Local Edition: 6 lessons for journalism from people who aren't journalists

This piece originally appeared in Local Edition, our newsletter following the digital transformation of local news. Want to be part of the conversation? You can sign up here.

I have been to a lot of journalism conferences this year. It was strange, fun and exhausting to spend a few days at a time just with journalists. One of those conferences, however, included entrepreneurs and people who work at NGOs. 

Bubble burst.

In a good way.

Most professions share stories about themselves, their work, their purpose, their challenges. But in telling the story of where we are and what we need next, it makes a heck of a lot of sense to include other perspectives — ones that challenge the things we probably agree on. 

Shortly after that, I added a week to this newsletter to talk with people who aren't in journalism.

So as we near the end of the year and look back on what we've figured out so far, I wanted to spend this week outside of the bubble. 

Here are six lessons for journalism from people who aren't journalists. 

Innovation is not about technology. 

Justin Aglio is director of innovation at the Montour School District in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania.

"... If we’re going to truly be innovative, it’s not about buying things,” he said in May. “It’s about changing culture.” 

How? 

Justin recommended creating a learning culture. That means, basically, a place where people want to learn from each other. He told this story:

I walked into a teacher’s classroom, and I said, “what’s that you’re doing?”

She said, “I call it 'Flashlight Fridays.'”

I said, “what is it?”

She said, “I wanted to break the monotony when they’re reading, so on Fridays, I shut the lights off and every kid gets their flashlight out and they go and find someplace in the classroom and they read with their flashlight in the dark. And kids love it.”

I’d never seen it before. And this teacher’s been teaching for 25 years. So at our very next staff meeting, I asked her to share that.

A week ago, maybe, I walked into another class, and guess what they were doing?

Flashlight Friday.

It wasn’t a 3D printing thing. It wasn’t a kid making an app. But every one of those kids was engaged, and it was something different, a new idea, that that teacher was able to share.

So, what happens is you create this culture where she’s sharing, she’s excited, it sparks an interest in her, and she’s going to be more receptive to listen to someone else’s ideas now because people are listening to her ideas.

Institutions can change. 

Gina Sheridan is a funny, creative librarian in St. Louis, and in June, she talked about how libraries have transformed from homes for books to homes for information. Here's how she described that transformation:

Just as the industry has changed over time, the perspective of culture has changed over time. 

Today's library is the most democratic institution in the community: a place where everyone belongs, regardless of who you are or what you want to accomplish. There is no expectation that you have to buy anything, check in with anyone, have an agenda, show ID.

Librarians aren't hiding in an office behind closed doors with a receptionist as a buffer. We don't give patrons 1-2 minutes of our time or charge them by the hour like so many other professionals.

We are here, we are open, we are welcoming. There aren't many places like that anymore. 

It's all about the relationships.

This is true inside newsrooms, of course, but also with our audiences and communities. In July, Jenn Graham talked about co-founding a dinner party project in Atlanta that's spread around the world.

The goal isn't just to have an engaging night, but to solve civic issues with the community. The transactional approach many cities take sounds pretty familiar. 

I think given the political times we're in, some people feel like they don't even know their neighbors or peripheral friends. It's really an opportunity to bring them to the table and get to know them again on a personal level.

Cities tend to think more transactional and less relationship. People can move anywhere they want. Cities need to do a way better job in building relationships with people and making sure they have trust and mutual respect and ownership of certain projects.

You will not get it right the first time.

Getting it right is part of our DNA. But being willing to try and learn should be, too. If we can't learn this from Taylor Moxey, an 11-year-old author, philanthropist and amazing kid, then we're all lost. Here's what she said in August:

Don't stay inside the box. I know that's really normal to say, but for me, it's very important. If you stay inside your box, you're not going to be able to explore the other world that's out there. So I would just say step outside of your comfort zone, step outside of your box. And if it doesn't work the first time, you have your strengths and weaknesses, everyone has those. So I would say step out of your comfort zone, and if you don't like it, you can step back in.

We gotta care about the business side.

Crystal K. Weibe, a former reporter, founded a dog treat/swag business aimed at beer drinkers. Where should you start trying to understand the business of what we do better? How about with people in your organization who know it best, she suggested in October.

I would just start with being open to visiting with people on the other side of the newsroom and talking to them and starting an open dialogue and understanding what the pressures are for them.

We're all uncomfortable. Use that to make you better.

Shea Smith left an established career to go to medical school and become a physician assistant. There's a thrill in doing something new and worthwhile, she said in November. But that comes with discomfort. It's worth it. 

It was tough to leave an established career, but my draw to medicine was bigger than myself. I had to become comfortable with being uncomfortable and trust that this was the path I was meant to be on. No matter what obstacle came my way, I had to trust that it would only make me stronger.

Next week, we'll meet one final time for the year and start thinking about where we should head next, what needs to change with this newsletter and what's working. 

In the meantime, Democracy Fund is hiring for a spring internship. This is a little late but there's a lot here we can learn from local media in Canada. And are you getting Corey Hutchins' weekly newsletter on local news in Colorado?

See you next week!

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