The Correspondent’s adventure in transnational journalism is over. As conversation editor, I was just getting my teeth into what we were trying to do as an unbreaking newsroom. I learned to stay constructive when working on our journalism. I learned how to rethink about what’s happening in our world from a foundational perspective. I relished being collaborative to keep blind spots at bay.
It takes time to learn how to be inclusive of different world views, not only of writers but also of our members.
Shit. What is this transnational thing we’re building?
This thought first manifested when I was hosting our one year birthday Zoom call . It was the first time all five correspondents were live together in a meeting that members could watch.
It was as we talked about the fires in Australia (in our engagement editor’s hometown), the Indian protests against a controversial citizenship law (in our Sanity correspondent’s backyard), the Black Lives Matter protests in the US (across town from our Climate correspondent), that it hit me: we’re doing something too ambitious here.
Our members were a world in a pot: 50,000 people in 130 countries
Our members were a world in a pot: 50,000 people in 130 countries. And our writers have tried to present the world in the cauldron of their writing. We all have national contexts. Those contexts all share universal systemic roots.
The fires in Imogen Champagne’s town burned too in Eric Holthaus’s country; the marches for social justice took place in several countries; the danger of going to protests for freedoms in Delhi doubled down too for people in Lagos. Transnational means iterating these experiences and sharing them to understand them (even if we don’t agree with their root causes or effects). It means we can hear new stories and provide common solutions.
Even a lockdown kept us all indoors within different freedoms; so many reporting plans were cancelled. Some correspondents didn’t step outside for days on end. However, onscreen, we were suddenly all equal.
With all faces to camera and equal air time, we had work to do.
The prize for ‘most memberfully reported’ beats goes to two correspondents
The concept of "memberful reporting" has been at its strongest through two beats in particular.
Tanmoy Goswami crafted Sanity into a solutions-oriented, safe and inclusive space. Among other important but underreported stories, Tanmoy worked with members to think through suicide prevention strategies after the pandemic and how older people and people with disabilities are erased from the mental health conversation.
On the First 1,000 Days beat, members helped Irene find a different language around sex, breastfeeding and trauma.
Members who are experts have:
- Read stories for accuracy before publication. For example: "Jacinda Ardern was mocked for telling kids the Tooth Fairy is an essential worker. But here’s why that’s politics done right" and ‘Trauma can be inherited. We need to understand what we’re passing on".
- Sparked directions for further reporting ("What people with disabilities want us to know about touch".)
Here are some of my personal highlights and lowpoints about my work in the memberful space at The Correspondent*. I end on some dreams because – why not.
* One thing to know. Many links below lead directly to the contribution section, the private member space which is also closing down on 1 January 2021. Do get in touch if you want to access them by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
I worked with our writers and members by hosting them in four ways:
1. I invited in global communities of experts
In the conversation section, we would be joined by an international lactation specialist on one day, to a former stowaway who has crossed countries, oceans and continents on the next. By thinking laterally, we’ve done our best to focus on the foundational and the systemic. We have brought together individuals and groups with a shared experience or built expertise across systems, not borders, to add to our journalism.
For example, for the First 1,000 Days, the learning in our journalism has been most well developed around Irene’s series on "play". We were joined by an international panel of experts on play, childhood and ventriloquism. Experts who joined us on a beat such as mental health often crossed over to other topics, such as the first 1,000 days, as psychologist Nitasha Borah did .
What kind of issues did we work on together? Along the Climate beat, we gathered experts who shared:
- how they’re exposing the structural origins of the climate justice movement;
- how climate tech can keep its staying power;
- where we start with a coronavirus economic recovery package. The added mix of people and perspectives coming from backgrounds in sociology, political science, urban planning and policy made just as big of an impact below the line as the journalism itself.
There have been particular warm moments in conversation:
- Children from around the world told us how they are active in politics.
- Thinkers and academics explained where they stood on the the anti-colonial struggle.
- A group of writers from Africa and the diaspora shared their experiences of migrations and separations.
Of course, we had many chances to talk directly to those experts in conversation who were profiled on our platform, such as:
- young climate leaders
- or neuroscientists.
2. I co-hosted an ‘Othering’ book club called The Other Shelf
We were introduced, by our members and our Othering correspondent, to writers whose work might not have come across our radar. In her quarterly book club The Other Shelf, we were also able to discuss these books with the writers themselves: Jason de León, Brianna Theobald or Minna Salami. How else to explore these universally haunting and moving topics, such as birth or death or entire histories of the world? My personal favourite was getting to know cult Nigerian writer Buchi Emecheta’s work.
3. I hosted transnational chats
One of the journalistic innovations I enjoyed the most were our transnational chats (we never were able to find less of a tongue-twisting name).
