How CUNY’s First Class of Social Journalists Is Reinventing Reporting

Sustainability and salvation lies in abandoning volume in favor of value

Journalists are seen working on computers in the central press room of French press agency Agence France-Presse in Paris November 1978. (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
Journalists on computers in 1978. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

This week at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism, we will graduate our first class of social journalists.

You might ask: What the hell is “social journalism”?

That is just what we teachers and students have been discerning in the inaugural year of this program—the first of its kind in the nation. The other day, as I watched our 13 graduates rehearse final presentations of their work, I was struck by what we have learned together.

The new degree was inspired by my argument that the path to sustainability and salvation for journalism lies in media abandoning volume (cats and Kardashians as bait for page views) in favor of value (that is, relevance and impact in people’s lives). To do that, we journalists must understand how to build relationships with the communities we serve.

Journalism begins with understanding the needs of the public we serve.

When she read that thesis in my book, Geeks Bearing Gifts, our dean, Sarah Bartlett, asked whether we should build a degree around these skills. In only nine months, we received funding to start the program from LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman and the Knight Foundation, hired the amazing Dr. Carrie Brown to direct the program, and saw her develop the curriculum, hire an impressive set of teachers, and recruit the first class. Now they are set to leave us.

In their presentations, our students without exception emphasized the importance of listening above all other skills. Our job as journalists does not begin with finding stories we want to write or making content to fill publications or attracting audience to what we create. Instead, journalism begins with understanding the needs of the public we serve.

Of course, our students learned the skills of social media—but not to use them as too many media organizations do, just to market the content they make. Our students use these tools to listen to communities and then to serve and collaborate with them.

Social journalists do not brag about traffic, Facebook “likes,” or viral content—they are concerned about their impact and reflect our need to find new ways to value what we do.

I was struck how often the students said that collaboration is harder than reporting. I often say reporting is journalism’s highest value and I still believe it is a precious resource we had best not squander on repetition and clickbait. Our students argued that reporting is often best done hand-in-hand with the communities they serve. They also talked a lot about the need to gain the trust of these communities, to begin by cultivating ambassadors who could be their guides.

Dear to my heart, these social journalists did not brag about their traffic, their Facebook “likes,” or their viral content. They were concerned about the impact they have. They reflect our need to find new ways to value what we do.

Prof. Brown and I required the students to find a community that was self-defined (that is, not living under some fake, external label, such as “millennials” or “Hispanics”); then to determine their needs and give us the evidence of those needs; then and only then to determine how journalism can help them meet their own goals—and finally to tell us how they will measure their success (not with pageviews or likes but with impact).

One of the great lessons I learned in this program is that a journalist might improve the situation of one community by affecting the behavior of another. So, for example, our student Emily Goldblum wanted to serve lesbians in New York. A problem she identified was misunderstanding in that community of bisexuals. Thus, she wanted to serve one community‚bisexuals—but affect the behavior of another—lesbians. This was a pattern I saw in much of the students’ work.

They served an amazing variety of communities: Rachel Glickhouse chose to serve undocumented immigrants and helped one man defer his deportation. Luis Miguel came to us with the ambition to become the Anthony Bordain of sport—understanding the culture of nations around the world through their athletics (great idea, huh?)—and started by helping a kids’ soccer team with their ambition to finally have a real field to play on. Cris Furlong came in not as a journalist but as an activist who was already fighting to reduce traffic deaths in Queens and she learned to bring the tools of journalism to her cause. Deron Dalton served the community of #BlackLivesMatter leaders. Nuria Saldanha served citizen journalists in the favelas of Sao Paulo, teaching them how to use Facebook to report. Aaron Simon is teaching residents of Brooklyn about the toxic dumps they live over. Adriele Parker is working with the hidden community of African-Americans experiencing depression. Erica Soto is helping fans help independent musicians. Pedro Burgos studied commenters, Betsy Laikin Muslim women, and Sean Devlin Irish-Americans. And—get this—Julia Haslanger is serving the community of social journalists.

I don’t have room here to explain all their work; my blog post will give you more (and, if you’re in a position to, you can hire any of them—the Observer has had great luck with CUNY j-school grads). They are reinventing journalism and teaching me what it can be. How CUNY’s First Class of Social Journalists Is Reinventing Reporting