The Huffington Post just got a makeover, courtesy of incoming Editor-in-Chief, Lydia Polgreen, and the site’s new leadership team. Rechristened “HuffPost,” the sleek new website is a vehicle for a bold new mission: sharing “stories of people who have been left out of the conversation.”
Lydia’s new approach resonates with me. She asks, “What if news organizations wrote for people traditionally left out of the political, economic, and social power arrangements rather than about them?”
I’ve spent the last decade exploring similar questions. I’ve asked, “What if newsrooms:
Spent more time understanding people who felt left out of the conversation?”
Explored pathways to understand and engage with communities both offline and off air?”
Offered concrete actions to pursue after reading or watching content about a problem?”
HuffPost has the brand and the resources to attempt these experiments at a grand scale. I’m confident they’re on to something, because at a smaller scale I’ve already seen this approach turn journalism into a civic-engagement tool to promote a functioning democracy.
I grew up in the northeast corner of Toronto in Scarborough, one of the most culturally and socio-economically diverse communities in Canada. As a teenager, I recoiled at the dissonance of reading and watching news about my community written by outsiders. I began to understand that the world of news was a hierarchical, transaction-oriented, and exclusive system. Reporters wrote stories for their editors, depended on their organization’s approval for career advancement, and controlled the news cycle. And rarely were these reporters representative of the communities they covered.
As a result, someone outside Scarborough decided what stories about us would be shared with the rest of Toronto and the world. They also decided how those stories would be told and which voices would narrate the experience.
Frustrated, I convened a small group of citizens who also felt left out of the agenda-setting monopoly of news organizations. Our group of church leaders, librarians, teachers, students, and parents discussed how to tell the story of change in our community through our own lens. From those gatherings emerged an online news platform, a quarterly publication called “My Roots,” and a series of in-person community forums. We aimed to do exactly what Lydia describes: create content for an audience that felt left out.
The platform that I created seemed to work at a community level, but I still needed to address how to do this at scale. My quest to remedy the lack of citizen engagement in a transactional, reporter-to-audience news system led me to Ashoka, where I lead our global media partnerships.
Ashoka is a 40-year-old global organization that selects and supports social entrepreneurs, known as Ashoka Fellows. These ordinary citizens, embedded in their communities, seek to change an entire system from the inside out. Many Ashoka Fellows, like Nobel peace laureate Kailash Satyarthi or CNN personality Van Jones, enjoy celebrity status. But they represent just a small fraction of Ashoka’s vast network of 3,300 social entrepreneurs in 90 countries.
In particular, several Ashoka Fellows are reinventing the relationship between media and the communities they cover—and they’re doing it at scale. For example, in 2006, Cristi Hegranes founded the Global Press Institute (GPI) to train women as journalists in developing media markets to report on their communities. Today, GPI works in 27 countries and syndicates articles written by and for communities all around the world.
More recently, in 2012 Ahmed El-Hawary created “Bashkatib,” which trains teenage reporters from marginalized areas in Egypt to develop, launch, and distribute a monthly publication. His model of empowering journalists embedded in their communities is so popular that Ahmed is now scaling it across the Arab world.
What’s clear from working with these Fellows and many others is that there is tremendous latent demand for upending the traditional media model to better represent and serve communities. What’s more, media organizations that are in touch with the communities for which they create content are much better at uniting them. Indeed, social entrepreneurs have demonstrated how to bring community members from opposing sides of a debate together, building trust, understanding, and dialogue.
Long before Facebook and Twitter, communities have suffered from filter bubbles and polarization that give rise to marginalization, radicalism, distrust, and political gridlock. Algorithms might be part of the solution, but I’m confident that an even greater component must be a redefined media with deep roots inside communities. And I’m thrilled that HuffPost aspires to fill that need.
To do so, they can also learn from established media organizations around the world that are experimenting with new models. For example, the Deccan Herald—a 70-year-old newspaper in South India with which Ashoka partners—has taken a page from the social entrepreneur’s playbook. Recognizing that space for public debate both online and offline is essential for their market, the newspaper engages audiences in rural community forums and town halls to hold government officials accountable. As a result, this media company has gained its audience’s trust by promoting inclusive public dialogue.
Breaking the cycle of hierarchical, transaction-oriented, and exclusive news begins by understanding what communications scholar James Carey once wrote: “It is the public that informs the press. The true subject matter of journalism is the conversation the public is having with itself.” HuffPost understands this and plans to write for its audience. My hope is that others will follow suit.