We invited experts or those with lived expertise from around the world to join us on a set date and time to participate in a text chat. With our members, we then shared insights and offered solutions about:
- How to think about surveillance during the pandemic with privacy experts
- Social justice with urban planners, architects and housing experts
- How to manage coronavirus with global health experts
- How to understand Covid-19 w ith epidemiologists and those working on medical and misinformation frontlines
- How to fix policies with migration experts from around the world
- What to do about our news consumption and misinformation with media experts
- Long-running social movements with protestors from around the world
- The stories that the climate debate is missing according to young climate activists
- How to talk about tough issues, such as abortion, with experts in reproductive rights from five continents, but also with negotiators and mediators
In our transnational journalism, we used these live journalism experiments as a way of staying open minded, thinking constructively, and examining all of our biases.
Finally, correspondents learned that in a transnational media, it’s okay to locate your experience in a national context. It’s OK to not know everything.
It’s OK to make mistakes or to kill stories – as long as you continue on the journey together with your members.
4. We once got to meet in person
I’ve had many favourite moments in conversation, but one of those was a Dutch-Iranian member turning up to a documentary screening in Amsterdam where Irene Caselli was interviewing the director. In her very first series about trauma and the first 1,000 days, Irene’s journalism connected two women who had been born in Evin prison in Iran, IN PERSON. Consider that Maryam Zaree’s documentary was about feeling isolated once she found out the truth of her birth, and the film details how she could not meet many of her peers, despite searching over Europe and the US. As Irene puts it, "no story is too small to tell".
Where did our memberful reporting not work?
I’ve listed some of my favourite formats in which we’ve worked with members above. I wanted to be clear too about two things that we did not do well for our members.
1. The ‘callouts’ weren’t always successful
There are some elements which I did not get right – callouts for action, where we could really bring together a wide-ranging group of people with experience or expertise, or inspire them to take action.
Some asks of members worked, such as welcoming their tips to make a workplace guide to happiness .
However, not everyone could send in a photo of a street name for a piece about everyday colonialism. For something which seemed ubiquitous, and which did incite discussion, it did not translate to member interaction in precisely the first way that I conceived of it.
One of our biggest ambitions, to bring together an advisory board of members on the first 1,000 days, remained in limbo. How could we select six members who had written in to us, generously sharing their experiences, and still say we could faithfully be following along the full and totally representative journey of every first 1,000 days? Similarly, some members wrote to me early on offering their own proofreading services after I put out a call in a daily newsletter. We needed to learn about ourselves, our members, and what we needed for and from them, before going forward with these initiatives.
2. Not everyone we wanted to hear from could log in to our media platform
I had an ambitious goal in my opening mission statement: "until members of my family, who moved to Europe from Pakistan, feel included in the journalism we produce, there is still everything to change about our processes and our positions of privilege. We need to make sure our work is both accessible and doesn’t talk down to the groups to which we do not belong."
I don’t think we talk down to groups where we don’t belong. However, we were still exploring the literacy for how to include them, and how to listen.
As Better Politics correspondent Nesrine Malik was sagely reminded by another member who reached out to her: "people are people".
So, there is still everything to change, and our privilege to examine.
Conversation could not always be a safe place where we all respectfully disagreed
Thinking about how to avoid pitfalls where we’re just not listening to each other anymore led me to remember some of the trickiest instances in conversation. There are examples of how ideas became quickly mixed up into assumptions, or on members and writers alike facing off on tone, imagery and style, rather than content.
A story about raising a gender-free child had members up in arms about whether gender is a social construct, and whether the correspondent was denying its biological fact. Members explained what they understood by the words non-binary , or transsexual and transgender . Irene later told members that she would be moving away from the topic of male / female brains in a later newsletter, as despite the attention that this subject got, she would not probably be able to add a new perspective.
Terminology counted in a piece on abortion (should it be "anti-abortion" or "pro-life"?), as did the question of why the first 1,000 days should look at a topic such as abortion.
Cultural perspectives on "fat-shaming" as a metaphor/ image emerged on a piece about SUVs and carbon emissions. By talking in this instance, we did in fact come to hear about where each person was coming from, even if we did not agree with their perspective.
Another trans member, who first introduced themselves under Othering correspondent OluTimehin’s piece, was calm and collected under the otherwise heated conversation on "wilful ignorance". OluTimehin’s newsletter following up on this debate – addressing the need to allow for complexities of topic – was well answered by a member explaining that we should indeed just listen, not feel like our minds need to be changed.
