In this preview episode, host Tim Regan-Porter introduces the podcast with excerpts from the first four full episodes. Across interviews with journalists and executives of very different organizations, some common themes emerge, including: what it takes to innovate with limited time and money, focusing on service to the community, how to integrate empathy and community listening into journalism, the importance of being authentic, engagement as a step toward diversity and inclusion, the importance of local news for democracy, and maintaining healthy cultures and your own mental health.
(1:11) – Todd Chamberlin (executive director) and Raleigh Burleigh (editor) of the Sopris Sun
(3:32) – Jennifer Brandel (CEO and co-founder) of Hearken and Zebras Unite
(9:55) – Eve Pearlman (CEO and co-founder) and Erica Anderson (engagement journalist) of Spaceship Media
(18:07) – Michael Bolden (CEO and executive director) of the American Press Institute.
Listen to the episode here:
- Sopris Sun: web, Twitter, Facebook
- Hearken: web, Twitter, Facebook
- Spaceship Media: web, Twitter, Facebook
- American Press Institute: web, Twitter, Facebook
TIM REGAN-PORTER: Welcome to a preview of the Local News Matters podcast. My name is Tim Regan-Porter, and I'm the CEO of the Colorado Press Association, the trade group for print and online news media in Colorado, and of the Colorado Press Network, our ad placement agency.
In Local News Matters, I sit down with guests from newsrooms and support organizations across the U.S., to highlight the interesting and innovative work of local newsrooms, as well as the crucial questions they face, as they endeavor to evolve their organizations to produce more meaningful journalism to better serve their communities and to enhance their organizations’ financial sustainability for long-term results.
We’ll delve into a wide range of topics in extended conversations, provide key takeaways for the TL;DR set and even summarize recent industry news. Anyone doing new or exemplary work or proffering thought-provoking insights is fair game. Whether you're a newsroom leader, a sales executive or just a citizen who cares deeply about informed communities, I hope you'll find something here worth your time.
In this preview, you can hear excerpts from guest interviews in the first four podcasts.
In the first episode, I sit down with Todd Chamberlain and Raleigh Burleigh of the Sopris Sun, a (print) weekly nonprofit newsroom in Carbondale, Colorado. I wanted to talk with them first because weekly newspapers throughout the country have proven surprisingly resilient, and Raleigh recently received the Innovation Award from CPA. Together, we explore the work, they're doing there, including what it takes to innovate. Here's Todd then Raleigh.
TODD CHAMBERLAIN: To be an innovator, not only do you have to have a great idea, but you have to have the fortitude to make it happen.
RALEIGH BURLEIGH: It's one thing to be innovative and come up with ideas; It's another to make that financially viable.
REGAN-PORTER: The results they've seen since forming in response to the closure of a previous paper.
BURLEIGH: And so I think what's really miraculous about our story—and it says a lot about the town we live in and serve—it really only took 6 weeks for some Carbondale locals to put together an alternative, which is the Sopris Sun. And it was covered by a big L.A. newspaper—just this notion that a non-profit newsroom could be successful back in 2009 and the recession, people had their doubts. So we're coming up on 14 years and in the past two in particular, we've really expanded our reach and our coverage as well as our budget.
CHAMBERLAIN: So overall, in the last two years, our budget has actually doubled. And the size of our paper has also increased.
REGAN-PORTER: And the advantages of being a weekly nonprofit.
BURLEIGH: We live in an age where we're so inundated with information all the time, especially from our phones. And there's something special to a weekly product where we really take our time and we get to sleep on questions.
CHAMBERLAIN: Instead of hard sales, I went out to the community and said, “Hey, we're a nonprofit. If you support us, you’re supporting the community.”
BURLEIGH: And I think being a nonprofit, it's in our DNA that, you know, this belongs to our community more than it does to anyone on staff or even our board of directors.
REGAN-PORTER: Next, I explore journalism, entrepreneurship and community listening with Jennifer Brandel, an award-winning journalist and co-founder of Hearken as well as Zebras Unite and Democracy SOS. We discuss Jenn’s circuitous route to journalism.
JENNIFER BRANDEL: I kind of spent a lot of my 20s just kind of, I guess, experimenting with a lot of different jobs, trying to understand what I wanted to do almost by virtue of what I don't like to do. So, you know, just trying on a lot of different hats. I was a ghostwriter for an exotic dancer and for John Hughes, the late movie director who made Pretty in Pink and Sixteen Candles and all that stuff. I worked in Tasmania picking grapes. I was a psychometric test developer in Montreal. And each of these experiences gave me an understanding of, like, what I really enjoyed and what I didn't. So, it was almost by process of elimination that I found myself back in journalism about five or so years after— initially I was interning at NPR. And realizing that, you know, journalism was this job where you could get paid to learn to be in spaces you otherwise would have no other business being in. To have people listen to you and to be able to ask questions of folks, again, you never would have come across otherwise, and to be creative and trying to be of service of your community.
