Democratizing the news: More people, more ideas

I have worked to change the demographics of who is reporting the news for over a decade. In 2000, I founded a non-profit, People’s Production House, that teaches journalism and story-telling skills to people in communities poorly represented in the reporter ranks. It’s not just a color thing. Our premise is simple: if the pool of journalists were more diverse, both in terms of race and class, then the perspectives and stories reported would also be more diverse. Now that I am a Knight Fellow, I hope to take this work to a whole new level.

The rise of the Internet and cheap digital media technology has cemented the place of citizen journalism in our media landscape. This reportage, however, is often dismissed for lacking the rigor that quality journalism involves. My project is predicated on the belief that the public benefits when professionally-trained journalists are paired with citizen journalists to leverage the diversity and nuance of stories gathered by reporters in the field. Tacit in this new model of collaborative journalism is the acknowledgement that citizen journalists, many of whom come from communities ignored by the media, are able to access spaces and people in the community that are rarely featured in critical national debates.

On coming to Stanford, I was excited to learn that other Knight Fellows shared my vision for how news media could look radically different in the digital age. In fact, Michelle Holmes, a newspaper editor for the Sun-Times Media Group in Chicago and a fellow Fellow, was working on a very similar innovation idea. Interestingly, we were both taking acting classes in Stanford’s renowned Drama Department. That immersive experience gave us a kind of left-field idea: that a more artistic aesthetic in community-based news reporting could help it stand out. This kernel of an idea brought us together. We decided to partner.

As part of our project, Michelle and I are keeping personal “video tweets”: important thoughts, action items, challenge scenarios, etc. Early on, Michelle asked me why this was the moment for us to execute our project. Here is my video tweet response to her question:

Our project begins with the mobile device that most everyone carries: a smartphone. Yet how many of us actually know how to use our smartphones to record life around us in the best possible quality? And if we are not professionals, or have not had years of practice at storytelling, then how do we know which bits of the story to record that will make our final product most compelling? It’s not rocket science. Without a J-School cred, it is possible to learn the basics and improve the chances that your material will gain more visibility because it is technically better and substantively richer.

We are now in the process of creating an app that will provide real-time journalism and story-telling training to anyone using a smartphone. The training will be simple and quick, and will include tips from professionals on how to make content better and more compelling. Once the user’s video, audio or stills are recorded, the app will enable the user to upload the content to a web platform using a structured blog-type interface. There, it will be accessible by editors, producers and/or the user to review, edit and publish. The app will allow for real-time communication between the citizen journalist in the field and the editor reviewing the content. And hopefully, when we’re done, there will be a front-end for the website that will serve as a wire service of quality reportage by citizen journalists. We believe news organizations will want — and be willing to pay for — this product.

illuminUS napkinTo be successful, we’ll need citizen journalists willing to take the steps to improve the quality of their production and abide by some of the basic standards and ethics that make good journalism credible. With our simple lessons delivered on a mobile platform, the work of a citizen could move from the margins to a place where it can have greater impact. Our end goal? To blast open the gates of “real” journalism and let more people, more stories and more ideas enter.

Our left-field idea about an artistic aesthetic in news-reporting is being woven into the training app and guided story-creation process. A news story doesn’t need to look like it does in a traditional newspaper, or imitate the public radio format, for it to be a news story. In the coming weeks we’ll prove it: we’ll be working with immigration lawyers on the Mexican border, an Iraq war veteran and Stanford student, and local Filipino community TV reporters, to test our app and produce compelling news stories.

At the midway mark of the Knight Fellowships, Michelle and I have reached a point that I’m sure neither of us envisioned when we first casually chatted. We have built a team: a hardware engineer who joins us as our technical co-founder; a process advisor, Justin Ferrell, a fellow Fellow from the Washington Post; and four brilliant Communications graduate students. We have prototypes for an app and web interface. And we plan to incorporate our company shortly.

Who knew that this is where a Knight Fellowship would lead me? It’s been a sharp learning curve, from figuring out how to ideate and prototype, to immersing ourselves in the very foreign worlds of engineering and Silicon Valley, but we’re headed somewhere exciting.

Stay tuned!

P.S. We’re looking for budding story-tellers willing to put our app to the test so that we can learn from your experience and improve our product. We’re also seeking partners in Silicon Valley who might help us take our project from a prototype to the building stage. If you’re interested, drop us a line at deepaf@stanford.edu!