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Creating and supporting roles that sustain a culture of listening

If newsrooms truly want to support a culture of listening, leadership should think about how the skills, roles and makeup of the staff need to change and evolve.

Diversity among newsroom staff, a longstanding and persistent issue in the industry, becomes even more imperative. Having a variety of backgrounds and perspectives represented will help build your newsroom’s capacity to listen.

Participants at our Nashville summit said part of the problem is newsrooms’ exclusive hiring practices and tendency to undervalue nontraditional experience.

Sandra Clark, vice president for news and civic dialogue at WHYY in Philadelphia, said newsrooms often automatically overlook people who don’t fit a particular journalistic mold. “Our job descriptions are written to exclude whole classes of people, requiring certain education and experience that not everyone has access to,” said Clark.

Retention is also a huge problem. Even when journalists of color or people with nontraditional journalism backgrounds are hired, both Clark and Michelle Holmes of the Alabama Media Group say that newsrooms often aren’t equipped to accommodate their ideas and give space for them to apply their unique skill sets.

Linda Miller of American Public Media said newsrooms must figure out ways to not only accommodate new talents and skills, but recognize, appreciate, cultivate and prioritize them.

Having a variety of backgrounds and perspectives on staff can build your newsroom’s capacity to listen.

This may require newsrooms to rethink their core values and create entirely new roles within newsrooms that are directly geared toward listening and building deep, reciprocal relationships with communities of all types. A group at our Nashville summit brainstormed a long list of possible job titles for these roles, including facilitator, bias auditor, life coach, chief listening officer, director of power transfer, story weaver, community host and organizer.

Along with emphasizing diversity and incorporating new roles and experiences, newsroom leaders should think about internal training for employees that could support active listening, mindful facilitation and empathy.

As P. Kim Bui writes in her API report, more diverse newsrooms do not automatically reflect an array of communities in their reporting. Journalists across the newsroom should be able to practice more empathetic journalism and understand people with different backgrounds. She cites practices from Keith Woods, vice president for newsroom training and diversity at NPR, that help build reporters’ capacity for empathy, including getting reporters to challenge their assumptions and value anyone they approach.

In her recent Solutions Journalism Network essay, Complicating the Narratives, journalist Amanda Ripley cites how trainings in dispute resolution helped her see how journalists should open themselves up to new disciplines, including psychology, that seek to understand human behaviors and motivations.

Organizations like the National Coalition for Deliberation and Dialogue also have a wealth of resources that can help journalists host more productive conversations in and with their communities.

Along with creating roles geared toward listening and building deep, reciprocal relationships with communities … newsrooms should think about internal training for employees that could support active listening, mindful facilitation and empathy.

Another challenge for newsrooms in sustaining a culture of listening is putting the weight on specific people. Projects, workflows and relationships rooted in engagement are often linked to individuals within an organization and can fall apart when they leave. And the burden of covering specific communities often falls to reporters who are from those same communities, as Bui points out.

Some participants said one solution is for newsrooms to promote and communicate core values, both internally and externally, that bake in listening-focused practices across the newsroom and make the staff as a whole more equipped to build and maintain relationships. As we covered in the last section, this requires weaving listening-centric processes into overall newsroom roles and workflows so that they are not reliant solely on one or two individuals within an organization.

Threading these processes and values into your organization is also a key step in pursuing new opportunities for sustainability that are rooted in listening and relationships.   

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