Category Archives: Journalism’s Emerging Narrative

Joplin paper editor finds tornado affirms mission of journalism and offers challenge of balancing stories of life and death

BRANSON, Mo. — Sandwiched between standing ovations before and after her 27-minute address, the daily editor from  tornado-ravaged Joplin, Missouri, offered a stirring endorsement of why newspapers matter.

Carol Stark

Carol Stark

“If people are saying newspapers are dead they don’t really know what stuff we are made of,”  Carol Stark told members of the Newspaper Association Managers gathered at a hotel here on Aug. 4, 2011. “This is a story that I hope people can take home with them because newspapers are very much alive because when it mattered . . . people turned to us, our local newspaper, and people should never forget that.”


LISTEN TO STARK’S TALK

Stark, editor of the Joplin [Mo.] Globe,  is alive six years after being told a typically virulent form of cancer would take her life within a few months.  And years ago she survived her car being picked up by another tornado and tossed to the ground — only to find 22 people in cars just ahead of her has been similarly tossed — and killed.

The Joplin daily’s editor said those experienced helped her on May 22, 2011, when a Category 5 tornado struck the city of 51,000 residents, killing more than 150 people and leaving at least a thousand others homeless – including 3,000 children, and almost a third of the newspaper’s own staff.

“When people were staggering around that night I understood what they were feeling,” Stark told a gathering of newspaper executives in her first trip from the devastated city and first public talk about what her newspaper and community have been through. “People say it sounds like a freight train. Well no folks, it sounds like evil.”

So traumatized by their losses, so committed to working, and so unwilling to ask for help for themselves after reporting what others had lost, it would be two weeks before some of The Globe’s own employees — 33 out of 117 — would acknowledge to fellow workers their own losses of cars, homes, apartments, and their need for help.

In a gripping personal narrative, Stark recalled the day of the tornado in The Globe newsroom. It was lightly staffed – a couple of reporters and a photographer. A third reporter was at the city’s high school covering graduation.  There was an ominous weather forecast. The first inkling of the devastation to come, Stark recalls, was when a local TV station they monitored carried video of the approaching storm.

“Don’t you think it would be a good idea for us to take shelter,” a colleague asked?  Stark and her staff took to the newspaper’s bomb-shelter-like basement.  Although she couldn’t make or receive calls, her phone soon started flashing short text messages from around the city. A hospital was hit. Across town, a major big-box store was gone. And at another location, the high school was ravaged –  after graduation ceremonies earlier in the afternoon.

When messages made clear the storm had passed, they went upstairs to the newsroom. Stark’s first instinct: “You have to start getting anything you can and just get it out on the Internet.”  Soon, the paper’s Internet site crashed from an overload of global traffic.  Stark’s children were texting to her phone their status – OK – but the phone network wouldn’t allow her to get out a reply.  She fretted about how to balance attending to her family to attending to her community’s news and human needs.

“Get your big girl panties on girl because you’ve gotta’ do both,” is what Stark recalls thinking. “The right thing is to take care of your people in your newsroom and take care of your readers, and there is no particular order.”

For the first week, she says, everyone at The Globe was “adrenalin driven.”  To help, the Kansas City bureau of The Associated Press assigned two of its reporters full time for two weeks to join The Globe’s newsroom and to write and take assignments from Stark over the paper’s byline.

The commitment to the community paid off for The Globe in skyrocketing single-copy sales. And it also vindicated the paper’s role as a community convener and champion. “Our readers for a period of time thought we hung the moon,” said Stark.  Because of deaths or disruption, the paper lost 1,000 subscribers immediately after the storm hit, but after two months it has regained all but 300, she said.  A normal Sunday pressrun serving about 31,000 people could have sold 50,00 papers for the first month, she added.

