In Philadelphia, a radical idea for journalists: talking to human beings

Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Helen Ubiñas talks to Southwark School students during her first @NotesfromHel Pop-Up Newsroom in December. Photo by Yong Kim, Inquirer staff photographer

Audience engagement has come to mean, mostly, sitting in front of a computer analyzing and disseminating journalism, reaching out and responding to readers online or sitting in on newsroom meetings. This has pushed one columnist, Helen Ubiñas of The Philadelphia Inquirer, to take a step that might once have seemed banal, but now seems almost radical. 

Recently Ubiñas showed up at a school event in Southwestern Philadelphia, a neighbourhood that has recently hit the headlines for gun violence, where children were mocking up front pages about their lives. She came armed with an Inquirer banner, reporter’s notebooks, chocolates, and pens branded with the questions “Tips? Story Ideas?” and her Twitter handle, @NotesfromHel. She set up a table, calling it a pop-up newsroom. 

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Her goal was to introduce the children to journalism, and to solicit story ideas. The visit paid off. As she watched the children work, Ubiñas struck up conversations with them and the parents who accompanied them. Many were immigrants and refugees, and they shared with her their stories of arriving in America. Ubiñas left with two columns: one about the event, her first pop-up newsroom in a marginalized community, and another about a woman she met there who had just returned from photographing  a migrant caravan in Mexico. 

“As a first go,” Ubiñas wrote, “it was a great opportunity to expose the kids to local journalism while they shared a little about their lives, immigrant and refugee families, favorite trips to the Philly Zoo, dreams about being just about everything but journalists, though I have faith I planted a seed in a few of them when I told them that yes, I do get to ask (just about) anybody (just about) anything.”

Gabriel Escobar, the editor and vice president of the Inquirer, says Ubiñas has broken down “the walls between the institution, in this case The Philadelphia Inquirer, and the population.” The paper, he says, can now reach “people who would otherwise not encounter journalists in the normal course of events of their daily lives.”

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Ubiñas’s pop-up newsroom is not the first, nor will it be the last. (New York’s City Limits recently announced plans to meet with the public at Bushwick’s Maria Hernandez Park, to “hear comments, take complaints, answer questions and soak up ideas for what we should report about.”) That her approach is notable at all is a testament to the hollowing out of American newspapers through layoffs and buyouts, reducing the number of reporters who might follow her example. 

She has reminded the newsroom of something that was once too obvious to say — that journalists should go out into the world and talk to real people. Inspired by Ubiñas, The Philadelphia Inquirer’s six Lenfest fellows, all recent journalism graduates, began similar conversations at local coffee shops, Escobar says. 

We journalists love to talk about how we give voice to the voiceless, when in reality no one is voiceless. We have just chosen whose voices are valued, whose stories matter.

There’s no substitute, as any experienced journalist knows, for face-to-face encounters. Though phone or email interviews may sometimes be efficient or necessary (I interviewed Ubiñas on Twitter for this story), only in person can an interviewer observe the  nuances of body language, details of environment, and give reassuring nods and smiles that create trust and intimacy.

“We know that most people have never talked to a journalist and that their likelihood goes down the less rich, old, educated, and white they are,” says Joy Mayer, an audience engagement expert and adjunct faculty member at The Poynter Institute. “Spending time with people face to face, earning trust one on one, has never been more important for journalists.” 

Since her school outing, Ubiñas has brought her pop-up newsrooms to a criminal record expungement clinic at a barbershop, a clothing giveaway, and a peace rally. And now that it’s summer in Philadelphia, Ubiñas has switched to a new venue: the city’s pools. 

I asked Ubiñas what motivates her to leave the cocoon of the newsroom and engage readers on their own turf. “We journalists love to talk about how we give voice to the voiceless, when in reality no one is voiceless,” she told me. “We have just chosen whose voices are valued, whose stories matter. It’s partly that arrogance that has brought us to where we are now, struggling to make connections with communities who gave up waiting for us to care or show up in any meaningful way.”

“There is a world of difference,” she continued, “between the heady discussions of combating fake news we have in our pages, editorial rooms and how it looks in practice. In practice, it’s showing up, making connections as individuals representing institutions, not institutions trying to hold on to their place in a changing ecosystem of journalism.”

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Chip Scanlan is a freelance writer and writing coach from St. Petersburg, Florida. After two decades as a journalist, he taught for 15 years at The Poynter Institute, where he was director of writing programs.