By Francesca Lupia
To a seasoned editor, the technique may seem timeless: sending reporters into local communities, probing leaders and laypeople alike to discover truth. But in the age of “journalistic Twitter” and widespread populist protest, “flipped” storytelling is causing a stir in newsrooms nationwide. The name itself connotes a shakeup, a shift away from reliance on traditional sources and toward more comprehensive journalism. “Flipped” journalism promotes conversation between reporters and untapped communities, inverting the traditional reporter-subject relationship by bringing underrepresented voices to the fore.
Such community-centered journalism challenges reporters to sift through conflicting narratives, identify leaders, and push past distrust and misinformation to create meaningful dialogue. Connecting with underserved communities can be time-consuming and difficult. When done well, though, “flipped” journalism has proven effective in reaching new audiences, providing context, and drawing the interest of both reporters and readers.
During ASNE/APME’s “#editors3D” conference in October 2015, editors Suki Dardarian (Minneapolis Star Tribune), Gilbert Bailon (St. Louis Post-Dispatch), and Alfredo Carbajal (Al Dia, a Spanish-language affiliate of the Dallas Morning News) shared their experiences with “flipping the narrative.” During the panel and in post-discussion interviews, the three editors discussed the intention and impact of flipped storytelling, as well as the response such stories have garnered both within and beyond their newsrooms.
Flipped journalism can often generate a reality check for those who choose to undertake it. When Alfredo Carbajal’s newsroom decided to probe local Mexican immigrant communities for information about the state of American immigration, they needed to “start with a lot of education internally.” Reaching beyond traditional sources was an additional challenge: such sources were convenient to reach, and “sometimes [the team] did not know better.” But Carbajal cautioned against unproductive frustration: “I think the mistake is to see the time in developing sources as wasted,” he said. “It’s not a waste of time; it’s an investment in more accurate coverage.”
Gilbert Bailon shared Carbajal’s optimism about flipped journalism’s impact in the newsroom. “We are being challenged by people who would say that’s not the whole story,” he explained. “It holds us to a higher standard in what we have to do to verify information.”
“I think it’s good journalism – it’s not PR,” Bailon added. “This is not something we’re doing just to make people feel good. It changes the way you tell journalism, and the angles from which you tell journalism… it looks and feels more like what people are seeing in real life.”
Suki Dardarian decided to employ a community-based approach when her newsroom hit a wall in their coverage of Somali-American communities in the Twin Cities area. In order to investigate terrorist groups’ recruitment of young Somali Minnesotans, she assembled reporters from “different backgrounds and perspectives” to engage with the community. Reporters entered the project with diverse opinions and expertise, and the in-depth process yielded some “knock-down drag-out fights.” Ultimately, though, taking time to speak thoughtfully with community members “helped [the reporters] reassess their framing” and reconsider their perspectives.
Despite persisting challenges, all three editors reported positive responses from the journalists involved in flipped storytelling. “One of my reporters said, ‘I’m not wasting time. I’m spending time'” in a productive way, Alfredo Carbajal said. Gilbert Bailon’s newsroom was similarly enthusiastic: “I think there’s a big appetite for it,” he said. “I know the reporters and the photographers like to do it. The issue that we always have with anything like this is how much time you can allot to it.” Although not every story can receive the time and attention that “flipped” journalism necessitates, the editors and their colleagues look forward to pursuing similar stories.
Unconventional though it is, “flipped” storytelling’s impact can still be gauged through some traditional methods of assessment. Gilbert Bailon cited the importance of online metrics in tracing a story’s reception, noting that stories that connect well with readers are often shared widely on social media.
Suki Dardarian also appreciates the information provided by Internet statistics: “Online metrics help us see that people are listening. “ She also noted the value of reader comments and letters to the editor, but cautioned against excessive reliance on these forms of feedback. Although comments and letters provide readers with an opportunity to craft more detailed responses to media, “[journalists and editors] can’t be sure if they reflect one person’s ideas or those of the larger community. We really need to talk to people and look at the traffic, finding out how to take a deeper and broader approach and be more engaged… When we ask people what they think, it helps us navigate ways to improve our coverage, and find out what content they’re reading.”
