interview | 5.8.17
'Our core belief is that journalism can and should facilitate dialogue'
Eve Pearlman and Jeremy Hay of Spaceship Media, and Michelle Holmes of the Alabama Media Group, discuss the benefits and challenges of community-driven journalism.
Spaceship Media is a little bit difficult to define – its founders, Eve Pearlman and Jeremy Hay – admit as much, but it’s also, clearly, taken up as its mission the restoration of trust in journalism. If you take a look at the website, Pearlman and Hay describe their mission in a kind of progression of three steps: first, they begin with their philosophy, which is sort of refreshingly grand in scope: they believe “careful listening and empathy are vital” to public discourse, journalism, and “ultimately…our democracy.” From this statement of values, they move to describe their strategy, which is to bring “people from communities in conflict – or that simply aren’t communicating – together into a journalism-supported dialogue.” In the third prong of their mission statement, they describe in detail what, exactly, this means:
We design and manage engagement conversations from the ground up; we provide design and ongoing consulting support; we provide consulting around our engagement values and methodology and project visioning.
In other words, Spaceship Media is essentially a management consulting firm for journalists and media organizations, but it’s also a conversation broker, bringing, as Pearlman and Hay mention, various groups together to discuss their conflicts, at which point Spaceship Media and its media partner(s) provide, via journalism, the facts with which those “communities in conflict” work with. When everybody is standing on the same ground, in other words, it’s a lot easier to have a conversation. This doesn’t necessarily mean that consensus will emerge, or even that the conflict will dissipate – as the results from the Alabama/California Conversation project make clear – but it does mean that participants are more willing to listen to each other, and have a much greater ability to empathize, which, in the final analysis, and as Spaceship Media asserts in their mission statement, IS fundamental to a healthy democracy.
In the conversation below, Pearlman and Hay describe the process, particularly as it was applied in the aforementioned Alabama/California Conversation, a project which brought Trump supporters from Alabama and Clinton supporters from California into a Facebook group together. Michelle Holmes, the vice president of content at the Alabama Media Group – Spaceship Media’s partner for the Alabama/California Conversation – describes what the process was like from her end.
- eric fershtman, editor
So our readers know, I need to ask the annoying tell-us-about-yourself question: what is Spaceship Media, exactly? When did it begin, and why? And Michelle, what is AL.com and how did your organization get involved with Spaceship Media?
Eve Pearlman & Jeremy Hay: Spaceship Media partners with established news organizations to use journalism to support dialogue between communities that are at odds or not talking to one another. We provide our media partners with deep engagement experiences that create a community-driven news cycle and drive the creation of relevant, meaningful content that helps restore trust in media.
The two of us met working at EdSource, an Oakland-based journalism nonprofit that covers public education in California. In the summer and fall of 2016 we watched, along with everyone else, as the political discourse around us became increasingly polarized and as trust in media continued to decline. It felt like society was fracturing around us.
So we started talking – often over lunch or green smoothies in downtown Oakland – about how we might go about practicing our craft in an ideal world, if we were unconstrained by a newsroom and our own habits of practice. We wanted to get at some core problems we see in journalism today: lack of trust, lack of transparency, and the ways media seem often to amplify conflict. We started to imagine a new sort of news cycle, one driven by questions from communities and from a community’s interaction with the issues and each other.
Michelle Holmes: AL.com is the largest news and information site in Alabama. Besides AL.com, we publish The Birmingham News, The Press-Register (Mobile), The Huntsville Times and other publications. We believe in deep engagement and that the people in Alabama should be partners with us in telling their own stories. But we do that with varying degrees of success. Partnering with Spaceship Media allowed us to dive deep in a conversation over a period of several weeks – deeper than we would have otherwise done on one topic. Beside deepening our own practice in deep listening, this dialogue-driven approach also allowed us a way to reach beyond our borders and offer the nation a perspective on people here (so often mocked, reviled or just plain ignored) – and for Alabamians to have a forum to learn from others as well.
Nieman Lab, in their recent article discussing Spaceship Media, describes what you do as “dialogue journalism.” On your site, you describe it as a “community-driven newsgathering process.” What is this, and why do you believe a community should be engaged in the process of journalism, as opposed to simply being the thing that’s reported on?
E & J: Well, we’re still playing with the best language to describe what we do and that’ll probably continue to develop for some time as we continue to evolve. But a core belief of ours is that journalism can and should facilitate dialogue. We designed Spaceship to do just this – to use journalism to create productive dialogue where there is none.
As far as community-driven news-gathering, in our model people talk and their conversation leads to a need for information – for reporting – which we and our newsroom partners then deliver. We operate in such a way that stories develop from community questions and considerations as opposed to us deciding what we think the community needs to know and what we think the story should be.
We do this in part as a way to restore public trust in media, which has slipped to the lowest point in many decades. There is great demand for trust-building strategies that open the journalistic process to the community! By inviting a community into the process of exploring itself and its own stories through journalism we encourage self reflection, a progressive value that we hold and that can serve to ease polarization.
