Journalism starts working for and with its communities

What’s the future of journalism? It’s a fragile future, one that needs us to solve a crisis of lack of trust. Too many of us don’t watch or read the news anymore. In fact, we don’t trust it.

But would you trust someone if they were dispassionately observing from a distance while your rights were being stripped away? While your own future was being determined without your input? Would you trust them as a credible source of information if they thought there were two sides to whether you deserve your safety, humanity, and dignity? If your voice or experience was not reflected? Or, conversely, if they kept shouting about how everything was broken and bad without offering any solutions or support — so much so that you were left with a compounding sense of despair and helplessness?

Wouldn’t you turn elsewhere? To some source that offered you hope, a sense of belonging, the potential understanding and agency to make an impact in these tough times? A place that left you feeling less alone, maybe even cautiously hopeful?

This is the reality our industry faces. Because the headlines aren’t just things that happen elsewhere and to other people — they’re how we live our lives.

It’s time for journalism to change our approach. We work for our communities: our followers, listeners, viewers, and readers. And it’s time we started listening to them, putting them at the center of everything we do and make from the very beginning.

Because that’s the first step to understanding what’s missing, and what our communities — what we all — need from journalism.

For digital and social publishers, audience conversations often come at the end of the process — they’re numbers and metrics that determine our level of success or failure, but too rarely insights that inform our path into the future.

Here at Freeda, it’s a practice we’ve built into our foundations. We’re constantly consulting our community. We know that we can’t reflect our community, engage them, or earn their trust, if we don’t invest in understanding them. For us, the learnings are multi-layered: times are tough; young people are tired, scared, anxious. The news is dire, they don’t feel — and aren’t — reflected enough in coverage.

Add to that the fact that most spend so much of their lives on social platforms — it’s where they engage with each other and with news. These platforms contain so much promise for creativity and connection, but the reality is that algorithms are biased, the attention economy often prioritizes outrage, and social platforms have been linked to having a harmful impact on mental health.

It’s a reality I’m definitely familiar with as a user, and I’m guessing many of you are too. It’s so rare to look up from my phone after a period of scrolling and feel anything but a little empty, outraged, or bleak.

For us, this has meant building an approach that keeps our community and their needs at the center of our entire process. So in addition to interrogating every story’s journalistic merits, we also ask who it centers and how it leaves someone feeling. Can we leave people with a sense of belonging? A sense of purpose or of wonder? A sense of agency even in the face of systemic problems?

So I’ll leave you with a question that’s my north star: What would the future of journalism look like, if we built not just for our communities, but also with them?

Masuma Ahuja is head of content for Freeda English, a European social publisher.

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