REGAN-PORTER: I'm still kicking myself for not following up on ghostwriting for John Hughes and an exotic dancer. Anyway, it didn't take long for Jenn to realize that the field needed to flip the script to find a new way of relating to the community and making them part of the process.
BRANDEL: And I just kept thinking about how the process of journalism would change if we started off, not assuming we knew what others needed to know, but assuming that they were smart enough to have their own needs and they might need help finding information that journalists are uniquely positioned to do. And so that was the start of Curious City, based on this principle of start by listening. Start by, you know, trying to understand the questions people have and really accompanying them on finding those answers. And not just telling them the answer but really showing them how you found it and trying to leave people better off…. It's essentially the same process of, you know, kind of like— design thinking, you know, has these steps—ours is similar to design thinking, but it's about listening all the time rather than just as one step and having empathy all the time rather than just one step.
REGAN-PORTER: Among the many topics we discuss, Jenn offers lessons she's learned in working with scores of newsrooms across the country and the world and what it takes for institutions to innovate.
BRANDEL: You know it really is about making sure you have buy-in from the right people and for the right amount of time to give something a go. And that you do set some sort of benchmarks as to what you expect and check in over time to make sure it's going in that direction. And the ability to kind of, like, call an audible here and there, and say, “Hey, you know, it's not working how we thought. Do we still think it should continue, or should we massively rewrite our hypothesis?”
REGAN-PORTER: Innovating with limited time and money…
BRANDEL: I also think just starting small, you know. And if you're not in a position, like most newsrooms are not, in which there's,you know, free-floating dollars to try new things and throw spaghetti at the wall, it's about trying to figure out who in your newsroom already has like a sparkle in their eye to try something new. And not trying to force someone, you know, into doing something top-down, that they wouldn't otherwise be interested in doing.
REGAN-PORTER: A reaction to a common saying in journalism…
BRANDEL: I always hate it when people say, “Give voice to the voiceless,” because it's like, people have always had a voice, it's just, you're not listening. So I feel like I hear that over and over again. “Look, our job is to give voice to the voiceless.” Like, no, your job is to actually shut the hell up and listen and let those people tell their own stories. “Those people,” as in everyone else outside of, you know, your newsroom that you feel like you're being a savior to.
REGAN-PORTER: Alternative motivations and approaches to diversity…
BRANDEL: I think there's probably a lot of people who understand just on a very basic level that diversity is good because not having it is unjust but I would, I would challenge people to think more about the problems that are there to be solved that can be solved by people who have lived experience and who have a point of view that they're bringing. And you have talent and genius that have yet to be recognized for given an opportunity—what that world could look like when everyone is able to contribute to the best of their ability…. Engagement is one intermediate step. In that, if you don't have a newsroom that adequately reflects the demographics of who you're trying to serve, you can still involve them in the storymaking process, even if they're not on staff, by inviting them into the process of creating your journalism.
REGAN-PORTER: An alternative way to view the job of journalism…
BRANDEL: How could they think of themselves more as a node in a network for mutual aid, whether that Aid was around information or otherwise. And as the pandemic hit and other crises, climate crises, have hit, I see more and more the need for, like, newsrooms to be in the mutual aid business.
REGAN-PORTER: And her reflection on the pace of change in journalism and society…
BRANDEL: I was staying at an Airbnb this weekend for a friend's baby shower. On the bedroom of the room I was staying in was the timeline of the history of the world. And it had like, you know, all the years back to like the Big Bang and, you know, dinosaurs and different empires and whatnot. And it really is remarkable, you know, when I think to myself, “God, the news industry is not changing fast enough.” You know, all these sorts of things that I get really impatient about, is like—a lot has changed in the last few years. Do I wish it were faster? Do I think it could be faster? Absolutely. But like, you know, what do I expect? Human beings have only been around for a hot minute in the grand scheme of things and, you know, we have a lot of pressures on our lives besides trying to figure out new ways to do our work among the other demands. So I think that there's reason to hope but there's also a lot of threat in the next few years. Specifically into losing, you know, the start of this experiment, losing a lot of ground on the start of this experiment we call American democracy.
REGAN-PORTER: And we delve deeper into listening with Eve Pearlman and Erica Anderson of Spaceship Media. Spaceship Media specializes in dialogue journalism to bridge divides. And they recently produced The Wedge, a six-part podcast distributed by Colorado Public Radio, where Erica and her mom record some fraud conversations over the course of a year around Covid vaccines. As Erica explains:
ERICA ANDERSON: One of the tenants of Spaceship’s work is to start by listening. And I realized that my mom and I had been doing a lot of talking at one another and exchanging facts and arguing and hanging up on one another and, you know, like… and not… So, really just continuing to try to do the same thing and hope for different results. And so the very first part of this project was me taking a step back and saying, “Okay, well, if I'm a journalist, what do journalists do? They ask questions and they listen at the beginning.” And I realized there was a lot of things I didn't know about my mom, just who she is in the world but also kind of what drives her. And she's had quite a life.
