Hello, We're People: How Lessons from Journalism's Crisis Can Save Higher Ed

At Switchboard, we begin our weekly team meetings with a segment called “Hello, we’re people.” It’s a chance for us to be light-hearted and share something about ourselves. This one comes from our co-founder and CEO, Mara Zepeda.

Before I co-founded Switchboard, I worked as a reporter. I studied at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and went on to work for National Public Radio, the Boston Globe, and popular shows like Marketplace and Planet Money. I reported on stories ranging from the opioid crisis, to pediatric burns caused by Cup Noodle soup, to rickshaw drivers in India.

It’s hard to overstate how much public newsrooms and education have in common, and how much both professions can learn from one another. The mission of both is to:

  • Deliver value to their community (students, alumni, the public)

  • Serve members’ needs (information, resources, and mobility)

  • Demonstrate the value of their organization

  • Establish, repair, and increase trust

  • Generate financial support from members

  • Identify volunteers and leaders

  • Preserve democracy

In short:

 Listen + serve = Trust & Democracy

Serving your community and building trust  with the goal of preserving democracy is no small task! In fact, it’s one of the most important undertakings of our time. As Robert Greenleaf wrote in The Institution as Servant,  “The only sound basis for trust is for people to have the solid experience of being served by their institutions in a way that builds a society that is more just and more loving, and with greater creative opportunities for all of its people.” Now more than ever, newsrooms and schools alike are asking: How can we serve better to build a more just and loving society with greater opportunity for all?  

We arrive at the “how” by asking “what.” Namely: What opportunities do members of our community want? Yet newsrooms and schools rarely start from this place. It’s no fault of their own; the system simply isn’t designed for it.

Instead, the more common approach is, “respond first, reflect later (if at all).” In newsrooms, for example, reporters often find stories by receiving a press release in their inbox, or seeing a story elsewhere that inspires more coverage. Similarly, in education, we often design programs and events because an administrator or trustee had A Brilliant Idea, or because we see another institution has created something similar.

What if, instead, we started by asking our communities what they wanted, listened to those needs, and then designed a process to serve them? We can no longer afford not to: 58% percent of higher ed students say getting a good job is their primary motivation and yet 50% of U.S. alumni think their education was worth the cost and 17% of young alumni are satisfied with the career help from their alma mater. Closing the gap between motivation to enrolled and value received means reorienting our model to start from a place of listening, curiosity, empathy, and service. With increasing numbers of first generation and low-income students that have a broad spectrum of unmet, unique needs, institutions must start from this place.  As this study on the power of empathy states, “The first step to covering a neglected community is understanding the perspectives of the people in that community and letting them tell their own stories.”

With the rise of fake news and the decline of trust in journalism, this crisis of ignoring the perspectives of the community it exists to serve has reached a tipping point in journalism. Higher education can learn how it might respond from how journalism has handled this transitional moment. One company we look to to lead the way with audience engagement Hearken.

Like Switchboard, Hearken trains teams to listen to and serve their community, and then scales that learning with their software.

 Learn to listen, meet the need, and scale with software

Hearken (which means “to listen”) asks the communities of journalistic institutions, “What stories should our journalists cover?” and then delivers those stories to reporters to be covered.

It has moved from this model:

 Image courtesy of Hearken

Image courtesy of Hearken

To this:

 Image courtesy of Hearken

Image courtesy of Hearken

What are the benefits of designing community-powered engagement? As Hearken puts it:

 Image courtesy of Hearken

Image courtesy of Hearken

The need to listen has become so urgent that leading funders have created grant opportunities for newsrooms to train their teams and scale this approach. The Community Listening and Engagement Fund (CLEF), supported by the Knight Foundation, is one example that could be replicated in higher education.

So how might education leaders move toward a similar model of community-powered engagement? How can we move from designing programs and events that we think our communities want to offering opportunities they tell us they want? Here are a few ideas:

  • Develop a defined process to listen to student and alumni needs

  • Evaluate existing programs based on how well those needs are met

  • Design team collaboration to better meet those needs

  • Align those met needs with institutional priorities

  • Measure quantitative outcomes and share qualitative success to be sure needs are met

Are you interested in designing a more effective engagement strategy from a place of listening? Join colleagues from across the country for our Higher Education Innovation Fellows program. Our June cohort kicks off soon. Or, schedule a call today to learn about our on-site trainings and engagement bootcamps.

Additional reading: