Changing the Narrative for Community Leadership

Conversation with Paula Ellis ~ November 27, 2018

About every six weeks for the last five years, John and Peter have hosted online / dial-up conversations with community-building pioneers as their guests. For their Novemmber 27, 2018 dialog they invited Paula Ellis to talk about her work as a news, corporate and civic leader deeply immersed in national and community issues.

Paula talks with John and Peter about her work as a news, corporate and civic leader deeply immersed in national and community issues. Then they explore ways that her work with local groups and institutions to restore community vitality can apply to the community-building work our audience is engaged in.



Becky: Paula Ellis is focused right now on civic entrepreneurship, and she has an extensive career as a journalist and has worked in both profit and nonprofit organizations.

John: Paula, it’s wonderful that you could join us. With the kind of background you have, I think we’re going to learn an awful lot. I know that you have edited newspapers and been a key person in major foundation, the Knight Foundation, and you’re a senior associate at the Kettering Foundation and more credentials I’m sure that I don’t know of. But with that kind of a career, I wonder if we can start by asking, having that kind of experience in the newspaper world and the media, tell us how it’s effected where you stand today in your understanding of the media and its role.

Paula: First of all, thank you both for inviting me. It’s really a privilege to be in a conversation with you two gentleman who I’ve learned from also all along in my career. It might be useful if I just say a few words about myself that may help to see that we’ve been living in parallel universes in a sense.

I was raised in Washington D.C., in a progressive Catholic family, and had the benefit of reading this columnist, a guy named Nicolas Von Hoffman who wrote pretty endlessly about this place called the Woodlawn Organization, which sounded pretty enchanting. I have an undergraduate degree in government and politics, and my journalism career has always been one where I’m very interested in who has power, who doesn’t have power, and how the world could be jointly shaped. I also had the great good fortunate to work 26 years with a news organization called Knight Ridder where we really talked about community well being and could our newspapers be an agent of community well being. I know that’s not always apparent to people. So it’s an orientation that I’ve had for quite a while.

I guess what I would just say about the current state of affairs is the industry or the news business, whatever you want to call it, news. In many ways, it’s not a business anymore. But is that a pretty significant inflection point. Some would say, “Oh, this is a platelet shift. Everything we want’s new. It’s dramatically changing.” Others might say, “News species are emerging.” But it certainly is wonderfully exciting time, which brings with it opportunity and threats. And I think we see a fair amount of all of those. My personal hope and sort of whatever I can help in the world to nudge things is to sort of see if the systems that are emergent can be better than the ones that are being destroyed.

Peter: Could you be specific about emergent and destroyed? How would you name those two domains?

Paula: I think what’s being destroyed, the fundamental challenge to, let’s just call it, news organization, is an economic one, which is that the way to pay for the collection and distribution of news is changing dramatically or is eroding. The platforms on which news is being distributed, constructed are all changing and constantly being reinvented, and what we have today is if anyone took the time to read the piece that was shared, everybody has voice and everybody has an opportunity now to get their voice out there from a distribution point of view. What we have now is a war for attention, and so people are working really very hard to aggregate attention. So as the sort of uber system that I would say kind of monopolized media for good and ill, the sort of, what would you call it, the mass media becomes more and more of a series of niches. There’s more opportunity and threat. I don’t know if that’s helpful.

Peter: It is. Very helpful. Thank you.

John: You say in an article that you wrote that the media has shifted from what it was, perhaps giving us information, to taking on roles of inculturization and socialization. I wonder if you could tell us what that means specifically.

Paula: So in prior … I won’t go into the history of media. It did start out as opinion and propaganda, you might call it, but it evolved to a point where it was early on almost stenography, almost like an extension of the telegraph like Ernie Pyle would send us a dispatch because we weren’t able to be there. We weren’t able to know was it propaganda or truth. It’s what we had and in many ways we accepted it as truth. And then as communities became more complex, competition got greater, the journalists duties moved more to a recognition that we were really instrumental in establishing societal norms. So let me try to be less oblique.

So the current platform for journalism was tools developed out of the age of period of enlightenment and the age of reason and that fundamental idea that if citizens have knowledge, they will do the right thing. Kettering would throw in, “They’ll deliberate and do the right thing.” But the idea was that they would do the right thing and/or  … If institutions weren’t working for us, weren’t doing the right thing, journalism could sort of in an up against the wall way expose what was wrong with the institution and cause the institutions to respond hopefully or for good. Now the challenges that we face are way more complex than that, and our society is much more pluralistic.