What are some of the things you’ve learned about dialogue, about community, about journalism, from the projects you’ve done so far?
E & J: We’ve learned that people are eager for this kind of work and approach. And, too, that there are many organizations working to support dialogue across partisan lines. (So many people have reached out to us about their own projects and work!) At the same time, we’ve seen that we weave journalism into that process in a pretty unique fashion.
We have also learned – and this sounds self-evident – that meeting people where they are is, in actuality, not an easy task because people are a lot of places! One cannot just say, ‘Let’s use Facebook because everyone is on it,’ or whatever. For example, in the Alabama/California Conversation, we had to meet people with Facebook, with audio and person-to-person conversations, and video in order to ensure participation.
We’ve learned as well that it is hard to explain what Spaceship does and how it does it. Lots of people say, ‘Wow, what a cool thing you do.’ Pause. ‘What exactly do you do?’ So as an enterprise, an organization, we have to work on improving that.
And we’ve learned that it is possible, even in today’s climate, for people with extremely opposed political views to accept the same news and information as common currency. To us, it seems that becomes possible and more likely when a news organization – or in the case of Spaceship Media, a journalism engagement venture – forms strong and trusting relationships with its audience. Again, that should be self-evident, but if it was the norm we would face a much less significant problem with trust in media and the news than we do.
Michelle, I’m wondering what this process looked like from your end - what was the Alabama/California Conversation, and how did it evolve as it went on? What were some of the challenges you encountered?
MH: It was a great experience, and one we are diving into again with a new Spaceship Media-enabled project talking with teachers around Alabama’s racial achievement gap. The biggest challenge, really, was to get our own staff to believe that Jeremy and Eve came here from California to treat the people of Alabama with respect and fairness. So often we see that’s not the case from national media. We did hear from some readers that we should have had the whole conversation in Alabama for Alabamians. But very much we felt that people understood the intrinsic need for a serious place designed to discuss these big issues.
What did the staff think of the project at first? How, ultimately, did they come around?
MH: From my two reporters:
From Greg Garrison:
Starting a conversation between Trump supporters in Alabama and Clinton supporters in California seemed unlikely at best and potentially disastrous at worst. Somehow, these women bonded and had a long-running conversation that left everyone involved feeling more open and considerate to those with opposing views. The whole experience was an eye-opener for me. I came into the project somewhat skeptical, and left it feeling like we had promoted a worthwhile discussion that truly engaged people. I felt we were able to help promote tolerance and understanding in the face of what seemed like an unbridgeable gap.
From Anna Claire Vollers:
I was skeptical at first. It seemed like such a Pollyanna idea, to put a bunch of women in a virtual room together to hash out the issues dividing our country. As the weeks wore on, we all started having ‘aha’ moments as we realized, through reporting and through their conversations, that where we live can have a profound effect on our firsthand experiences of immigration or healthcare. Most of all, I was floored at the dedication these women – from opposite ends of the political spectrum and opposite ends of the country – showed to the project and to each other. Even when it got hard, even when there was no common ground, they treated their participation as almost a calling. Like they could singlehandedly prove the skeptics wrong through a dogged determination to just listen to each other. After the project was over and we closed the group, the women formed their own closed Facebook group. I still get group updates, and from time to time I pop in to see what they’re up to. They trade recommendations for books, podcasts and documentaries that explore the red/blue divide. They continue to ask each other questions about Trump, immigration, Planned Parenthood, religion. They’re brutally honest and rarely agree. They seem to care deeply about each other.
Michelle, what did the feedback look like from the readership across your various publications? I’m sure it was a mixed bag, but did you find there was lots of engagement (like, above average)? Did anything surprise you?
MH: We had about 100,000 views to the series. Not huge, but very valuable for such serious public interest work. We also saw a thousand or so comments– certainly it struck a chord with our readers who were not in the private Facebook group. As always in online comments it was a mixed bag (like “footbawlguy” who asked “What is the point of these stupid articles”). But we saw some real bright spots in people acknowledging the intent:
It is not me against you. It is US against the problem.
Often times, because we have different viewpoints, we cannot see this. Most of the time, we don't even see the problem the same way. So it is absolutely critical that we understand that it is both sides, Left and Right, against a common problem.
We BOTH want to make America Great Again.
We BOTH want Change we can Believe in.
We BOTH want good paying jobs and opportunity and the proverbial "American Dream"
Most of us are busy though, and often, too often, we don't listen and we don't take the time to understand issues deeply enough. Especially from different points of view.”
I think that this group is an excellent idea and have a suggestion. Can the group be expanded to included Alabama women who voted for Clinton and California women who voted for Trump? Alternatively, what about starting a new group of Alabamians which would include both Trump and Clinton supporters.
Unfortunately we don't talk with each other as much as we used to. We have much more in common than we know and this is only discovered in thoughtful discussion.
I would love to take part in either group. I voted for Clinton.
What are the drawbacks that you’ve noticed to doing journalism this way? It seems, on the surface, to be a lot more time- and labor-intensive.
