Building a future for journalism, together
by Erika Owens
Today we wrapped the fifth annual SRCCON. Incoming director Erika Owens closed out the conference with some reflections on two days spent with 300 journalists during a challenging week, and what’s ahead for OpenNews. This is an adapted version of her closing talk.
At SRCCON, we gather to create a space that allows us to connect, reflect, and bring our full selves into community. I’m so thankful for this space and the ways we are organizing ourselves for the future, at SRCCON, in hallway chats, on Slack channels, and beyond.
Current OpenNews director Dan Sinker recently looked back at his leadership, which brought together the community of folks working at the intersection of journalism and technology. Dan built a team organized around an ethos of listening, care, and experimentation that has allowed the work of OpenNews to evolve over time, to grow with and support what this community needs. Thank you to the OpenNews team. I’m honored to pick up this work when I move into the director role in August.
I’ve been with OpenNews for six years and I’m excited and humbled to be trusted to continue this work. Like many folks in this field, my path to journalism and tech was a bit circuitous. We even have the data to back this up. The majority of respondents to our news nerd survey last year reported having neither a journalism nor computer science degree. It’s one of the things that I love about this community, how we bring so many different perspectives to this work. The English majors writing code alongside the devs now managing teams and products.
Beyond academic background, we come into this work with many identities and as a part of many communities. At this time, that simple acknowledgement is taking a political stance, and at OpenNews we’re not afraid of that. We create space to acknowledge that some of us are feeling under attack because we’re journalists and some of us are feeling under attack because who we are is under attack. Part of our time together at SRCCON is getting to know the many facets of each other that we bring to this work. Building a network and community together is the first step to transformative change, and it takes time.
One of the principles from adrienne maree brown’s book “Emergent Strategy,” a guide to facilitation, organizing, and life, is: “focus on critical connections more than critical mass—build the resilience by building the relationships.” I feel like that describes what we have been able to do together with OpenNews.
Dan’s tenure, and the support of the Knight and Mozilla Foundations, gave us the time to build those connections. To focus on individual relationships to a degree that few organizations are able to do, and even fewer organizations understand the importance of doing. (Related, another emergent strategy principle is: “what you pay attention to grows.”) It was remarkable to see that resilience in action during SRCCON. People came in during a difficult week. Together we digested the news of the attack on the Capital Gazette. And, to a degree even more than I thought possible, our relationships provided resilience. We leaned on one another, and gingerly, but with determination, kept at the work.
These connections. This resilience. We’re together, and we’re not waiting anymore to transform journalism. Many of our newsrooms don’t listen to us. But, I feel like I’ve noticed a shift, even over the last year. The path I see us on together is sidestepping those obstacles and building our resilience. I’ve seen a recognition that together we know what to do. Together we have power. We are up against powerful forces, to be sure, but when we band together, we have the ability to alter those forces. More, we have the responsibility to do so.
Some of us have experience with collective action or organizing, whatever shape that may take. It’s been amazing to see the unionization push happen in newsrooms that are over a hundred years old and ones that started in this decade. Many folks who have led these drives are part of this community. Folks who work in technical roles often sit in between a lot of departments, they have to negotiate between a wide variety of stakeholders and still get the news out on deadline. These relational skills inform running a union drive. One of my favorite things over the last year is how the news nerds at the Los Angeles Times used data in their organizing. They publicly shared salary data that revealed disparities by race and gender. They used their reporting skills to make their newsroom strongere, which in turn will make them better able to serve their city.
These collective efforts happen in so many ways. We have generations before us to learn from, and paths to find together. I love that many newsrooms are going back to unions, a tool that for a time solidified a stable middle class lifestyle for many people in the US. I also love that these efforts are moving to new strategies and platforms. Backchannel networks are now Slack channels, group DMs, WhatsApp and Signal groups. These invisible networks are where so much of the labor happens that keeps us going. The emotional labor, leaning on each other when we need it. The tactical labor, talking through that email, figuring out whether to pick that battle. And, yes, the work labor, another set of eyes on a data analysis, documentation of a great tactic for a mapping project, a recommendation of a tool for that tricky problem.
At OpenNews, our work is to support and sustain those invisible networks. To make it easier for folks to connect. To take a breath. To band together and build.
We know that journalism is at a critical juncture. This community has repeatedly pointed out how, even if much of the discussion about the future of journalism is focused on tech, money, and trust, that the real issue we must tackle is how we connect with one another and where power is held. This community understands that inequality underlies all of the other issues we face and we are ready to drive transformation and create lasting equity and change in journalism.
This community knows our news organizations need to be more inclusive places where journalists of color have real power to direct and decide about coverage; that our news organizations, especially the ones outside of NY/DC with the fewest resources, need to formally invest in the bridge roles that help translate between teams and the informal networks that keep teams connected; and that we must recognize these often invisible structures currently power the real innovation, experimentation, and technical progress in newsrooms.
This community knows this because it’s already doing this work. This community is shaking things up, and we’ve got your back. This community already does work mentoring and teaching and lifting each other up and creating resilient pathways for support and connection. We see this extra work. At OpenNews, we ask about the ways this work could be made easier, creating space like SRCCON to swap stories, reconnect, and sustain that work.
Individually we know a little, and together we know a lot. In an industry long searching for answers externally it’s more clear than ever that solutions lie within: we have the power and skills to lead our organizations to create more diverse, responsive, trustworthy journalism.
I am so grateful to be in this work together with this community. And as we’re supporting one another, I do also have a request for your financial support of OpenNews. In just a couple days, we are well on our way to meeting our $30,000 fundraising goal, and your support will ensure that as these fights intensify we are able to keep on offering the guidance, the network, the small group convening support that has helped this community grow.
We have seen just how vital our resilience is over these two days, and I am so deeply appreciative of all the ways we are able to support each other. We’re here together.