Block by Block starts a different kind of conversation

Posted on October 21, 2010 by Janet Coats

From the first moments of Block by Block, the community news summit, I knew something was different.

Participants were openly sharing ideas and experiences. These weren’t the war stories of the old journalism gatherings – this was substantive information about best practices for technology, how to develop advertising rate cards, ways to manage volunteer contributors.

I shouldn’t have been surprised by the nature of the conversation. I’d worked with Block by Block organizer Michele McLellan to help plan the program, and The Patterson Foundation had enabled the event by providing travel scholarships for participants. In reviewing the information provided by Block by Block registrants, I’d seen how hungry the publishers were for knowledge about both what was working and what wasn’t.

What did surprise me was the immediate, unreserved willingness to share information that in traditional media would have been viewed as proprietary or competitive.  It’s one thing to talk about story topics; it is another to share so openly about issues such as your advertising rate card or best technology practices. That's something different in journalism, and it is a very good thing.

So when I think about what moments gave me a thrill at Block by Block, that is a big one: seeing people share so generously their wisdom and experience because they believe that sharing serves a greater good.

Now its my turn to do some sharing of my other feel-good reflections. I offer this disclaimer first: I am not, nor have I ever been, a community news site publisher. I’m rooting hard for success for this group, and I’m interested in ways to help enable their journey. But I lived my career in traditional newsrooms, and that experience by necessity provides my yardstick as I learn and explore new ways of being a journalist.

  • Passion and commitment. The folks at Block by Block are operating at the front lines of community information. Most of them are doing their work on really small budgets, and being darn efficient in how they squeeze the most content from those dollars. Most of these publishers aren’t making a living for themselves but are doing this work because they believe in it. That isn’t to say they don’t want to make a living; they do, and there was lots of conversation about business models to sustain their work. But their passion for what they do, their belief in the value of it to the communities they serve and their commitment to the task is bringing new energy and inspiration to journalism.
  • A sense of place and community. For all of my 25 years in traditional media, there was lots of talk about the need to connect to the communities we served, the need to reflect the ways our communities were unique. But the nature of the business worked against that in almost every way. Reporters and editors hopscotched the country as part of the professional advancement ladder (I say this as a major hop-scotcher myself), making it difficult to develop real connection.  Journalists were discouraged from community involvement, in a misguided effort to keep ourselves ethically “pure.’’ Newsroom culture valued the big splashy stories, not the community level, quieter stories that really revealed the kitchen-table concerns of citizens. The Block by Block publishers recognize that their value lies in the connection to the community – and that means being part of it.
  • News as a conversation. As an extension of the sense of place and community, Block by Block publishers favor dialogue over pontification. They grasp the need for going where conversations are happening and joining in, instead of approaching their communities as interrogators. My tribe has been guilty of forgetting that God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason – journalism needs to value listening more, and the publishers at Block by Block seem far more open to that idea.

By the end of Block by Block, it was clear that the event had tapped into a deep need for connection among community news publishers. There was a recognition of shared values – including some of the key ones I outlined above. And there was a recognition that the need for resources for this group is a deep one, and that only by working in a more coordinated way can the publishers even begin to meet that need.

Now comes the hard part –figuring out just how to do that. In my next post, I’ll talk about some of the challenges I see ahead as a veteran of journalism change efforts, many of which died on the vine. I’m hoping some of the painful lessons I learned from that battle can be at least a little helpful, if nothing else to serve as a road map to where some of the dragons lie.

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