Journalists must learn to share information to build readers’ trust

An interview with Michael Skoler as he begins his fellowship year.

When the folks at American Public Media wanted to build a better partnership with their listeners, they called on veteran National Public Radio reporter and editor Michael Skoler to lead the charge. Skoler created a new approach to news called Public Insight Journalism and founded the Center for Innovation in Journalism at American Public Media.

Besides his experience as Africa correspondent, science editor and war correspondent for NPR, Skoler had business chops from an MBA at the University of Virginia and several years with the consulting firm McKinsey & Co.

Michael Skoler

“They talked about their results in blogs and on Facebook and MySpace.”

“The Center was aimed at forging new ways for journalists to partner with the public,” Skoler says. “We wanted to tap the knowledge and insights of the audience to deepen our news coverage.”

What started as Skoler and a reporter grew to a staff of 15 and a network of 80,000 listeners. The Center now provides training and software tools to a dozen public media stations around the country. With that, newsrooms can create, track and tap insight from their own networks of citizen sources.

Skoler’s team also created a series of news games to tap public knowledge, such as the Minnesota Budget Balancer, where people create their own state budgets online and compare them to the Governor’s proposed budget. Skoler’s favorite is Budget Hero, which is a federal budget game. “People played it more than 350,000 times in the run-up to the last presidential election,” he says, “and they talked about their results in blogs and on Facebook and MySpace.”

While fun for the public, the games were another tool to generate ideas for coverage and to hear from real people. “Public Insight Journalism has enabled us to find stories that no one else has, and we have dramatically increased the diversity of voices and perspectives in our coverage.”

Skoler, one of the 2009-10 Donald W. Reynolds Fellows, will spend his year at Mizzou studying successful online content ventures that can provide clues to how journalists can support their work through partnerships and information sharing with the audience.

“The new journalism isn’t just video on the web; readers are not the ‘unwashed masses.’”

“The new journalism isn’t a matter of just putting video on the web,” Skoler says. “We journalists have to adapt to the new culture of collective wisdom and information-sharing. We can only win the trust of the public if we trust the audience — not blindly, but intelligently.” Indeed, he recalls one colleague referring to the public as the ‘unwashed masses.’

“Public knowledge helps us,” he says. The audience is full of social workers and CEOs, school teachers and scientists, who want to share what they know, if only asked. “If we tap this knowledge, our reporting is smarter. We don’t have to be the experts on a topic, or rely on just a handful of sources with titles.”

Skoler comes to the fellowship after taking a one-year sabbatical in Oaxaca, Mexico, where he and his wife, Maria Kirsch, and two children, Eliza and Jeremy, learned Spanish, traveled and spent time as a family. During his hiatus, Skoler pondered his next step in the troubled and changing world of news.

“Everyone in news is worried and scrambling to find a new business model for journalism. It’s not just the business model that changed, though. Our culture has changed,” he says.

With his business background, Skoler plans to analyze successful online ventures that make money from content and write case studies. He hopes these cases can be taught in business and journalism schools to provide insight into how online journalism can support itself and thrive. He also hopes to gather people inside and outside of the profession to collaborate on innovative businesses based on news and information.

“Tomorrow’s newsrooms will still have core mission of ‘truth telling.’”

“I’m not sure these businesses will look like today’s news organizations,” he says. But they should have the same core mission of “truth telling and providing information that enriches people’s lives and helps us work together to solve common problems in our communities and our country.”


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