Listening beyond criticism to hear what you need to learn

Posted on June 13, 2011 by Janet Coats

In my last blog post, I talked about the work that my project partner Lisa Skube and I had done to begin building a collaboration tool for journalism innovators. But our first public outing for the early version of the tool was poorly received, and I was not optimistic about the future of the project.

In fact, I was ready to call it a day. The critical response to this very early framework left me shaken, uncertain about whether there really was a need for the tool we had spent so much time and energy developing.

When I sat down with Lisa just weeks after we had shown what we had begun calling the Journalism Accelerator to a group of community publishers, funders and educators, I asked her whether we were building a house no one wanted to live in.

Lisa, too, had been reflecting on our experience. As we sat in a Columbia, Mo., coffee shop that day in October, we decided that we needed to regroup. We needed to move past the cloud of negativity hanging over us from this session and think about what we had really heard.

We compared notes and determined that we’d learned these things:

  1. The good news was that, before we even showed a glimpse of the Journalism Accelerator, we had heard all of the session’s participants speak about the need for better collaboration tools. While I had focused on the criticism of the tool’s specific look and feel, I had dismissed the more important message: We had diagnosed the problem correctly.
  2. We heard lots of conflicting input about the technology we had used to build the tool. In fact, the technology had become the intense focus of both conversation and criticism. We recognized that there could always be debate about the technology and that we needed to keep the focus on the job the tool would do rather than on the engines that would power it. The emphasis on the specifics of the tool needed to come last, not first.
  3. We heard a strong desire for involvement in shaping the collaboration tool and how it would work. Community involvement was a vital piece for creating the sense of ownership that would make the tool useful.

With all that in mind, we recognized that we couldn’t know the value of the tool based on one, two-hour session in a hotel conference room. The need was real. Now we needed to identify a community to work with to help us test our thinking about how best to meet the need. It was only by working with a real community that we would determine if the Journalism Accelerator had value.

Early in our work, we had connected with Mike Fancher, former executive editor of The Seattle Times and a past fellow at the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri. Mike had contributed significantly to our thinking about how a collaboration tool might work. He was deeply involved with the Journalism That Matters and the group’s Pacific Northwest community.

Through Mike, Lisa had begun conversations with JTM co-founder Peggy Holman. JTM was in the initial phases of an effort to build up its online collaboration among members.

Here was a perfect moment: A community that was already formed and had a sense of common mission. A desire to bring stronger collaboration tools into the mix. And, most importantly, a willingness to invite Lisa and her team in to brainstorm and listen to the needs of the community.

Lisa traveled to Seattle in November to listen in on JTM’s collaboration sessions. By the end of her time there, we knew we’d found a fit in terms of a community to help build the Journalism Accelerator.

Since January, Lisa and her team have been working with JTM to build out the tool and customize it for use by Journalism That Matters. The Journalism Accelerator has been quietly “live’’ for several weeks now, and will be more fully active by mid-summer.

We want to walk before we run. But we’ve already seen the potential for how the relationship management technology behind the Journalism Accelerator, combined with the community engagement strategies that help build substantial conversation and sharing, could be used by other communities – both inside and outside of journalism.

All along, The Patterson Foundation has been providing both intellectual and financial support for the Journalism Accelerator. Our approach has been to support iterative work – we build, we test, we build some more. We have funded this project that way as well, in increments as we see how the work develops and where investment would have the most impact.

As Lisa wrote on the Journalism Accelerator site:

“We are grateful to TPF for their investment in the technology and organizing framework of this forum. Thinking outside the box has been encouraged. The JA serves as a resource for its members – not a particular institution, academy or funder. TPF holds our greatest respect and gratitude for their open and enlightened approach to partnership.’’

Now the Journalism Accelerator moves into its next phase – developing strong community engagement with not just the technology tool but with the approach to learning and sharing that tool supports.

It’s been an amazing ride so far. I can’t wait to see what we learn next.

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