The life-changing event for Joplin cried out for some changes in editorial policies, especially about death. As with most newspapers in the last decade, The Globe has turned to charging to run obituaries. But now it decided to provide a free 10-column-inch obituary to every tornado victim – for free. Because authorities were not forthcoming, The Globe started to compile – and publish ahead of the coroner – a running list of deaths it could confirm on its own.  It compared and published the coroner’s list until they gradually matched.
Stark worried how politically conservative southwest Missouri would react when President Obama visited the city days after the devastation.  Her fears proved unfounded. “He came, and had just a wonderful, wonderful message,” she recalled. From immediately after the tornado The Globe and Joplin had played host to hundreds of national and international reporters, with mixed reviews. After Obama came, they mostly left.

And then Stark faced a new challenge for an editor: How to help the community through the transition from cleanup and mourning to something else. “Then the real work began: Are we going to get things back to normal?” she asked.  Her concern was not to move the community on to a “new normal” too quickly without paying tribute somehow to those who had died.

That task fell in part to Missouri School of Journalism graduate Emily Younger, 26, a Joplin Globe reporter to whom Stark assigned the task of tracking down the story of every single person who had become a tornado fatality – beyond a mere obit.  There was the man who always played Santa Claus, and another who had taken enormous pride in being a near-professional whistler.  On a Sunday a month after the disaster, the paper published a multi-page spread of photos and life stories tracked down by Younger.

“People read that and they just sobbed and sobbed,” said Stark. “It was just the best thing we could do for closure.” From marking death, the newsroom moved on to celebrating life. After two months, the paper published another section – 22 miracles in May, celebrating those who had lived against the odds.

Throughout the aftermath, Stark recalled, The Globe also did its job to report all the news, including some ugly stories about looters, fake-church scams, insurance and mortgage struggles. “I am very proud that with our coverage we were able to get things changed, to get some people arrested . . . and to make things right,” she said.

The task of celebrating life and future while respecting the losses continues. Shortly after the tornado, the newspaper wrote a story about a father and son speeding in their car to reach home ahead of the tornado’s arrival. But the storm won – sucking the son out the open moon roof of the car, dislocating the arm of his dad who tried to hold him in. The teen – who had just graduated high school minutes earlier — died. Now, the paper is working with friends to create the story of his life, as told through his social-media tweets, posts and messages. Will’s story will become a story of the Joplin High School class that never had a chance to savor its own graduation.

The new normal now intrudes. On Aug. 17, public school resumes in Joplin in a hodgepodge of temporary buildings, including part of a shopping mall. Eleven schools sustained damage.

And what of the newspaper? On one level, things are still far from normal. “We’re all broke,” says Stark. “You know journalists.”  The kindness of strangers has helped, she says.  People have sent the paper’s employees cash in the mail.  On the other hand, Stark’s faith in the relevance of what she does has been reaffirmed. “Throughout I have felt this is the most noble thing short of saving firefighters lives,” she said. “This is the most noble thing we can do, helping our people.”

 

 

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Surfing the Tidal Wave of Change

It is official.  The good news is that there is now broad-based agreement that the news industry is in crisis, as clearly described by Mark Fitzgerald and Jennifer Saba in their SPECIAL REPORT: Turn and Face the Change — With Newspaper Industry in Crisis, ‘Everything’s on the Table’

While acknowledging that the situation creates tremendous opportunity for those who have a viable strategy for riding the waves of the unknown, Fitzgerald and Saba offer no specifics.  That is where Journalism that Matters can make a difference.

There are three common patterns that most of us use when responding to crisis. Two of them have passed their utility in this situation.  The third is the most radical and the most likely to succeed in today’s environment.

Pattern 1:  Just Do It
For most of us, our first response is to act from habit, to ignore everything but the symptoms that are in front of us, fix it and get back to business as usual.  When that isn’t enough, the crisis gets worse.

Pattern 2:  Take Charge
When the situation is so dire that it can no longer be ignored, the strategy perhaps most commonly employed is to act from certainty and try to manage it.  Study it, set targets and objectives, go to work, measure the results.  When it is a technical problem, this strategy works well.  When there is something bigger going on, as there is in an industry that is losing its audience and its sources of income, this approach will likely fail.

