From years of reporting, I've picked up enough about agriculture's impact on the environment to do a multi-part series.
And until recently I would have approached such a project like journalists often do:
1) A reporter, who has developed expertise in a topic area, comes up with an idea;
2) The reporter pitches it to editors, who further refine the idea;
3) With a clear focus for the project, the reporter identifies specific sources and stories, conducts interviews and writes and produces the pieces.
It's the first part of this strategy that I began to question following the election last November. The deep cultural divides that were exposed then made me feel like I needed to listen much more closely to the people affected by the topics I write about.
So rather than pursue some of the ideas I had developed related to agriculture solutions to climate change, this spring I set out to hear from people with whom I don't usually interact. I listened to their hopes and fears about the future of agriculture in a changing climate in a variety of ways.
For this St. Paul resident, that first meant reaching out to people living outside the Twin Cities metro area. I followed new people on Twitter and paid more attention to the media organizations publishing stories in greater Minnesota.
Next, it meant identifying people who could give me a sense of all the current trends happening in agriculture here in the Midwest but also around the world and sending them surveys to get as much information I could all at once. I connected with hundreds of new people on LinkedIn and used our Public Insight Network to get a variety of people to weigh in on the future of agriculture.
Third, it meant getting out of the Twin Cities and talking to the farmers, seed company sales people, equipment dealers and others who might not already be MPR News listeners. MPR News rented a booth at Farmfest in Redwood Falls where my colleagues and I talked to as many farmers as we could in three days.
Finally, it meant convening a diverse group of farmers of all types, along with chefs and consumers who are passionate about where their food comes from and how it's grown. We recruited people for a closed, off-the-record Facebook group, which is running as an experiment for four weeks.
We became excited about the possibilities of "dialogue journalism" through Facebook after seeing work done by Spaceship Media after the election and asked them to help us do a similar project for Feeding the Future.
The Feeding the Future Facebook group we recently convened is rich with posts, questions and comments about everything from farm subsidies to small-scale pig farming to the food stamp budget in the Farm Bill. We look forward to giving our broader audience a taste of those discussions in the coming weeks.
We also hope to learn more about what it takes for a regional newsroom to achieve high levels of engagement with an audience. What we're finding so far is that it takes more effort, at least on the front end. It might not be the most practical approach for all issues we report on, but it can lead to richer stories that better reflect the reality the audience experiences.