"Civility" and racism remain the spaces where we could have done much, much more. These topics were written and researched by Eliza Anyangwe, OluTimehin Adegbeye and Nesrine Malik to really varying degrees of success. What felt like my biggest fail was losing a member who accused us of purposing racism in the conversation section. This is because I still believe when members talk to each other, that they can help each other realise why they may be not seeing issues from every person’s perspective. Sometimes, it can hurt too much to allow for that wide open space.
On another note: it’s definitely been an odd experience for me to allow climate change deniers to publish their views in conversation (even in my recruitment interview, I had talked about how this was a dealbreaker for me based on past editorial experience). I’m still chewing on this one ...
I’ll end on something Sanity correspondent Tanmoy Goswami wrote to a member who had long since cancelled their membership:
"Thank you for serving me an early reminder of exactly who I write for. Not experts, not other journalists, not policymakers, but people fighting to establish mental health as a human right, people who are hurting, people for whom sanity isn’t about “cute” intellectual arguments, but about their very identities."
Things we would have loved to do
1. Host more webinars
At the beginning of year one, I told you: You can look forward to digital meetups, and in some cases physical meetups, from Lagos to Buenos Aires. These physical meetups happened in Argentina and India. Now, it’s everyone’s game if they have an internet connection at the ready.
The world has changed since The Correspondent started thanks to 50,000 founding members. We became even more distributed worldwide as a team. There are many more zoom webinars and meetings from every corner of the planet, as they replaced physical in-person meetings or events due to the pandemic.
Plus, there are many more media platforms using a membership model now. So it’s not just about eyeballs or wallets; I would have continued to focus on what stories we wanted to tell.
Climate correspondent Eric Holthaus celebrated this in the most perfect way with his gathering of Indigenous leaders from all over the world; managing editor Eliza Anyangwe held a discussion with five pan-African creatives. This meeting via video chat differed to the written chats we do, in terms of how the passion for the subject being discussed came across, and perhaps what a more visceral feeling of being in a different time zone actually meant in relation to each other.
2. Do more interdisciplinary storytelling
We co-hosted a transnational chat between Patrick Chalmers and Irene Caselli – approaching a critical topic such as abortion and women’s reproductive rights more generally, within the framework of political literacy. How else could we discuss divisive topics, which we do not all agree on, from a more constructive angle?
3. More audio, more inclusivity
At the beginning of The Correspondent‘s life, we told you: In time, we hope to be sharing audio and video snapshots with you, and from you.
Our birthday month (September 2020) coincided with a new "read out loud" app, which also closes 1 January 2021 .
I thought that this was an opportunity to get contributions in via a voice app. Audio could be another inclusive way of hearing from those who are least likely to be technologically able, or who have as good an internet connection to be able to log in to our site.
And of course anything in audio would always go into our journalism as text, to not exclude those members who were deaf or hard of hearing. This, incidentally, was the seed of another initiative we did not have time to get off the ground: member committees who could advise us on inclusivity, or how to manage our writing around abuse or sensitive topics.
Memberful audio reporting would have been a curated space. In the past, for transnational chats featuring guests from Haiti, Paris, Ecuador, Ghana, New Zealand, Uganda, China or Nepal, the best way to be in touch and share ideas was through a mobile voice app – not email, not through our log in on The Correspondent.
Imagine the quality of experience or expertise you would get when you hear from even more people on a global level, discussing a topic like land rights with you, in their own languages, or in rural areas.
4. More collaboration between members and guests
As I said in my mission statement: The notion of "working within communities" is problematic because it implies that a journalist can dip out of a community just as fast as they dipped into it.
By the very nature of beats that we published, the experts or members who might be logging in to share their expertise about the climate crisis might also in fact be sharing their very same experience or expertise of mental health, or othering, or their first 1,000 days, or everyday colonialism.
We wanted to be more of a host. To welcome back guests and members, and return to topics which we once looked at, in the hope of using the benefit of hindsight and understanding the problems lurking below the surface of a system which is more universal to our lives than we would think.
I would bring back the protestors we spoke to in late 2019; meet the next generation of youth leaders or activists; host more intergenerational chats; share our therapy tips worldwide.
5. More member-correspondent ‘town halls’
We have had four sessions of member-correspondent online meetups, one on one. There was a refreshing range of voices in these sessions alone – from the US, Netherlands, India, Greece, Nigeria and Sudan, meeting to discuss climate, othering, first 1,000 days and sanity, and to test out each other’s roles.
We were feeling our way to being more transnational and relevant. The centre still holds from my mission statement:
Imagine a transnational view that took [my migrant aunt’s] voice into account. Imagine if a story related to her experience could reach her, even if she couldn’t read it herself. If her work on that story made a difference to how it was told.
I won’t be your conversation editor any longer. This 15 months of experimentation in doing journalism with you, not for you, was just a beginning in so many ways. Let me know what kind of impact it had for you too.