21st-Century Journalism | Design Thinking | Systems Thinking

How Journalists Can Serve Their Communities, An Interview With Cole Goins

Throughout his career, journalist Cole Goins has worked at the intersection of community and collaboration. Using what he calls solutions tactics and deep listening, Goins wants to empower readers with information and let their needs determine the end product of a journalist’s reporting. As a consultant for Journalism + Design, he works directly with newsrooms across the nation to facilitate changes that will help publications better serve the needs of their communities.

Can you talk a little bit about your background in journalism and your where your focus is right now?

I went to journalism school at Chapel Hill and was trained to be a traditional news reporter.  My first main gig was at the Center for Public Integrity where I came on as a web editor. It was when social media was becoming a new thing that newsrooms were trying to figure out what they should be doing with.

That put me on the path to think about engagement and to think about how we connect with the people that we serve as journalists. At CPI, I grew into the Engagement Editor role, where I got really interested in crowdsourcing and more participatory forms of reporting. How do we think about who our stories are for? How are we both reaching and including people in our journalism?

That was my real shift from being a traditional reporter to being more of a community-minded, audience-focused journalist. Then I got a job at the Center for Investigative Reporting where I worked for about 6 years. I did a lot there at the intersection of community and collaboration.

It was figuring out creative ways that we can both tell stories and involve the public in our investigative reporting. That looked like everything from creating original plays, to doing interactive art exhibits, to working with young people to create original poems. It was about inviting the public to help inform the journalism we were doing.

I did a lot of work around building and maintaining collaborations. At the root of all of that was the relationships. As a journalist, I was thinking about how we value the relationship that we have with the public and the communities that we serve. I was thinking about how we were orienting our journalism to better meet, need, and empower people with information—not just telling them a story, but we’re giving them information that they can do something with that’s relevant to their lives.

That brings me to now. With J+D, we’re working to build out an initiative around systems thinking and how newsrooms can apply it to their reporting. We rethink how their reporting functions, what people can do with it, and how it actually works to address some of the biggest problems we face in society.

I’m really interested in this idea you touched on about bringing the public into the process and bringing the process to the public. Can you talk a little bit about what that looks like in practice for journalists?

I think as journalists we preach transparency. We’re all about access to information. We want to have access and we want the public to have access, but at times we’re not as transparent with the public about what we do or why we’re telling the stories that we’re telling or why we’ve made the choices we’ve made. I think part of that contributes a little bit to the trust crisis that media is experiencing right now.

We are now talking about how we re-establish that trust and even build trust in communities that never had trust in media to begin with. That’s really about being as inclusive as possible in our reporting process.

I really think that the more that we as journalists can think about the community as a resource that we can tap and that can inform our process, then I think we’re going to build stronger relationships, we’re going to build that trust, and we’re going to work toward sustainability.

In the current climate, we’re seeing newsrooms faced with budget and staffing cuts, what value can the design and systems thinking process hold for a final product? Especially when many publications in the industry are already strapped for time, why is this process important?

I think we have a well-formulated idea of what the end product of journalism and reporting looks like. It looks like a story. Those are our traditional newspapers and our broadcasts. Of course, we’ve also experimented a lot more with the rise of social media.

I think when you boil it down to its base elements, journalism is about the discovery, the processing and the distribution of information. If you take those key components, the outcome can really look like anything.

When you bring in the design process and you look at systems thinking you get to a place where you’re rethinking what the product could be and prioritizing the needs of the people that your writing is for—and really thinking about that from the beginning.

So, rather than ‘I go about my process and then I give you a story that you didn’t even know you wanted’, it’s more about how we’re responding to a need from the outset and being very clear about who the story is for, our representation, and the utility of it.

What are some ways that people can start to incorporate this into their work?

We’ve been working with some newsrooms in North Carolina, particularly The Herald-Sun in Durham. Earlier this year, they launched a yearlong project on gentrification in the city and how development is affecting residents. At the outset, they didn’t just start telling stories. They actually spent a good chunk of time in a discovery process where they brought in different people from the community to talk with staff about different topics related to housing and development. They created a Facebook group for anyone in Durham to join to help learn and inform their reporting as they go. They really opened themselves up and listened at the front end so they weren’t just telling stories they thought they should be telling. Instead, they were listening to what people in the community and stakeholders around Durham wanted to hear.

I think that process has really helped them orient their reporting around that need and invited perspectives they might not have included otherwise. They helped people feel welcome in that process too, like they were a part of it.

What are some resources for young journalists who want to try to figure out what issues they can cover for or how they can better hear their communities.

The Listening Post Collective has a toolkit that anyone can use and it kind of walks you through how to do an information needs assessment in your community. That can help individuals understand how people get their information and some issues that they care about or want to know more about. It gives a kind of a playbook around how you act on that information and design journalism projects and initiatives that respond directly to that need.

The American Press Institute has been doing a lot of good work on listening, relationship building, and reader revenue, as well.