E & J: More labor intensive? Well, yes and no. Many kinds of journalism require mountains of work — investigative projects might take months and years and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. An issue that arises with Spaceship is that we do our work a little differently in a different way and so people tend to see that as more, rather than just as a different investment.
Traditional reporters might do dozens of interviews for an in-depth piece but only “use” a few of them — for a Spaceship Media project, yes, we interview all participants individually initially, but that’s just a different order. The novelty can make it seem like far more work when it is really just different work.
Same goes for moderation — to which we take quite a hands-on approach, paying careful attention to conversations as they unfold and helping people communicate respectfully. If you think about all the time and technology and fuss that goes into managing comments on a publication’s social channels or comments at the ends of pieces, the work and technology and worry behind it, it is monstrous, people just don’t tend to notice that work because it is already part of how they are practicing journalism in this era.
Sometimes it feels like everyone wants a technological solution, an app that will detect fake news or a tool that will block distribution of it. But when we think about it this way we forget that journalism begins with trust and trust requires relationships. And relationships take time. You would never try to scale a marriage — though there are boyfriend apps — and you can’t really scale the trust that gets built when a journalist is more than a byline, when there is a person there — respectful, attentive and resourceful.
Is community-driven newsgathering exportable as a model to the bigger publications like, say, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, etc.?
E & J: There’s no reason why not. Journalists all over are struggling with creating meaningful dialogue, working to depolarize discourse. There are elements of our approach that many journalists are using in all sorts of environments. Our model combines all the elements we think are important to rebuilding trust and creating a new news cycle. And, yes, they’re exportable; the tools are teachable. Larger news organizations with greater resources at their disposal are perfectly positioned to incorporate community-driven mechanisms while also preserving other methods of developing content such as straightforward investigative, watchdog and breaking news reportage.
There's been lots of discussion, in light of the various ways (good and bad, effective and not-so-effective) that the 2016 presidential campaign was covered, about the best ways to fund good journalism (attracting advertisers, corporate partners/sponsors, donations/honorariums, crowdfunding, etc.). Wondering if you have thoughts on this - how is Spaceship Media being funded? Do you believe there is an "ideal" business model for publications?
E & J: Our revenue is coming from a combination of things: earned revenue from contracts with existing media orgs, from grants, from consulting and from engagement design and management. That works for us for now. And as we evolve it will evolve. Different organizations will find different paths to sustainability but clearly the old model of selling advertising to content is alone no longer enough. Folks a lot smarter than us have been puzzling over this for years now, but foundations can clearly play a larger role than they are. As Joaquin Alvarez, CEO of Reveal/CIR, likes to say, this in many ways is not a problem of billions of dollars; this is a problem of a few hundred million dollars. Foundations have it in their wherewithal to step into and fill that need.
What are some of the other projects you’ve got in the works?
E & J: We have some great things in the works, a few of which we can share. We’ll be working in partnership with the Bay Area News Group, a chain of 25 papers across California, on a project about immigration. We’ll probably start with sanctuary cities as a dividing issue as a way to get at the broader questions around immigration. We’ve started another project with AL.com as a partner, about race and the student achievement gap. And we’re also working on some projects in the south with a consortium of media organizations looking at issues around resegregation. We really excited about these and eager to partner with the various organizations involved.
Last question: could you offer two or three publications you admire and/or tend to read, and why?
E & J: We spend a lot of time reading the major news organizations, making sure to consume on all “sides.” So we read the comments on Trump’s Facebook page and the comments on Pantsuit Nation. We keep our eyes on Fox and Drudge and the New York Times and the Washington Post. We look at The Federalist and the Wall Street Journal. For us, a key to this work is keeping ourselves open and nuanced in our thinking and perspectives, so we’re always looking to stretch.
We do this in part because we are asking the people who engage with us to do that — we’re asking them to listen carefully and respectfully to people they disagree with, and so we are constantly asking the same things of ourselves. We’re also fans of Buzzmachine, because Jeff Jarvis writes about a lot of the things we believe, and the New Yorker and Mother Jones for their writing and cojones.
Spaceship Media co-founder Eve Pearlman is a veteran journalist and community engagement strategist. She has worked with news and social media start-ups, including State, a London-based social media platform connecting people around shared interests, and AOL’s Patch. She holds a bachelor’s from Cornell University and a master’s in journalism from Northwestern.
Jeremy Hay reported for EdSource, The Santa Rosa Press Democrat, Wired, and The Tenderloin Times, among others, before co-founding Spaceship Media. He has been recognized by multiple awards including a George Polk, for a project on globalization on which he was a lead reporter. He was a 2015 JSK Journalism Fellow at Stanford University.
Michelle Holmes is vice president of content at Alabama Media Group, overseeing the state’s three largest newspapers; the state’s largest news website, AL.com; AL.com Studios and This is Alabama. She was a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University, focusing on journalistic innovation. She is a former director of business development at UstreamTV and editor of local newspapers in the Chicago region. She serves on the University of Alabama College of Communication and Information Sciences Board of Visitors, and the Center for Collaborative Journalism'sNational Journalism Advisory Board. She is a graduate of the Duke Integrative Medicine coaching program.