The controversies aren’t about facts. They’re about values, collisions at the intersection. So for example, when I was being editor in Columbia, South Carolina, Knight Ridder, the company I worked with, we made a corporate decision that we were going to be the first in the country to run same sex wedding announcements. Now, you can imagine this in conservative Columbia, South Carolina. The place was up for grabs because what we were doing was challenging a norm, changing a norm. So the things that appeared in media helped to sort of say who’s in and who’s out, and that’s where we have so much trouble. What’s normative, what’s not normative. It was a mass business.

John: Let me try to redefine what’s happened and see what you think of this. When I was young, we lived in Columbus, Ohio, and both of the newspapers were owned by a very conservative family, the Wolfe family. And their editorial policy was manifest on the front page, all other pages. So that’s the information that we received. Incidentally, behind me I have a big rubber stamp that my father had made. If you’ll pardon me, it says, “Bullshit.” He would take this rubber stamp and after he read an article in the newspaper, the Wolfe newspaper in Columbus, he’d stamp it with that stamp to certify that it was an inaccurate portrayal of his reality.

Now, there was one voice in a sense back then and now what we have, you could say, in a wonderful Democratic way, more ways for people to give voice than you could possibly imagine. And the victim of that may just be newspapers. So what’s wrong with the democratization of voices that we have now?

Paula: I’m not so sure anything is wrong with it. I’m not ever going to be a defender of the industry or the business because it was deeply flawed in that so many people were left out. And you’re talking about just a political persuasion. Women were left out, African Americans, all kinds. It was never a complete picture of society. So I don’t want to sort of falsely idolize it. And so now what we can see is maybe the first amendment wasn’t just written for the press. It was written for Americans. And there’s an opportunity for citizens to also fully embrace their first amendment rights. Now the challenge is with this cacophony of voices, and, by the way, the world is not full of all good doers. I think we know that. We can see that people that want to create bedlam and menace often are the first or make a lot of money are the first to adapt these tools. But with the means of production being democratized, we have a chance I think to tell more complete stories. The challenge is how is it going to aggregate up.

So I’m a big fan of Martin Buber I and Thou so that journalism as a political scientist, journalism was what we called a mediating institution. Meaning we bridged from the I to the other. So that’s how we were trained. We bridge from the I to the other and the other to the I, and that the individual can’t know themselves but to know themselves in relationship with community and like that. And that’s what journalism was able to do with many flaws. But as the networks now are kind of falling apart and becoming maybe eco chambers and people not bridging out, that’s the biggest risk. So there’s a risk that you’re going to have more voices, but what’s materializing at this point is that people generally like to stay in their sort of tribal loyalties, have their belief systems reinforced. This is the mad genius of Roger Ailes and the creation of Fox News because what they know is that if you reinforce someone’s belief system, they’ll act. If you ask them to bridge out and understand the other, it is too much, often.

So that’s why the news systems are going in this tribal way to some degree.

Peter: The major institutions are still very powerful. People say everybody buys online. Well, it’s not true. 21% of the people buy online. They say print books are going out of print. Well, it’s not true. They’re growing. The electronic books plateau. And I asked the mayor of Cincinnati once, his father was a mayor, and I said, “I’m thinking of starting a newspaper.” He said, “Well, I want the most powerful job there. I want the job deciding what constitutes news.” When we talk about a narrative shifting, you’re talking about the distribution system, which is very interesting. But I’m wondering when will we shift what constitutes news. When will we get away from saying if I cover the extremes, I offer both sides, and it still feels to me like there’s an opportunity there or a shift in consciousness. For example, is something small and neighborly news? Right now it’s called human interest, which means if you want something small, local, and neighborly, you write it yourself and send it in and see if they have the space. I kind of have the hope and the illusion and the romantic desire that we decide that what bleeds does not bleed.

Do you have any thoughts about seeing where that shift might be occurring? I know by civic entrepreneurship, maybe civic journalism was a movement for a while. I’d just like to get your thoughts, Paula, about openings you see or opportunities or …

Paula: Right. So you never ask a simple question. I think to break it apart a little bit.