REGAN-PORTER: Over the course of the conversations, we hear Erica in dialogue with her mom, Eve, her therapist (yes, we're invited onto the proverbial couch) and others as she struggles with her goals and her Instinct intellectualize things.
ANDERSON: Yeah, I think that that was a big realization. And I think it's something that we do as journalists out of this idea of, you know, objectivity. That I, that somehow you could stop being a human to report on something and that that would in any way serve you. And obviously that's tricky, you know, talking about bias and things like that. But I think we also do this a lot to just make it through the world, to make it through our day. You have to, you know, intellectualize things a little bit to separate it from you. But in this case that just, that wasn't serving my life. And it also wasn't honest, because, you know, what was driving me was absolute terror. And I wasn't acknowledging that I was making it about my mom being wrong.
REGAN-PORTER: What started out as an illustration of dialogue journalism turned into something much more personal, centered around individuals and relationships.
ANDERSON: It was like, there were two goals, I wanted to maintain a relationship with my mother and have it be, you know, an honest and open and loving relationship. And I wanted my mom to change her mind about her views. And those two things I hoped could coexist and… But it made it incredibly frustrating because as a journalist I have access to, you know—I have an experience of how to research and how to find experts and how to talk to them. And so I had hoped, “Oh, I'll bring my mother into my world and she… and she will see—she will see the light. You know, the truth of what this is.” And it didn't work. That's not, you know— that doesn't, that's not… not how the world works. And there are so many conversations where I would come to Eve, and I would say, “You know it's not working.” She goes, “That's not the point. The point is maintaining the connection. And then we see, and then we see what happens because you can't get anywhere with anyone if you're not, if you're not in connection.” And I was like, “Yeah, totally. Totally, totally. But I'm still gonna change her mind.” You know, like that, that was just this constant piece. And, you know, I often feel, you know, we have these big conversations and people are in a room or online and they're, you know, finding common ground. These people who, you know, voted for Trump and voted for Hillary. And they're not feeling animosity towards each other. And then my question always is, “Okay. So now what? How do we change the people's minds who are wrong?” You know, and then it's like this, so I'm constantly having to reset. I'm just you know that that isn't the point, even as frustrating as that is, you know, for journalists who want to talk about, you know, big-T truth. You know, we set out to make a piece that we thought, I thought, was going to be a lot more about facts and changing minds and like, you know, showing the journalistic process to someone who was not a journalist. And that's not that's not ultimately what, that, you know, that brought any sort of conclusion to this or any kind of payoff. But to me, this does feel like a piece of service. You know, I'm just like: you, too, can do this, but like don't, you know—but don't do it without help and support.
REGAN-PORTER: And we do explore tips for journalists or anyone wanting to have productive, meaningful and informed conversations across differences. Eve and Erica also discuss engagement journalism's role in the news ecosystem and its focus on service.
EVE PEARLMAN: I always think that there's just lots and lots of lots of ways to do journalism, to be a journalist. There's, you know, great value in the piece that takes three years. There's great value in the piece that lets you know why the street is closed down. It’s different, but it's—we need that. There is a movement, you alluded to it, you know, engagement journalism, participatory journalism, constructive journalism. There's a lot of people who are working on the same sorts of challenges to the kind of journalistic positioning that that doesn't invite consideration and empathy and expansiveness and humility, and so I think we're seeing all kinds of efforts to do it differently. I mean, I think I often sit on the point of like—we're not, we don't have a shortage of information, right? Like there's plenty of good reporting that exists. But we do have a shortage of people being able to hear it. And that's why, you know, Spaceship sits where spaceship sits. It is like, how can we make it so the facts that I bear are hearable and consumable or digestible.
ANDERSON: I feel really privileged for the fact that my lens into journalism was through this engagement style of journalism and seeing, first and foremost, like, is this thing that you are making going to serve someone or a population or a community of people? Is this giving them information that they need? Is this, is this somehow making their life better? Is it giving them a blueprint? Is it giving them a tool?
PEARLMAN: I want to flag that as a really important thing. As I think about Spaceship’s work and many other journalistic innovator works as centering community, not the reporter. So, not my byline, my story, my brand, but what am I doing to be in service to, in our case divided communities, who aren't hearing each other, but across the board. And I think, when I think, when you, when you show up in service, people know that and hear that. And that's very different than showing up extractively, right. “Here, give me the quote that fits my story. Give me the sound bite that says what I have in mind you should say so that it flows in my piece.” It's just a very different orientation, and I sort of believe that, you know, as the news and information space has gotten fragmented and cacophonous, it’s—it becomes even more vital to sit in that space of, like, humility with empathy. And because people feel that, and that's, that's what you have going for you, that trumps everything else because people respond to real, to real connection.
