you guys fighting?” The discussion that followed broke ranks with the usual pundit analysis – it was jagged and emotional but it was also informative, engaging and inclusive. The phone lines were jammed for the next half hour. I’d be willing to bet that for many of our listeners, this radio moment made them interested in the events in Kosovo for the first time. On the professional side, collaborations between reporters of different nationalities may sometimes be tricky (as I know all too well) but they get at stories and angles that aren’t covered elsewhere, not least because each participant is forced to look at his or her country through the eyes of another, especially when the issue is a contentious one like, for example, adoption between Russia and the US. The MIT data scientist Alex “Sandy” Pentland puts it this way: “We are used to emphasizing individual creativity, but we’ve found that creativity is mostly just the connecting of ideas that already exist. This is the source of innovation.”
Journalism that relates to the local has the potential to open new worlds. In commenting on Omidyar’s announcement that First Look will be investing in “journalism that starts with well-defined communities of interest,” Jay Rosen offers the following advice: “when starting from zero in journalism go for a niche site serving a narrow news interest well.” This makes a lot of sense: you build and become sustainable because the information you produce is distinctive and indispensable. But what about those people who may not realize that the information you provide is interesting, relevant and important to them – how do you reach them? Outreach, it seems to me, is part of what public interest journalism is all about: making sure, for the sake of a healthy democracy, that the widest possible audience has the information they need to be engaged in the world around them. The beauty of starting at the local level is that it gives you access to everyone – because everyone belongs to some local community. This as we saw at Latitude News with our local/global mashup perspective, represents huge opportunity for original journalism and for meaningful interactivity. Listen to what matters to people in communities across the US today and you’ll invariably find international connections and issues that people in other countries are also having to grapple with. In 2012 we were the first journalists, as far as I know, to talk with Latino Mormons in Utah (the fastest growing constituency in the Church of Latter Day Saints) and get their take on Mitt Romney and his views on immigration given the growing number of undocumented immigrant Mormons living in the US. Our coverage of the casino debate in Massachusetts took its cues from citizens’ questions – from on-the-ground vox pops and social media platforms. We reported on why Hungary banned slot machines, how Norway limits the amount gamblers can spend on slots and the fierce debate over slots in Australia, the country where slots – or pokies – are ubiquitous.
Latitude News was an experiment – on a small scale and over a limited period of time. What we did by mashing up local and global wasn’t rocket science but what we achieved underscored for me how narrow the current editorial agenda is and how much room there is for editorial innovation, especially when journalists partner with their audiences.
I’ll be watching what’s happening in this space with interest!