by Jay Kosa
In the fall of 2016, Vancouver, British Columbia-based Discourse Media sent reporter Trevor Jang on a listening road trip to Northern BC to report on the contentious Pacific Northwest liquefied natural gas (LNG) pipeline project. Trevor traveled through communities that would be most affected by the proposed LNG pipeline to understand perspectives on both side of the debate. He facilitated online discussions through a Facebook group, as well as in-person meetings, in an attempt to prompt dialogue and better understand a complicated issue. Trevor reflected on this project: “Improving our media coverage of northern B.C. will take time.”
Project Goals: Lindsay Sample, editor for Discourse Media, said the primary goal for the project was not prescriptive. “Instead of producing a set number of stories, Trevor was asked to keep us updated on where he was and who he was talking to. We were talking a lot about engagement at the time, but we were not sure how best to go about it. We sent Trevor on a road trip on a Greyhound bus with a primary goal of listening,” Sample said.
Tools and Technology: Discourse tried using both Hearken and a Facebook group for the project, but people naturally gravitated to Facebook. The Hearken prompts went largely unused.
Impact: After two-and-a-half weeks travelling across Northern British Columbia from Prince Rupert to Smithers, Trevor produced six stories accompanied by photos and videos that were informed, complex, nuanced, and well-received. “These were among our top performing stories in terms of clicks and views,” Sample said. “Beyond these initial stories, the relationships formed during this road trip aided Trevor immeasurably in developing a beat in these communities.” Trevor’s reporting and listening also had lasting impacts on the communities he visited. For example, two of the women that Trevor met on his trip came to a coffee shop with completely polarized views of the issue have since worked together on a project. Before his story was published, one of the local chiefs threatened to file a lawsuit against Trevor if he continued his reporting. This same chief emailed him after reading the story to say he appreciated the piece and thought that Trevor did such a good job he should write a book about it.
Organization Background: Discourse Media is an independent journalism company based in Vancouver, British Columbia that focuses on listening to provide in-depth reporting on complex issues. Much of the current reporting takes place in and serves British Columbia, but Discourse is currently expanding across Canada. The company is in the process of launching a membership model to supplement its foundation funding and community partnerships. Discourse is not a nonprofit; it is built off the simple premise that there is a market for good journalism.
Project Resources: Sample said that there was very little cost associated with the project; probably no more than a couple thousand dollars worth of travel, printed materials, and social media support. The most significant cost was associated with deploying a full-time reporter for several weeks, plus her own time as an editor and producer. “In terms of cost-benefit analysis, we got so much value. Not just in the six stories Trevor wrote related to the Pacific Northwest LNG project, but in developing a beat that supported many subsequent stories on Indigenous land rights,” Sample said. The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation provided some broad funding for Discourse’s reporting on energy and the environment, including this project.
Here’s how it started
Trevor Jang was a new reporter on the team at a time when Discourse was transitioning from project driven work to beat reporting. The staff was wondering how to conduct community engagement in an environment that was so polarized in light of the debate about the proposed Pacific Northwest LNG pipeline project.
Sample explains, “I was inspired by Gloria Steinem’s book Life on the Road, which is about the people she met while travelling. She doesn’t have a driver’s license and neither did Trevor. That was the seed of the idea for a Greyhound bus roadtrip to Northern BC.”
Discourse had tried covering stories using Hearken, but they didn’t have a huge following at the time. They tried flyering with invitations for folks to use Hearken, but they weren’t successful. They knew they needed someone on the ground, and they also reached out using Facebook, a platform with which many in the community were already familiar.
On the Facebook Group, two women spoke out with strong opposing views. One worked for a local watershed conservation coalition and opposed the LNG pipeline, while the other woman was a LNG industry consultant in favor of the project. After trading barbs online, they eventually decided it would be best to meet in person, and Jang tagged along. During the meeting, the two listened patiently and eventually found common ground over shared desires to see more investment in renewable energy and in the entrepreneurism of young people. Once they realized they also shared a love of horseback riding, they set a date to ride together and a friendship emerged where before there had only been hostility.
Here’s what worked
1. Share perspectives
In coordination with his stories, Jang posted Humans of New York-style profile photos and quotes to Facebook. These were well-received as they put faces to the issues surrounding the LNG project, allowing space for empathy and discourse.
2. Listen without an agenda
Jang succeeded in reporting in a community wary of outsiders by spending time tapping into community events and letting people know that he was just there to listen. Attending existing events was vastly more effective than hosting listening events without community buy-in.
3. In-depth and sustained reporting
It would been faster for Jang to visit for a few days and return with a story, but by spending weeks in the community, he was able to learn the nuances of the debate around the LNG project through various perspectives. As a result, he was able to provide in-depth reporting about a complex issue and help build readers’ understanding of the issues through ongoing coverage.
Here’s what to do next time
1. Hearken was not the best tool in this instance.
Sample and Jang found that people in Northern BC communities did not engage with Hearken. Sample suggested it might have taken hold had they promoted Hearken on local radio as opposed to posting it on their Facebook presence and handing flyers to individuals they met in person.
2. Maintaining Facebook Groups is a lot of work.
“It was a challenge to maintain our Facebook Group and keep it conversational,” said Sample. “It’s hard to act as a facilitator amidst tense environments where you encounter controversy, racism, fear, and anger. We needed to monitor posted links that had questionable sources.” Sample suggests that in retrospect, leveraging existing groups in these communities may have been a more effective approach than starting a new group as an administrator. It’s easy for journalists to think that they’re providing a helpful tool, without thinking about what is most needed, or what already exists.
3. Collaborate with local news outlets.
While the road trip was a success, it also helped Sample and others at Discourse see that even an extended stay can still amount to parachute journalism, if relationships aren’t cultivated and sustained. Trevor moved on from Discourse, and today, the company has a local media fellow based in Northern BC who is going to spend six months listening deeply to the public to tell better stories. “We’re going to people where they’re at,” Sample said.
Here’s what else you should know
- Not every meeting was a success. There were listening sessions that Trevor organized where only a few people showed up. He also had plenty of meetings that weren’t very comfortable, that led him to keep exploring and meeting more people. If you aren’t having uncomfortable conversations, you’re probably not engaged deeply enough.
To learn more about this project, send Lindsay Sample an email or read Trevor’s reflection: “Improving our media coverage of northern B.C. will take time.” You can also follow Discourse on Twitter and Medium, sign up for their newsletter on their website, and learn more from their 10 Principles.