News literacy and reader engagement: a chat with newsPeeks’ Charlotte Knowles

We’re always interested to talk with journalists, editors and publishers, particularly when what they’re doing sits a little outside the norm. This week we spoke to Charlotte Knowles at London-based newsPeeks, a company which is seeking to engage young people with the news, not by changing the form but by getting them to create journalism themselves.

Let’s start with the basics, Charlotte. What exactly is newsPeeks?

We’re a community interest company that produces investigative and public interest journalism by training young people under the age of 25 to do just that. Last year (our pilot year) we had a cohort of around 25 young people who we mentored and trained and who both researched and produced pieces of journalism in various mediums. Our next intake will be smaller so we’re able to offer greater depth and experience to our trainees. It’s our hope that by training people to train others, the learning will spread and we’ll see a kind of domino effect happening.

The millennial demographic is one that seems to be highly sought after in the business world, and we’ve seen various news services targeting that. Why did you elect to focus on getting young people involved in the production of news, and not just tailor news for their consumption?

I think essentially it’s about ownership. If you involve people with the journalistic process then they’re more likely to feel confident about the end result. The world is a complicated place and young people don’t necessarily have a huge wealth of context politically and economically to understand what’s going on.  We’ve found that by introducing the skills of investigative research to young people, they are more able to navigate this tricky online media landscape and thereby understand what’s going on in the world. They might not necessarily want to go on and become journalists, but those skills are so important to modern life, and aren’t necessarily ones that are being taught in schools.

We’re not aiming to replace university. We do a very different thing at newPseeks, which is throwing people in the deep end and getting them to get out and start making journalism in a hands on way under the guidance and watchful eye of experienced journalists and mentors.

We think it’s the duty of the older generation who have more of an understanding to find ways to bring them into the conversation and not treat them as ‘others’ but as participants.

Has online culture made it more difficult for young people? I don’t recall there being initiatives like this during my own university years, for example.

I think the way that the school system functions [in the UK] is pretty archaic. It’s very divisive: along on class lines, gender lines, across abilities and in ways that I think are very unhelpful in modern world.

All that is only made worse by the online landscape, which is overwhelmingly large and can be quite hostile: if you put your views out online there’s a real chance you might be attacked or ridiculed and that’s quite scary.

Young people aren’t taught how to develop to their filter system in order to be able to manage the massive amount of information that’s now available and they’re not taught how to effectively separate fact from fiction. Whilst young people may always have taken a while that skill, there’s a sense of urgency now brought about by the changes in technology.

The pace of change has been astonishing. Twitter’s Ev Williams has said that ‘for a currency to be valuable it has to be scarce’ and we’re certainly seeing publishers pull out all the tricks in the book in order to grab readers’ attention – how’s that affecting news literacy among younger people?

Well, a lot of news is now about shaping what’s true in a way that will grab readers’ attention and generate an emotional response, and that’s certainly what we’re seeing online in the battle for viewers and readers.

There’ s so much information that there’s little wonder that platforms like Facebook have become almost default: you get everything you like in one place and you don’t have to go out looking for information elsewhere. New news aggregators, like Flipboard and Compass News are specifically targeting this age group. There is a mixed degree of success here, but the it’s important to note that the reason they’re being created is to solve a perceived problem of information overload and some are in fact being made by young people.

How do these look different from something like, say, Blendle or even Pocket?

The ones that interest me are the ones that present the news items in their ideological context, so they’re saying ‘this is a conservative viewpoint’ or ‘this is left-leaning’. It’s another way of increasing news literacy and making readers aware of the fact that the information they’re received is coming from different ideological perspectives and that, in order to consume a balanced media diet, you need to be aware of information coming from a range of different perspectives.

I don’t think it’s immediately obvious sometimes which perspective articles are coming from and yet it’s really, really important, especially in this era of fake news and filter bubbles. When you get older and you’ve been reading the news for a long time and you start to know that a certain journalist might write from a specific political perspective and that you might need to take it with a pinch of salt and counterbalance that with something else, but with so much information coming from many different sources, that’s difficult.