Pattern 3:  Learn to surf

Some of our most cherished assumptions– and our ability to manage them – have broken down.  Many are throwing up their hands and saying, “I’m stumped.  I don’t know what to do.”  Business as usual is over. When there are no clear answers and the dynamics of the situation are in a state of flux, what strategies allow an organization to deal with the unknown effectively?
A strategy that has proven successful – and we have all experienced at some point in our lives – is to act from inquiry, in essence to make it up as we go along. There is information in the disturbances we face.  After all, bloggers are doing well.  What messages for our work are hidden in their success?  There is the promise of creative and innovative possibilities waiting for us within the realm we currently view as unknown.  To find them, we have to explore.
There is actually a field of practice, called Whole System Change, that has been studying and experimenting with handling the chaos of transformative change well for the last fifty years.  Designed to work with the unknown, it has developed practices that support people in understanding the dynamics at play in complex situations so that they can identify possible directions to pursue.  The industry will be in flux for quite some time.  Those who survive will most likely do so by learning how to have some influence while moving with the flow.

To do so involves working the unknown in ways that make clues to emerging solutions visible and actionable. Informed by theories of complexity science, promising practices apply the dynamics of self-organization to organizational systems. The interaction of diverse entities in a nurturing and challenging context generates the emergence of novel, more useful forms of organization.   As applied to organizations, this involves:

•    Asking ambitious, possibility oriented questions
Given the state of the industry, what is possible now?
What is the role of journalism in a digital age and how is it best provided?

•    Inviting the diversity of the system to participate in shaping responses
Who are the people with authority, resources, expertise, information and need? Who is affected?  Who cares about the future of journalism?
Bring together print, broadcast, new media, media reformers, media educators, citizen journalists, audience and others who care about the future of journalism.

•    Creating the conditions for an open dialogue
This is a complex system that is completely reformulating itself.  By creating hospitable conditions and bringing together people from different aspects of the system, each of which has pieces of the puzzle, entirely new connections can be made.  A picture that none of us can create alone will begin to emerge.
Journalism that Matters has begun to articulate an emerging story of the new news ecology.  It includes: journalism as a conversation rather than a lecture; high touch sourcing/high tech delivery; education that, in addition to the core practice of journalism, includes broad-based media literacy and the art of engagement.

•    Experimenting with promising ideas that emerge
This is not the work of  “take that hill” or “leading the charge”.  Rather, it is the work of asking questions that focus our attention towards deeply felt, collective aspirations, creating hospitable conditions that invite the diversity of the system to step in and take initiative, creating an organic boundary for action through inquiries that express clear intentions.  By following the energy of the exploration, sensing what patterns are emerging, and calling those patterns into collective awareness, novel and often utterly unpredictable responses appear.
That is what we have been doing with Journalism that Matters.  It is no accident that so many of the University of Missouri Fellows have all participated in JtM sessions.  Or that several Knight Challenge grant recipients had their ideas surface or be clarified at a JTM session.  Attendees keep coming back because we are providing a rich, nutrient environment, a diverse mix of participants, and the space to explore possibilities.

This strategy provides the means for a productive relationship with the unknown.  Care to join us?

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An ecology of story for the well-being of community and democracy

My friend and colleague, Tom Atlee, founder of the The Co-Intelligence Institute, developed a map of stories entitled Whole System Learning and Evolution — and the New Journalism that I think has great potential as a way of thinking about what is required for both great stories and great story-telling organizations.
In the version below, I changed a few terms (e.g., “community” became “connect” to create consistency of form) and I added four verbs (in blue) that, framed as questions, I think could provide a tool for assessing the likely effectiveness of a story or a news organization. The questions that Tom’s model sparked for me:

