Posted by: structureofnews | December 5, 2017

Small | Scale

StoryWorksCan you scale intimacy?

In an age of viral content and global pageviews, what’s the right balance between aiming for massive scale and building deep, personal engagement?

That’s one of the questions I was left pondering after this year’s Global Investigative Journalism Conference in Johannesburg – another great gathering of some of the best and brightest journalists from around the planet.  (And as an aside, one of the best conferences GIJN has put on so far.  Plus, no one should ever miss a Paul Myers presentation).

The question about scale vs engagement was a theme I saw in a couple of panels, but surfaced very clearly in one I moderated on Innovations in Storytelling, with panelists David Schraven of Correct!v, Susanne Reber of The Reveal, and Julianna Ruhfus of Al Jazeera.

David and Susanne presented interesting ideas that seemed to really build connections with audiences – but relatively small ones.  (Julianna showed how Al Jazeera was using news games to engage audiences.) Susanne talked about how the Center for Investigative Reporting was running plays based on its stories, among them one about deaths of men working in the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota.  The plays, Susanne noted, had very small audiences by design, but seemed to have touched them very deeply, not least because it was shown in the communities the stories were about.

Other plays CIR has collaborated on include:

HEADLOCK was written by William Bivins and directed by Jennifer Welch based on Ryan Gabrielson’s investigation into abuse at California’s adult care facilities.

A GUIDE TO THE AFTERMATH was written by Jon Bernson and directed by Jennifer Welch, inspired by Mimi Chakarova’s documentary about female veterans suffering from PTSD and military sexual trauma.

THIS IS HOME was written by Tassiana Willis, Donte Clark, Will Hartfield-Peoples and Deandre Evans and directed by Jennifer Welch and Jose Vadi in response to Amy Julia Harris’ reporting on corruption and squalor in Richmond, California, public housing.

ALICIA’S MIRACLE was written by Octavio Solis, translated into Spanish by Brandon Mears and directed by Jennifer Welch in response to Bernice Yeung and Andrew Donohue’s investigation into the use of fumigants in California’s $2.6 billion strawberry industry.

Correct!v, the German non-profit investigative news organization, is likewise branching into plays, but David also talked about a foray into very local journalism: Setting up a storefront newsroom in Bottrop, a coal mining town of 100,000 where hundreds of people had died because of a pharmacist’s manipulation of cancer medicines. Correct!v stationed reporters there for two months, covering the story, holding talks and events in their office space, and screening films about the pharmacist.  About 20 to 60 people showed up for each event, but the stories and engagement sparked something.

“Through the events we had and the through the social media activities we had, some people formed a group, who wanted to do more,” David wrote to me. “They used the findings and our thought of what should be changed to organized a number of demonstrations.”

“The most important thing we learned was: We were able to get in touch with the elderly people, with poor people, with uneducated. With people who can’t raise their voice in a public square. They came to our office. They trusted us and we took the time to talk to everybody.”

And even though Correct!v didn’t ask for donations, people gave. “A grandma walked in and gave 20 Euros, saying. “What you do is important, carry on.””

And it clearly was, to those people.

But in a world of finite resources – and a reporter’s time is a reporter’s time, regardless of whether his or her story touches 100 people or 100,000 people – what’s the right trade-off between very deep engagement with hundreds or thousands versus millions who might give a different story a quick read?   How many people should you aim to reach – or how deeply do you want to reach them?  (And yes, I know you can sometimes do both – have intimate engagement with scale.  But it’s rare.)

Can you scale intimate contact? And how can you pay for it, if it can’t generate the kinds of advertising or subscription dollars or “impact” numbers that funders love?

Maybe you can’t.  But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a critical issue for our mission.

One of the key questions facing news organizations – and journalism in general – is the need to reach across divides and touch communities with opposing viewpoints.  It’s important to understand them – but it’s probably more important to speak to them, about issues they care about, rather than on national issues, or even by localizing national issues.  In other words, we need more reporting for, rather than about those communities. “Oh, so you mean you want to bring back local newspapers.”  And that can be expensive.

One experiment in doing this is The Bristol Cable, an organization that is trying to get the local community in Bristol much more engaged and involved in reporting about their issues.

Will it succeed?  And can it succeed financially? Perhaps, if it’s not trying to build out a full-fledged newsroom, which can be an expensive proposition in smaller communities.  To be sure, there have been attempts to build out a business in covering local communities before, not least Patch, that tried to build a business model out of  aggregating multiple local audiences.

But perhaps the solution isn’t in trying to build a large audience, but in lowering costs by building more engagement via using part-time journalists.  One of the more interesting conversations I had in Joburg was with Rob Steiner, whose program at the University of Toronto involves giving mid-career people journalism training.  Not all of them want to be full-time reporters, but have an interest in improving coverage of areas they’re interested in.  Is that a model for more sustainable local coverage?

I don’t know, but what’s clear to me is that local engagement matters; that it often can’t be done at scale; but that there may be models that can help fund it.  And that we shouldn’t measure impact only by how much national change it sparks.


  1. […] there are a lot more possible paths to explore, from plays and pop-up newsrooms to games to old-fashioned storybooks (even from journalists in jail! […]

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