There are a lot of journalists and there are a lot of experimenters who recognize the destructive nature of some of the routines of journalism, and those are the kinds of individuals I’m privileged to work with at Kettering. And so some of those routines are the first one that we recognized, which is you say, is that there are two sides to a story, and then therefore we see the world as polarized. We promulgate polarization, and then we wonder why is the world polarized. Although I will say journalists are acted on by other actors. Journalists aren’t generally the protagonist. They’re usually being acted on by all kinds of other forces.

But one of the things I’m working with some folks at Kettering is thinking on … so the opposite of conflict and two sided stories maybe isn’t many sided stories. It may be something else. And the ideas that I’ve been pursuing and with some others are much more about something that we’re calling relational journalism. That connection and relation because what we’re able to see is that people are more willing to believe or trust what you’re saying if they’re in a relationship with you of care and trust. If they come across where you’re coming from, that’s very different than being in a fact-based business. So that’s one kind of note of activity.

Peter: Give me just a sample of if I believe that, what would that lead me to do? What kind of story would I start creating to build that trust and relationship? Is it a more nuanced story, a subtle story, an innocent story, an experiential story?

Paula: First, it’s probably an orientation before we can even imagine what the story is. So the orientation, this idea of objectivity was very dangerous and damaging to journalism. It was an economic idea, by the way. It wasn’t a journalist idea. It was created as news organizations were monopolizing markets. So what it created was an orientation of distance and the idea that you had to be distant, objective, scientific, third person narrative, alienated almost.

Like sort of a scientific rationalism on steroids. So once you have that orientation, you experience the world very differently than if you have an orientation that say, “I’m okay. I’m comfortable saying I care about my community.” I can stake ground on that. I don’t get to decide what happens, but I can at least say I care. It used to be some editor said they didn’t even vote. Oh, for god sakes. So that whole distance thing …

Peter: Got it.

Paula: I think we’re seeing a whole thing about it. Now, as a specific example, there’s an organization that we’re working with at Kettering called Spaceship Media, which is truly fascinating. They host dialogues. They do it mostly through Facebook across highly polarized lines, and they’re learning like all kinds of things. Just about the value of the dialogue. When people ask the reporter for facts, they believe the fact more than if the fact is more dumped on them. So that’s one.

Another huge and growing organization that I think is wonderful to watch is Solutions Journalism.

They have the idea that problems are solvable. One of the challenges is we’ve created this master narrative that stuff will be forever screwed up and cannot be fixed. That’s just not true. And so they come to with can we get examples of where communities have fixed things. One, to inspire them, but, two, some of the ideas are transferable. So those are two examples.

Peter: That’s great. I love the language. That’s the idea of poverty is solvable.

Paula: Yep.

Peter: That’s such a radical thought. And Van Jones strikes me as a celebrity type.If I watch him, I’m fascinated. He really does try to give voice to , build a relationship with people of a different point of view.

Paula: He does. You know there was one other thing, Peter, I wanted to say in response to your question. One thing and I would welcome thoughts of all the folks on the phone or wherever they are. A metaphor for storytelling is the hero’s journey, right? We’re all familiar with it, and even if you look back in history and everything’s attributed to Martin Luther King. It takes a lot of us acting, acting sometimes in concert, sometimes we don’t even know each other’s acting, and then things tip, right? There’s not a journalistic way to tell that story. That’s one sort of just very practical thing I’m trying to think about. It’s pretty easy to look backwards and tell a story and hang in on one person.

Peter: I know, but it’s that spark, something was there long before the spark.

Paula: Right, and it misleads people about how change happens.

Peter: And it leads us to look for the next hero. Which has its own dangers in journalism for the common good. We should be careful with heroes.

Paula: Yes. I’m hoping you guys can figure this out for us.

Peter: That’s why we invited you. I think it’s a big deal because I just love what you’re saying and how you’re thinking about it. Kettering’s supporting it. Because I know how I see you determines how I treat you. As John has demonstrated for 40 years, that if I see you as a deficiency, then I will try to fix you. If I see you as a gift, then I will try to join you. And everything shifts in that. And I just feel your profession is such, like you say, a participant in how we see each other and the fact that all the things you’re saying are just beautifully radical and compassionate all at the same time, and I really appreciate it, Paula.

Paula: Thank you.