Alfredo Carbajal advocated a communicative approach to accepting feedback. “It’s not enough to hire the right people and hope that things are going to be okay,” he said. “It’s good to discuss successes. It’s good to discuss challenges. Any way that you can track progress is going to help strengthen the emphasis and the effort.”
Though the editors agreed upon the usefulness of online metrics and reader feedback, the disruptive nature of “flipped” journalism sometimes calls for new gauges of community response. Gilbert Bailon emphasized that the communities involved in such stories are often inexperienced in consuming and connecting with traditional media. ”It takes time and effort,” he said. “[Most members of untapped communities] are not going to come knock on our door. They’re not going to write a letter to the editor. They’re not part of that system, so we have to dig in a different way.”
What does this “different way” entail for writers and editors? Paralleling the dialogue-based nature of the “flipped” journalism process, Bailon suggests social media and interpersonal outreach to community members. “Send them an email,” he said. “Talk to them.” Such efforts, Bailon contended, can go a long way in building trust-based relationships that could otherwise be hindered by misinformation and misunderstandings.
Although not every “flipped” story is an instant success, the popular appeal of such intimate storytelling is a major selling point for content creators. Gilbert Bailon discussed the power of seeing one’s own story, situation, or community reflected accurately and sensitively in the press, especially for communities that feel ignored, underserved, or misrepresented by mainstream media. “I think readers want to see [stories] when they’re affected,” he said. “I think that’s a more human approach to journalism.”
Suki Dardarian saw this phenomenon in action after publishing a series of “flipped” articles on local Somali Muslim communities that had been targeted by extremist recruiters. The articles, which got “tons of traffic,” received an overwhelmingly positive response from those interviewed. “People in the Somali community told us they really appreciated the context that we brought” to the story, Dardarian said. ”One local businessman told us, ‘I used to think you were in cahoots, that you were part of the conspiracy [to profile and mistreat Muslims] with the feds. After reading your coverage, I feel much more confident that you actually care about telling our stories. You were honest, you brought context to the story, and I appreciate your coverage.’”
“People like reading about people conquering, overcoming, moving past problems,” she added. “When readers can say ‘These are people who speak to me,’ they will engage more with our content.”
Flipping the narrative focuses on connection with underrepresented and populations, and flipped stories certainly have the capacity to draw new trust and new readers from untapped communities. Successful stories may also inspire fresh interest from another source: traditional news consumers who are able to dispel biases and gain new perspective on underrepresented people and narratives.
Alongside their article series about Somali Minnesotan communities, the Minneapolis Star Tribune published a series of first-person essays from Muslim community members. The essays were tremendously popular among the Star Tribune’s readership; one reader, in a top-voted comment, said, “It really helps me to hear from someone in the community so that those of us outside can get a better understanding.”
For both community insiders and readers with less immediate connection to story content, flipped journalism’s nuanced and human approach is enthralling. “ We wanted to connect with the Somali community and we also found that non-Somalis really appreciate it too,” Dardarian reflected. “We’re catering to a smart audience, one that really appreciates explanatory journalism and investigative stories.”
“Flipped” journalism presents its own set of challenges to those who would undertake it. Well-established sources such as local governments and law enforcement, are popular among press members for a reason, after all: they are media-savvy, easy to reach, and reliable. Connecting meaningfully with members of untapped communities to create coherent and accurate coverage often necessitates a significant investment of time, training, and resources. When done well, though, community-centered journalism is an effective way to reach new audiences, provide context and nuance, and create a more meaningful model of storytelling for both journalists and readers.
Francesca Lupia is a freshman at Stanford University with a long-standing interest in innovative and socially conscious journalism. Originally from Ann Arbor, MI, Francesca was a volunteer writer and editor for Groundcover News, a local street newspaper, for four years. At Groundcover, a small independent publication focused on homelessness and social justice, Francesca contributed articles, worked closely with low-income and homeless vendors, and developed a passion for journalism that uplifts and empowers typically unheard voices.
At Stanford, Francesca plans to major in linguistics and political science and writes for the Stanford Daily’s University/Local News beat. Bilingual in English and Mandarin Chinese, Francesca is particularly interested in US-China relations and Chinese press restrictions, and hopes to pursue a career in print journalism or law (preferably based in China) after graduation.
These stories are made possible through a joint project of Journalism That Matters and the ASNE Diversity Committee.