On Oct. 23, news media pros, students, tech innovators and entrepreneurs gathered in Brooklyn for the first day of Hearken’s Engagement Innovation Summit.
Hearken, a company that creates tools for “public-powered journalism,” said those attending shared the goal “of cultivating community and improving democracy through information sharing.”
The stakes were Trump-sized. As the website put it: “With profoundly important elections coming up in the United States and across the world, this gathering had a special track on how innovators are creating engaged elections coverage.”
As the opening session got going, Geoff Dembicki walked onto the stage. He was there to talk about his work covering the climate emergency for The Tyee.
Why was a journalist from British Columbia helping to kick off this summit of U.S. journalists and democracy advocates readying themselves for their nation’s critical national election?
The Tyee had been invited to tell its story by Jay Rosen, the noted New York University professor who closely monitors digital journalism and heads a research initiative called the Membership Puzzle Project.
Membership, because Rosen and others are coming to the conclusion that the future of independent journalism rests on publications that involve their audience as members. Not just members who contribute financial support — though that is crucial — but also members who help inform and frame the publication’s areas of reporting.
Puzzle, because news organizations are still trying to figure out how best to grow and involve their membership — and for many it’s a race to survive.
That’s where The Tyee comes in. For over a decade we’ve invited readers to help pay for special reporting projects, and sometimes advise us where to focus our efforts.
This year, we built on that record when deciding how to cover the federal election. We made a close study of what Rosen calls The Citizen’s Agenda, and incorporated a lot of his ideas.
In mid-May, we asked readers to “Help shape the Tyee’s federal election coverage.” What questions did they think The Tyee should investigate — and put to candidates — during the campaign?
We received 600 responses, which we sifted and refined into 10 potential questions. We then asked readers to vote on their favourites so we could reduce the list to a manageable five issues. This time we received 2,000 responses. The fundraising drive we held at the same time exceeded our target, allowing us to add an additional question.
Our readers’ top question: “Do you agree Canada should be on an emergency footing regarding climate change, and if so what actions will your party take?’”
To read all six of the final questions, see this story’s sidebar. And here is the report we issued on all the stories — about 100 total — we produced during a very busy election season.
So, back to Brooklyn. On stage for that first session, Rosen laid out elements of The Citizen’s Agenda, a concept he proposed in November 2018 on his widely read blog PressThink.
Its principles start with “know who your community is.” Then ask them, he says, “What do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes?”
If the process is done right, “journalists covering the campaign have what they need to name, frame and synthesize the citizen’s agenda. The product is a ranked list, a priority sketch. The top 8-10 issues or problems that voters most want the candidates to be talking about.”
This was not the first time Rosen had floated the idea. Nor was it the last (here’s a recent twitter thread by Rosen that cites The Tyee). And his original inspiration was an experiment run by the Charlotte Observer in North Carolina way back in 1992.
But this year Rosen concluded that you — The Tyee’s readers — had participated in a model worth sharing with the new wave of U.S. independent media. That’s why he invited a Tyee rep to present with him at Hearken. (Luckily for us, Dembicki had just moved to Brooklyn.)
Rosen started the session by sharing his Citizen’s Agenda concept with the Hearken crowd.
Then Dembicki explained how British Columbia became home to a long-running independent site for news, ideas and solutions that depends on the financial support of its readers (we call them Tyee Builders) to do top-notch journalism.
How at The Tyee he’d gone from intern to reporter to globally known author of Are We Screwed?, a book on the climate crisis challenge.
And how this autumn Tyee Builders had empowered him to draw on his expertise to write a number of pieces addressing their prime question for the federal election.
Rosen’s prescription had played out very well at The Tyee, Dembicki told the audience, and so they might consider a similar approach. Ask your readers to tell you their coverage priorities. Treat them as members in the effort. And deliver and report back. That’s the formula that Rosen recommends and which The Tyee has put into practice.
By all accounts, attendees of the Engagement Innovation Summit were inspired by what Rosen and Dembicki shared and many intend to follow suit.
Rosen was in Vancouver earlier this month and dropped in at The Tyee’s offices where we exchanged updates. He was happy to say the Membership Puzzle Project will continue another year at least. We were happy to say our current drive to add 500 new monthly Builders was on track to succeed.
We asked him: “You watch the important trends in the evolution of journalism. Where do you see The Tyee fitting into a key trend or two, and where do we buck trends?”
“A portion of the readership that feels strongly about the Tyee supports it for the others,” he responded. “That fits into the trend toward membership models in news.”
“At the same time, there is no talk of paywalls, which would not be a good fit within The Tyee’s tradition,” Rosen added. “That bucks the much larger trend toward subscription.”
We pointed out that “The Tyee is gambling on the Guardian model — one type of membership model, without a paywall. Are we crazy?”
“I don't think it’s crazy at all,” Rosen said. “But you need fans who are passionate about your site. The site in turn has to be passionate about something big — in your case equity and environment in British Columbia. No ‘view from nowhere’ allowed.”
When Rosen talks of “the view from nowhere,” he’s keying off the thinking of philosopher Thomas Nagel. Self-styled “traditional” news media, he says, claim their carefully cultivated “objective” voice is superior. That non-committal voice simply makes their biases harder to spot and address, he says. The resulting reporting, in trying to appear “balanced,” too often gives equal time and weight to harmful actors and false claims.
Rosen has said the “voice from nowhere” stems from “arrogance born of monopoly” in traditional media.
Breaking down that monopoly is a main reason The Tyee was established in 2003.
Perhaps it’s clear now why we are pleased to be on Rosen’s radar, as we and our members enter an exciting year in which we transform into a non-profit organization.
Rosen predicts that the future belongs to “engagement journalism” that is “audience-first and public-powered.” We could not agree more.
Happy holidays, readers. Our comment threads will be closed until Jan. 2 to give our moderators a break. See you in 2020!
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