It’s a lot to wade through for anyone though, isn’t it? Do you find your more explanatory view appeals outside of your intended demographic?

Certainly we aim our content at people under the age of 25, but when we were looking at our demographics at the beginning of the year we noticed that we were getting a lot of readers from the 25-35 age bracket too, so it’s obviously relevant to everyone. It’s not about reserving it, it’s about making it accessible to our core demographic. In doing so, yes, it does become accessible to everyone else, but it’s intended to communicate first and foremost with young readers and journalists.

How do you fit into the new journalistic landscape?

We see ourselves as being in the middle of a new landscape that’s starting to emerge, which is a network of independent outlets that are trying to produce some alternatives to the mainstream which dominates. In fact we met with around 30 other titles in Sheffield recently to talk about how we could work together and there’s certainly a spirit of cooperation and collaboration which is exciting.

we measure our success in line with our business model, which is about both building a community and also creating opportunities for young people to engage with and produce journalism

You talk about empowerment and engagement and obviously there are two sides to that: the people who are producing the content, and the people who are consuming it. How do you facilitate that and how do you measure it?

In a number of ways: we put everything on line, but we also run live events where we invite people to come and feedback in real time. We take this feedback very seriously and we get quite a lot of it, and actually the most valuable responses are when people actually phone or email us or speak to us at an event.

Obviously we also track things likes the number of views or likes or dislikes, which are good to see what kind of reach something’s getting, but not that helpful in terms of understanding what somebody’s actually understood about that piece of media, which is of course at the very core of Newspeeks. We’re slightly different in that regard: we measure our success in line with our business model which is about both building a community and also creating opportunities for young people to engage with and produce journalism.

Is this approach more egalitarian? Putting people with reporters and levelling the playing field? Is that a fair observation?

Yes, well I wouldn’t say that we were pioneers in that, I think that that’s just the way that journalism is moving. You see that with the Guardian as much as any of the smaller, independent outlets: they’re focused on building up their membership and community. Readers have changed. They’re not going to buy your newspaper in the same way. If you want to be able to produce journalism that doesn’t just grab people’s attention out of thin air, then you have to offer them something else: the old model doesn’t exist anymore and what we’re doing is part of a bigger culture of reinvention that lots of independent outlets are engaged with currently.

The Bureau Local reported only just this week that there have been 18 local newspaper closures in the UK this summer and we all know it’s a hard industry to navigate, so how do smaller news organizations fit into the broader news landscape, given that success seems to be increasingly tied to specialisms and we’re teetering on the brink of information overload?

I think the key is relevance. There are lots of ways in which people are trying to tap into their communities and get them invested – both emotionally and financially. It’s to everyone’s benefit to get their news back and get their voices back through their local outlets. It’s readers who ultimately are the ones able to sustain local journalism, so you need them to want to invest in the development of it and it’s absolutely about engaging them in the process and if you can train people in those communities – geographical or otherwise – to understand investigative practice and basic fact checking, then they’ll gain a greater appreciation about the news and their communities. It seems like a no-brainer to me.

Are there any good examples of this in practice?

The Bristol Cable is a local investigative newspaper in Bristol that has done amazing work and is also run as a cooperative. They are there to provide news about Bristol but also to look at the city within a broader national and international landscape, so when there’s an international story that breaks – for example the Panama Papers – they’re able to look at how many of those companies caught up in that are based in Bristol and what the city’s role is in this international story. There’s a clear sense of space and relevance and I think a really interesting way of making local news financially sustainable too.

So at the heart of success is understanding your community, whatever that community looks like?

Yes, it’s absolutely about engaging them in the process as much as you can. We’ve found that the more involved people are in the journalistic process, the more invested they are in the end result, which can only be good news for everyone.


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