THE JCARN PROMPT
We talk about “failure” a lot in the online journalism community. It can be a bit of a buzzword … let’s create a safe space this month to discuss a failure that others can learn from.
- It must be a project you worked on.
- It must be your failing within that project.
- No apologizing. This is a safe space to discuss failure.
Update: The Carnival of Fail roundup from David Cohn, a must-read.
Based on stories bubbling up from The Rapidian, what kind of social dialogue could we frame? We settled on a town hall around Grand Rapids Public Schools, to which most people give up in frustration. Six of GRPS’ schools were ranked in the bottom 5% of the state, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. GRPS’ dilemma is an obstacle to the urban renaissance as GR keeps losing families (urban pioneers included) to suburbs with more flush public schools.
There were two components that we knew needed to be in place.
- An inundation of citizen reporting that explore the problem and appeal to Grand Rapidians from all walks of life.
- Provide a space to have a conversation.
We wanted to pose this question: In a community brimming with creatives and artists, grassroots efforts and community building, what could we come up with if we applied even a fraction of that mojo to Grand Rapids Public Schools?
Create an opportunity for citizens and neighbors, stakeholders to come together from all different perspectives to determine collectively what a public issue means to them.
Public journalism. Newspapers not only solicited their audience for what sort of questions they wanted answered, they also organized and facilitated town hall meetings in which citizens thoroughly dissected an issue and came up with a collective answer to “what now?”
The web may have revolutionized how we communicate, but even with social sharing, participatory media – just like legacy journalism – falls short of creating vibrant dialogue among a wider crowd. There’s still no stronger way than an in-person meetup for a public to grapple with the issues that face their homes and communities.
We began legwork on the project in June 2010, and by the end of July, the daily paper had signed on as a media partner while a biweekly, local entrepreneurship publication had agreed to underwrite the cost of a 450-seater theater plus refreshments. GRPS had given us their blessing, and we had begun to reach out to foundations, city commissioners and community based organizations.
Although everything was in place, we all felt uneasy. As the passionate town hall proponent, I was the one to pull the plug about one and a half months before the event. I made this observation years before:
[Public journalism] may have changed news delivery from a lecture to a seminar but only with political issues, leaving culture, art, business and other topics untouched.
I was so engrossed with crafting the conditions for an atypical town hall that I had overlooked one crucial thing: Even if it is staggering for city dwellers, this was not an issue bubbling up organically on The Rapidian. We were being proactive rather than responsive, so we didn’t know what questions would be most important or galvanize an audience that took us up on a town hall.
Since then, we’ve seen coverage on several topics grow organically and could have been town halls. Grand Rapids is concerned about the origins of food: What does local mean, what is the real cost of food and how do we eat local while also respecting the limitations of the region? Anonymous individuals have taken violent action against budding neighborhood business corridors, resulting in the presence of FBI terrorism units. Although no one will call it by its name, it has people reflecting on institutionalized racism.
Working at a startup with limited resources, especially in the context of a nonprofit, means pulling together a town hall is akin to working in a collective. Rallying media partners and negotiating underwriting on a case-by-case basis makes it difficult to be agile. At The Rapidian, we value the idea of the town hall but would need to incorporate a general reserve as part of our strategy so we can respond to burgeoning discussions in a timely manner.
The Carnival of Journalism is a loose network of journalistic bloggers plumbing the current state and future of journalism on a monthly basis.
Denise is the citizen journalism coordinator for The Rapidian, a participatory news project powered by the Grand Rapids community. You can read more of her musings on technology and storytelling/journalism on her blog and at The Rapidian’s dev blog.