John: I think the relational idea, the connective tissue is critical. The Asset-Based Community Development Institute that we’re associated with has always had that as the sinful question. I want to ask about a function that newspapers have or could perform from a neighborhood perspective. And it’s this, I remember some years ago gathering most of the news of the neighborhood organizations in Chicago. We had a day-long discussion and the question was what would newspapers report if it was helpful to you? And then you could see that at the end of the day there was an agenda of what people need to know if they’re going to be effective citizens. It struck me that that function of something called the media is really critical for local people. I wonder what you think about where are we going to in our neighborhoods get that kind of information that will allow us to know what’s coming toward us, know what the possibilities are, that kind of thing?

Paula: Right. I don’t say this glibly, but I think you might have to grow your own. And I say that with all respect because there hasn’t been an economic model to underpin news production, certainly news production of that sort has not been found. I mean, the most expensive news was local news. Local, local news. So I think that if we take some of the ideas that we talk about at Kettering with John and others, like a real co-production idea toward it, and in that kind of our own community systems. I know people don’t believe this when I say it, but news does not have to be a business. It could be a gift economy. I mean, it could be all kinds of things. It was a business for a while, but it doesn’t have to be. And the fact that there’s not revenue to support it is a challenge.

But then it has to be networked so that you do have journalists or others who can get into the power positions to find out the secrets that city council has before they’re about to land a toxic waste dump across the street from your house. So there has to be some kind of a networked approach. I worked with some folks to try out some of these ideas on something called the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Network. It continues. It goes on. I won’t get into all the ins and outs of it. But I spent a lot of time working with them on these were in five challenged, difficult communities where all the master narrative about them was always something horrible. You know the stories.

So one piece of the challenge is what’s the story we tell ourselves about ourselves. One, we all know that in our own head. What’s the story we’re feeding to ourselves? What’s the story we’re feeding to each other as a group? What’s the story we’re feeding to each other as a neighborhood block? And getting a handle on those stories I think is really important. The Neighborhood News Network was efforting to do some of that. Us to identify what are the resources, the talents that we have in this community, write about them, show them. It becomes a contagion, and before you might know it, optimism is spiraling up rather than down. Having optimism, not pessimism.

This work goes on. What was really important was that the community members were like, “Oh, that’s sort of whizzy.” like, “Well, you can identify and frame news based on what’s relevant to you and what you care about.” But what it turns out that people mostly wanted was the acknowledgement of the bigger whole. They wanted the correct narrative about them in the Metro Daily. They were still grieving deeply their misrepresentation. And all of which reminded me of the power of just giving witness, journalism witnesses things, and maybe we’re witnessing kind of the wrong things.

I’ll say one other thing, John, you provoked this. Right there in your city, I don’t know if you know the city bureau. This astounding man Daniel Holiday who every time I talk to him, I’m like, “Oh my god.” My head just wants to spin around. He’s so smart, and what he’s got is what he calls monitorial journalist – a network of people from communities who he’s training to do journalism, and then they’re kind of moving up the engagement chain if you would. And so also they’re using journalism as an on ramp to civic participations. That doing journalism is also a civic act.

John: And so if somebody wanted to check that out, they go to the internet and look at …

Paula: — it’s City Bureau in Chicago.

John: And then what about the Milwaukee?

Paula: That’s the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Network. It’s now based permanently at Marquette University. It was a highly collaborative set up between foundations, the university, and local media.

Becky: So now what we’d like to do is welcome folks in groups of three. If you’d like to raise your hand and we can bring you on to talk live with Paula and John and Peter. So we’ll give you a moment to do that, and while we’re waiting, there was a question that had come in on the chat early that perhaps the three of you want to discuss while we’re waiting for folks who want to raise their hand.

So we had a question come in, “How do journalists go about building relationships with people who follow them?” Any thoughts on that?

Paula: I think it maybe would be different relationships. So journalists over time became more aligned with experts, institutional leaders, people who nominate themselves to speak for large group of people. Whether you know they do or not, they’ve nominated themselves to be the spokesperson. So we know those people. They’re all in the Rolodex. What it takes to develop the relationship is just to cultivate a journal list. Journalists are generally approachable human beings, and they got into the business to make things better. And so I think just cultivating someone. It’s not good to only call them when you have something that you want them to do for you, and they don’t do it, and you’re ticked off. That doesn’t work well. That really doesn’t work well. The cultivation is not just like spot on about your business or enterprise or your NGO. It’s about kind of the world broadly. Be an informed source for them, help them go into places and understand things that they can’t know without a wise guide, become that indispensable source. You might not be named very often, but then when you want something, you’re likely to get it.

