Building Zones of Connectivity

Panelist Remarks by:

Jan Schaffer
Executive Director
Pew Center for Civic Journalism

August 8, 2002, Miami, FL

Much of the decade of civic journalism has been about building entry points for readers and viewers into the news.

The goals were:

  • To enrich the journalism.

  • To make it more authentic.

  • To build some civic capital - engage people in problem solving or deliberation.

  • Above all, to deliver connections that actually meant something.

And the decade has been rich with experimentation. Much of that experimentation has been about layering onto the journalism - either before you wrote the story or after the story piqued community interest - some kind of interaction with readers and viewers.

The arc of experimentation has been exciting.

Civic journalism started the decade with election projects - looking for voters' issues instead of candidates' issues, via polling, focus groups, face-to-face interaction with those running.

It morphed into enterprise stories on a number of community issues. Early entry points usually involved some kind of interaction in a real space - such as a town hall meeting.

As the decade progressed, we found that these early interactions kept bootstrapping themselves into more and more sophisticated connections with audiences.

So from town halls or pizza parties, you might advance to action teams or mock juries or study circles.

Along the way, an appetite for the subtler interactions of civic mapping emerged. Open-ended listening, unpacking buzzwords or code words. Asking the questions, "What do you make of that? Tell me more. What are your aspirations?"

Then came the Internet, and Web chats became a popular form of connection.

Now we are seeing the appetite for interactions going in some fascinating new directions from computer or video kiosks to digital connections via tax calculators or Web games.

In short, the connections built attachments with audiences, which then built relationships with the news organizations.

Now, for some newsrooms, the word "connections" is replacing the word "convergence."

Think about it:

With convergence and new media you focus on:

  • Speed

  • Delivery

  • Mix (breaking news, entertainment)

  • Revenue

There is a lot of concern with immediacy, with getting it first, then linking to go deeper.

But it's journalists vs. news consumers.

The epiphany for civic journalists has been focus first on them - the readers or viewers.

Focus on the relationship with them, the connections with them, then the journalism improves. How do you build a relationship? Through interactions, participation.

So the growing effort to build connections is moving into:

  • Showing as well as telling. Not everyone loves the linear narrative.

  • Delivering knowledge plus news.

  • Providing lots of entry points.

  • Providing venues for telling your own story.

  • And composing your own internal story or narrative.

The goals are:

  • Utility, usefulness

  • Practicality

  • Added value

  • Connections

  • Ownership

  • Community building

Future news will be more about story making than story telling.

This is already happening. People are starting to construct their own internal narratives by assembling components of information they get from a number of places: radio, TV, the Internet and e-mail. Places like "All Things Considered," Jay Leno, or their next-door neighbor.

And they are arriving at the story they believe.

So I want to suggest to you that this is a significant development - especially as you prepare the next generation of journalists.

It may mean that you worry less about delivering the full story and more about building the many story components that people will assemble in their own fashion.

And rather than wring your hands, rejoice in some of the exciting directions this is leading. It's building all kinds of new connections. And as with any connections, the more you keep in touch, the more solid and enduring the relationship.

So we are seeing Blogs, E-letters, Web-based beats.

Spokane just yesterday sent me its first interactive obit - complete with audio and video.

Now tax calculators, clickable maps, choices exercises, simulations and matchmakers are the emerging tools for building connections.

Historically journalists have always focused on craftsmanship. I think now we need to focus on connections. Find the novel entry points. Start building those attachments that lead to relationships and a loyal audience.

You need to figure out how to prepare your students for where the industry is going. And this is a wonderful venue for teaching and research to interface. You can build the connections and you can also measure the impact.

I'd suggest a great curriculum segment would be: Less noise, more intelligent interaction.

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