• Does it inform? (a primary focus of traditional journalism)
• Does it engage? (a primary focus of the emerging social networking sites)
• Does it inspire? (almost virgin territory, but hinted at by the idea of “possibility journalism”)
• Does it activate? (also exciting terrain)

An ecology of story

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Six Questions that Matter to Journalism

As I read people’s registration comments for NewPamphleteers/New Reporters – the upcoming JtM gathering in Minnesota, it struck me that people were asking questions and bringing expertise in six areas:

  • Business models
  • Cultivating community
  • Partnerships
  • Content choices
  • Craft
  • Technology

Here’s a picture of what seems to be emerging:

Six questions that matter to journalism

We’ve now got a twitter stream for Journalism that Matters: jtmstream. Join us from June 4-5.

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Possibility Journalism: An Emerging Trend?

As I reflected on Journalism that Matters-Silicon Valley, it struck me that my favorite subject – the power of story to inspire and engage, was a very quiet theme at this particular gathering. It got me thinking about the need to say something about what is emerging is this arena.
It began for me with three threads of the Journalism that Matters-Memphis session:

  • Geneva Overholser, Hurley Chair in Public Affairs Reporting, University of Missouri, introduced herself saying:

“I had been depressed. A couple of years ago, I resolved to find hope. When you open yourself to possibility you are willing to experience stuff you haven’t experienced before.”
What a fabulous discovery: finding hope is a choice. Could Geneva’s comment be indicative of an emerging trend?

  • Then I saw a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. at the National Civil Rights Museum:

“But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars. …”

What a profound insight when so much coverage is about the dark! Why not also look at the stars in the story?

  • The capper was witnessing two veteran reporters interview the mother of Josh Wolf — the video blogger who went to jail for refusing a federal grand jury’s request to turn over video he shot of a burning police car during last year’s G8 protest. The interview prompted me to ask her a question that struck me as a way to see the stars:

“Given all you’ve experienced, what the best possible outcome you can imagine?”

I was stunned by her powerful and cogent response — that she hoped Josh’s situation provided clarity about the application of first amendment rights to emerging types of journalists — because it shifted the interview’s tone from frustration and defeat to hope and possibility.

It made me wonder what would happen if the essential questions of journalism added something to

who? what? when? where? why? and how? — namely,
What’s possible now?

And then Stephen Silha and I interviewed Journalism that Matters alum Sarah Stuteville and one of her partners, Jessica Partnow about the Common Language Project, a startup that took shape at Journalism that Matters-Kalamazoo. CLP puts a human face on international stories.

To my surprise, Jessica told us that asking “what’s possible now” has become central to their style of reporting. Sarah then told us this story:

The first time I used “what’s possible now” was reporting in little Pakistan in Brooklyn. I was hearing about the experience of families of deportations, mostly young men. I was talking to that community and to the non-Pakistani community who had very different feelings. People felt strongly on different sides of same issues. I think the first time I asked “what’s possible now”, may have come out of frustration. It is hard to have conversations and not get anywhere. I threw my hands up and said ok, “what is your ideal solution?” And everything changed. (the interview)

Sarah then offered a second story:

We – Jessica and I – were in the Middle East, talking with a Palestinian about frustrating, polarizing material. He kept repeating the same ideas over and over so we asked that magic question: “given what’s happening, what’s possible now?” It shifted the interview completely, as our contact began envisioning the situation in a completely new way. (the interview)

The stories we tell ourselves shape the way we see the world. And that shapes our behavior. A trend towards asking “what’s possible now?” follows the energy towards our hopes and aspirations. Sounds to me like a trend worth amplifying!!!

A coda to this story: Josh Wolf attended NewsTools 2008. Here’s a video interview done by David Cohn during NewsTools. In a second interview, by From the Frontline, Josh describes an interesting idea for a live internet news network that harnesses live video broadcasting tools like Qik, Flixwagon and Ustream.tv coupled with the microblogging tool Twitter and Skype call ins.

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