A lesson in listening with Discourse Media
Terrace, B.C. residents Lucy Sager-Praught and Shannon McPhail found common ground despite polarized positions on LNG. Photo: Trevor Jang.
Mike Wallberg is an award-winning freelance journalist based in Vancouver, Canada. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeWallberg.
When Lindsay Sample sat down with Discourse Media just over a year ago, she was in for a surprise. The CBC television producer had spent the previous three years digging into investigative stories for the network’s “Marketplace” program and was looking for a move. And Erin Millar, Discourse’s co-founder and editor-in-chief, had a compelling proposition.
“She was describing what was essentially the company that I would create if I had the guts to do it,” Sample said. “I wanted to tell in-depth stories that weren’t being surfaced, which is exactly the mission of Discourse.” She soon joined Millar as the investigative reporting house’s Managing editor.
Sample met with me recently to describe Discourse’s developing story in their cozy office, balanced at the crossroads of Vancouver’s Chinatown and Downtown Eastside neighborhoods – two areas with complex histories and futures of their own.
Marching to a different beat
Discourse started out as a trio of investigative freelancers who had worked successfully with established media players but felt frustrated they couldn’t get the green light on more in-depth projects. So in 2014 they founded Discourse, first as a vehicle to partner on meatier stories and later as a media platform in its own right.
But Discourse is no ordinary media company.
Reporters work on issue-related beats such as the environment, education, child welfare, urban development, the economy, politics, or Indigenous issues. All stories or projects must meet three thresholds.
“It has to be something that exposes buried truths; it has to be something that breaks down complexity; and the third is the idea of inspiring action,” Sample said.
Reporters file a bi-weekly “newsletter” which might feature other people’s work or ask questions related to their beat, and a bi-weekly story that furthers their research.
Each of these are in service of their next big “drop,” a major work reporters produce two to three times per year. A drop could take the form of a long-form feature, a video documentary, a podcast series, a multi-media piece – anything that serves the story.
“[We are] just thinking creatively about what journalism can be, and what the outputs are,” Sample said, adding they will even be producing an adaptive play of one story in partnership with the Center for Investigative Research/Reveal, an organization she admires.
“There’s nothing like that in Canada – where they’re experimenting with form and format, but doing investigative journalism,” she said, “which is what each one of these drops is meant to be.”
Listening and learning
Sample points to Brielle Morgan’s reporting on child welfare in British Columbia as an example of Discourse’s solutions-based, creative approach in action – and a commitment to the most basic (but often neglected) of journalistic tools: listening.
Morgan had been covering child welfare for over a year and kept hearing the same things. The system is not working. Journalists are not getting it right. There’s a lack of trust. So she partnered with a unit of Canada’s National Film Board to set up “Listening Events” at which stakeholders could gather and just talk.
She gave a workshop for attendees arming them with the tools to interview one another – and sat back and listened. At the end of the series, Morgan held a “Story to Action Meeting,” a community debrief attended by 25 different stakeholders including youth, reporters, media makers, and people from the Ministry, who flew in from the capital, Victoria. It was a remarkable turnout, Sample said, especially considering the historically antagonistic relationships in the room.
Morgan presented what she’d learned about where media is getting it wrong, what stories aren’t getting surfaced, and what patterns people want to see. Her six-month investment in listening brought something rare to many stakeholders in the room: the perspective of the youth themselves, whose voices often aren’t included.
This perspective permitted her to produce an important story on permanency, detailing the circumstances around the tragic suicide of a child in care, and helped the government produce a report on his life that included insights into the effect that moving multiple times can have on children.
Collaboration as culture
Collaboration is in Discourse’s DNA, right down to Sample sharing the editorial calendar with me. “Don’t feel weird,” she said, as I averted my eyes from the wall-length whiteboard. “I’m really cool about other people seeing it because that’s a big part of our process: being open and collaborative.”
The priority is the story over the scoop.
For example, Discourse is working with four fellows based in Togo, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, and the Democratic Republic of Congo on “Power Struggle,” reporting on energy access in a time of climate change, with specific focus on sub-Saharan Africa.
For the series, each reporter publishes in their home markets, plus a South Africa-based lead reporter publishes in his market and Discourse publishes an international version in Canada. Discourse is also working on securing a major global publisher to house the whole package in one place.
“It’s all around impact,” she said. “Who needs to hear this story and how are we reaching them?”
Discourse has also partnered with CIR/Reveal on a follow-up series to reporter Trevor Jang’s “listening trip” in which he took a 10-day bus trip across northern British Columbia without an assignment, just talking to people about what issues affected them in what Discourse calls, “table setting journalism.”
Reveal sent two reporters up when Jang returned and the organizations cross-posted work, but it wasn’t a co-publication. The point was to learn from each other.
Discourse is designing their impact strategy to do more than track time on articles and number of clicks. Metrics of importance include everything from responding to questions to figuring things out to the type of community-wide learning that Morgan’s child welfare work has accomplished.
“[It’s about] being targeted about the specific community you’re trying to serve and going back to that community … and being accountable to ourselves,” Sample said.
As an example, she pointed to one extraordinary feat of Jang’s reporting: through a Facebook group he created to discuss media coverage in northern B.C., two women with deeply polarized views on a large liquified natural gas (LNG) project met for coffee and have since begun discussing collaborative plans for renewable energy projects of their own!
To the future
CEO and Editor-in-Chief Millar described the company’s funding model via email. It is funded through traditional channels like government and development grants, corporate sponsorship, media commissions, and collaborative media campaigns sponsored by not-for-profits, foundations, and value-aligned corporations. It also generates revenue through the Discourse Insight Lab, which includes data communication products – an area in which the company has been investing. Additional, innovative funding sources are also being considered.
Discourse has an eye to expand its presence across Canada, with three new reporters, two producers, and an executive editor on the wish list – and not all in Vancouver.
Having already collected a handful of awards, including an Edward R. Murrow, Discourse is bucking the doomsday trends of so much of journalism. They are proving there is time and there is money to do in-depth reporting in interesting ways on issues that matter.
And they are proving that when you take the time to actually listen, when you put the story and the welfare of its subjects ahead of your ego, and when you make yourself accountable, there’s no limit to what you can learn and what you can change. Through simple but crucial discourse.
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