REGAN-PORTER: In the fourth episode, Michael Bolden, executive director and CEO of the American Press Institute, expounds on local news and democracy.
MICHAEL BOLDEN: There is a huge question about local news and maintaining its place as an enabler of our democratic society and institutions. It is no accident that freedom of the press is enshrined in the First Amendment. The founding fathers clearly knew, first of all, that American democracy is an experiment. George Washington looked at it as the last great experiment in civic happiness. And, you know, we think about the pursuit of happiness when we hear that. We often think it's about individual happiness, but it's not. It's about how we exist and coexist together, and the ability to make decisions together, that affects how we live, and how our society functions. And ensuring that people have the information they need is a vital part of what the free press does. And so, at the local level, we have to have a robust thriving free press, providing people with the information they need, whether it's in Denver or Arlington or Burlington, Vermont, it's absolutely critical. Otherwise we're going to see more of our democratic freedoms slip away because people won't have the information they need to coexist in our communities. So I think that that is one of the first things that we need to hold up as important. And remember that context when we're dealing with everything else that comes our way, that freedom of the press is an enabler of what is a great democratic experiment. And when It suffers, our democracy will suffer.
REGAN-PORTER: The crucial role of listening in local news…
BOLDEN: How committed are you to the people who are in your backyard and how involved are they in helping to, you know, set your coverage priorities and your relationships? … One of the things that I fundamentally believe has to be a part of any local news operation is, what does your community listening look like? How are you actually connecting with people and hearing them, as opposed to imposing your will on them.
REGAN-PORTER: The mindset that listening requires…
BOLDEN: Well, it does take a different mindset and I mean, I think it takes a huge amount of humility because your assumptions are going to be challenged. You're probably going to be told that you're wrong about something and none of us wants to be wrong about anything, right? And yeah, that can be one of the reasons why it's so difficult for people to sort of acknowledge what's going astray.
REGAN-PORTER: The problem of defining journalism, and the roles of legacy media and startups…
BOLDEN: But it will never be one thing or the other. It will be all of these things. It will be some legacy broadcasters and publishers, and whomever, who have figured out how to better serve audiences and who have created pathways to sustainability. It will be some digital native organizations. It will be nonprofit legacy media like NPR. It will be bloggers and the guy who's on Twitter or Mastodon or whatever tweeting the scanner news. It will be all of these things. And so I think when we talk about where do we put the investment, it isn't about making a bet on one or the other. It's about making strategic bets in areas throughout the ecosystem…. I was recently in Denver for the convening of the major-market public media television stations, including Rocky Mountain PBS. And the chief content officer there, she spoke about this very problem in Colorado, where you go out and, in some communities, the best-known person, who has the most ability to reach people, is someone who has no professional journalism training, what-so-ever. She was actually speaking about a specific person in the example that she gave. And it was like, do we not bring that person inside our tent, you know, to help in our conversations? Do we just write them off because they're not a journalist? And I think that anybody who's very aware of what's happening in the marketplace, you say, of course not, of course we want that person to be part of our efforts, right? It's the same point I was making about Larry Calhoun, the guy who runs DC RealTime News and who's tweeting the scanner stuff. It's like, okay, we can say, “Well, he has no journalism training. He's not a professional journalist.” But that does not diminish the role that he has in the news and information ecosystem. So how do we all learn to co-exist and how do we all learn from one another? I think that that's the important question that we have to keep at the forefront. Because otherwise we're not serving the members of the community well at all. Because they're not going to write people off. Especially now when people are getting information from so many diffuse sources.
REGAN-PORTER: The interplay between good journalism, cultural relevancy, healthy newsroom environments, and financial health…
BOLDEN: We want to make sure that we are supporting news organizations on the path to being culturally and financial healthy. Those two things, do not exist independently. So when you talk about things like diversity and inclusion and making sure that you have online harassment support and trauma training for your journalists, that is absolutely as important as understanding your community and having revenue models that make sense. Those things do not exist in a vacuum. So what we're going to be talking about a lot in the new year is what is a holistic news organization and redefining success. Because success will not just be being fiscally viable because eventually that will fall short. If you're ignoring your community or you can't get journalists in the door because they're, the people who come into your shop are too burned-out. It's really about marrying those things together. And frankly, I don't think anybody in the industry has been talking about those things being so intertwined.
REGAN-PORTER: Episodes will start dropping weekly at the end of January. Subscribe in your favorite podcast app and sign up for our newsletter at localnewsmatterspodcast.com, or for lazy typists like me, at lnmpod.com. I look forward to continuing the conversation and hope you'll join us.