Journalists at nola.com and al.com did something a few weeks ago they hadn't done much of before — they unveiled a project that they'd only just started: No big stories, no shiny presentations. They just had a question.
What does it mean to be a girl in the South in 2016?
They all knew how the project would come together with a traditional newsroom approach: experts, big issues, sharp profiles and a lot of adults talking about young people — not necessarily with or to them.
Michelle Holmes, vice president of content for Al.com, wanted to know: "What would it look like if a lot of people just said, here's an opportunity to focus a collective voice on girls' experiences in the South?"
Why girls? Why the South? Because we live here. Because we love them. Because you have one in your life. Because the challenges are too high.
The delay gave everyone involved time to talk with a lot of girls in a pre-reporting phase of the project. It gave them time to find a group of young women in Ensley, Alabama who thought up a potential brand for the project's social presence: Re Belle. And that extra time helped them establish how the project should begin, as an evolving social listening project.
"I'm very averse to the phrase 'giving voice to girls,'" Holmes said, "because they have it, especially in this era of social media. They're really loud with it, but we don't listen to it. I hope we can amplify it."
The work so far includes inviting other newsrooms and journalists to get involved in an open-source approach, bringing groups of girls together, reaching out to organizations that work with girls and using social media as one place for those conversations to take place. They've opened an Instagram account and a Tumblr where all the content can live. And it's not a "let's get teen columnists" approach, Holmes said.
"We want to put it in the hands of girls so that it becomes driven by girls," agreed Rebecca Walker, managing producer Al.com, "not a bunch of 30- and 40-year-old women saying 'here girls, this is what I made for you.'"
Everyone knows stereotypes about the South, said Javacia Harris Bowser, a teacher, freelance journalist and blogger on the project's board. But The Southern Girls Project has the potential to draw attention to real issues, including educational inequity, obesity, health, and poverty, as well as the complexity of the lives of girls in the South.
"We want to make it clear that there is not a single story," she said.
When journalists start by listening, magical things happen, said Jennifer Brandel, founder of Hearken. She discovered this herself as a reporter and now sells newsrooms a platform that engages readers before stories get assigned.
"It's like going to a doctor who has six minutes to see you to stay on schedule, versus having an expansive conversation with someone who actually cares and wants to know what's going on," she said. "In the first scenario you don't feel valued, or even fully human, in the second you feel heard and seen, which is pretty profound and actually rare for most people. This connection is what leads to trust and opening up."
Shauna Stuart starts Monday as a fellow for the project based in Georgia.
"This is truly a build-as-you-go project, and it’s nerve-wracking, I’m not gonna lie," she said.
They're looking for the issues that girls want to talk about, connecting to them, developing an audience with them and understanding the voice they use to speak with each other.
"I think so many times, we do the reverse in journalism," she said.
Brandel has created a growing business out of this idea, taking the traditional cycle that stories go through and bringing the audience in from the beginning. Still, she remembers the uncertainty she felt when she first started thinking of the process in a different way when she founded Curious City, an audience-first reporting project under the auspices of WBEZ.
"In one sense, that was unsettling for my ego in that suddenly I didn't feel in control of what the story was, or feel I had a clear path to get it," she said. "But it turned out to be the most fertile and creative period as a reporter I ever experienced ... What this Southern Girls Project is doing is acting as a conduit to a more humane form of information sharing and reporting that leaves everyone feeling better and more fulfilled: reporter, subject, audience."
She recommends that journalists start from a place of listening and learning instead of from a place of deciding and confirming. Then, start small. Collect questions that are on the minds of your readers. Get your bosses to agree to let you experiment and be creative.
"And then start testing your ideas," she said. "What approaches lead to the best connections? Do you need to physically show up somewhere and talk to people? Are the people you're looking to reach congregated online? How can you approach them in a respectful way, and in a posture of true curiosity so a real exchange can take place?"
"In everything we do now, there is an element of does the community care about this? Is it integral to what's making the city work or not work? Will people have a discussion about it?" said Carolyn Fox, nola.com's director of content.
That's true with nola.com's "Our Lost," which promises a profile of every murder victim in New Orleans in 2016 told through the voice of someone who loved them.
The Southern Girls Project is a great fit for the goal of including community voices, Fox said. And ultimately, by focusing more on the voices of girls, Holmes hopes that it will help them be seen and heard beyond just the project itself.
"I hope the seeds of this help us think about girls as sources, about girls as subjects," she said. "In many ways, what we're doing is just naming this as a value."