“We wanted the story to begin in the community instead of in the newsroom.”
Gerd Maria May, Founder of Room of Solutions
Middlefart is a small town of around 15,000 people on Denmark’s island of Funen, the town is also the starting point for a new type of community based reporting. Gerd Maria May, former head of editorial development at the regional media corporation Jysk Fynske Medier, wanted to reinvent the way the local journalists did their job. From newsgathering with school students to working out of the local grocery store her team of local reporters firmly integrated their reporting into the fabric of Middelfart.
How They Did It
Middelfart is a typical town on the island of Funen but it also had one of the lowest approval ratings for the island’s newspaper Fyens Stiftstidende. Gerd and her team of five local reporters were tasked with the mission of “becoming relevant in the community”.
The journalists began with a series of consultations with Middelfart residents; firstly with readers; then with “the power” – individuals such as the mayor, the CEO of a major company in the community and the director of the head of administration of the city; lastly they held a meeting with people who headed local councils and were working voluntarily without salaries.
For each conversation they focused on 4 questions:
- Do you think Fyens Stiftstidende is relevant?
- Do you think Fyens Stiftstidende is trustworthy?
- Do you think Fyens Stiftstidende is reachable?
- Do you think Fyens Stiftstidende is helping your community evolve?
A researcher was employed to investigate the answers and invited to the focus group meetings.
Armed with the insights from Middlfart’s thinkers and doers Gerd and her team of 5 local journalists began to design new formats for their news gathering and delivery.
As part of the constructive project editorial staff met with their readers
Back to School
A key ambition was to be relevant for the young people in the community. In order to achieve this the team connected with the local secondary school and developed a seven weeks curriculum around journalism for the students. Reporters from the newspaper taughtclasses and gave feedback on the students’ articles. One hundred six students took the course and identified which topics they wanted to investigate. Some of the students articles were published in the newspaper and the news team covered the issues that had been selected in the classroom.
Room of Solutions
The journalism course ended with a big debate-meeting which was reported on by the Fynens Stiftstidende team. The students met with the mayor, the director of a local business, experts and other people who had the knowledge and power to help solve the problems the students had worked with.
The debate was structured in a format that Gerd termed “Room of Solutions” a form of debate which focuses on involving all participants in a constructive discussion. The starting point of the debate is essential knowledge of the issue that is going to be discussed as well as a frame around the debate that makes it clear that the event is not about placing blame but about inspiring possible ways forward.
Gerd Maria May has identified an important set of journalistic values -“STEP”
Open Editors Meetings
Local residents were invited to participate int the editorial meetings. The journalists and the editor set up Facebook lives and often special guests were invited to be part of the meeting with the readers submitting questions. At some of the meetings an expert was invited in order to offer a summary of the key facts before the team decided on how to work with the topic. At one of the readers editorial meetings, the team invited the financial director from the municipality. She explained how the tax money is spent, and they discussed how to cover the budget negotiations.
The team wanted to be more closely connected with their community so they moved out of their newsroom. The journalists named the initiative 10:10 because the journalists worked from a new destination every day for ten days in a row. The reporters worked from the local grocery store, the sports arena, the high school, the city park and many more spots in town.
The news locations led to new sources, new stories, and the journalists developed a lot of new relationships within their community. They now have two 10:10 – tours annually- one in summer and one just before christmas.
With a newly invigorated news team and an enthusiastic readership Middelfart is an example of the engagement that is possible with a local audience, they are now the most popular newsroom for Fyens Stiftstidende. Gerd Maria May is now rolling out similar initiatives for Fyens Stfitstidende ten newsrooms across the island, working with around 100 journalists.