Peter: There’s a reporter named Lucy May in Cincinnati, and I didn’t realize what was doing until I just listened to you, Paula. But when I see something, I just call her. That’s it. If there’s something going on with public housing, if there’s something going on in the neighborhood, and she shows up and does a story. I just so appreciate her. I did it by accident because she showed up first. But I think that’s a great notion to build those relationships without an objective even. It’s just to help them see what you care about.

Paula: There’s no quid pro quo. You and I both are trying to make our community better, and let me just share with you some things from where I walk and talk.

Becky: So, Paula, this might seem like a strange question, but I’m hearing Peter say to pick up the phone. As it relates to cultivating relationships, have you found that there’s one channel that’s more effective than another? I’m sure journalists are inundated with email, a lot of journalists use Twitter or they’re on Facebook or they’re on Linkedin. So do you have any sense from your experience about the best ways to approach that relationship building process?

Paula: Nothing replaces face to face human contact. Nothing replaces that as a foundation for building, and I know not always possible. But it’s probably more possible than we think, and emails, people just get a bazillion emails. They don’t know you from anybody. So I would say yeah, just in person. Invite the person out for a cup of coffee or something. If they have a lead and you know where they’re going to be, go there. If they’re not on deadline, talk to them afterwards and say, “Hey, I’d love to do a follow up with you.” And then once you have a relationship, then it’s easy to exchange by email and all the other kind of things.

Becky: Thanks, Paula. I have John who’s wanting to join us, and I’m going to go ahead and add him. We can take a couple more. So I’m inviting now John and also NewScoopYYY.

John S: I always show up to these just because I’m always stimulated and inspired and challenged. My passion is actually something a little different, which is trying to change culture within corporations. But something that really inspired me was the idea that problems are solvable and changing that narrative. So often we hear big corporations are always ruthlessly profit driven and don’t care about communities, they don’t care about their own people that work in them. So I guess just more of a thanks for that inspiration about the importance of changing the language and the narrative and thinking about how to do that with more probably internal media but nonetheless, thank you.

Sarah: Paula, it’s lovely to be able to hear your stories from huge experience of journalism, and I am really taken and struck by trying to understand more of what you mean by relational journalism, and perhaps to help make it concrete, I’m curious if you have examples about journalism that has been written from someone who’s strong, competent, confident in their I care position. What does that actually look like when you see it in print, and can you give us examples of that kind of journalism that you’ve witnessed or you know about?

Paula: I don’t have any at the ready, but I think you see them whenever you read an article or a magazine piece where you can feel how empathic it is. I personally, in all the years I was hiring journalists, thought the most important characteristic was their ability to have empathy. The rest is just sort of like auto mechanics. I’d have to find some articles and share them, which I would be happy to do. And on this idea of relational journalism, I’m just kind of working it out in my head and starting to work it out on paper. So with two co-authors, we have a contract to write a journalism textbook, and we’re efforting to articulate a new normative theory for journalism, and this is one of the elements of it that I’m still trying to work out.

But one thing about if it were relational, it would be framed in a way that was useful to you, that you would recognize the issues. Currently, things are generally are framed from experts or from in the language of policy. They’re written in a language that is really not recognizable to very many people. We used to have a cliché “write as if you’re writing a letter to an intelligent friend, but they don’t speak all that jargon.” I think it would really be to just fundamentally change where we start when we’re starting a new story, to listen really carefully to the way people in the public think and talk and frame an issue and come at it from there versus the way policy wonks talk about it. That would be on big shift.

Mary: It’s great to see you all and hear you, particularly Paula. Fascinating insights to the world of journalism. I supposed what I just wanted to share is I suppose building on your points about cultivating relationships with journalists. And a little story from Derry, Ireland from about six years ago when the benefit of being I suppose in a small place where we have been able to get to know our journalists both news, print, and radio and also television, absolutely came up trumps in a campaign, which was very short and sharp and the powers that be had decided to spend some unexpected money that had come into the city ahead of us being the first UK city of culture in 2013. This money had come into upgrade our streets, and in their wisdom, they decided they would spend the money pulling out our old, historic cast iron street lights, lamp posts, and put in new modern, galvanized steel lamp posts. And we were able to feed I suppose the facts on the value and significance of these old lights. They were the only collection of historic street lights left in any city or town in Northern Ireland and possibly on the island of Ireland.

And to cut the very long story short, we are fortunate to have BBC radio station in Derry, BBC Radio Foyle, and its afternoon discussion program carried 10 minute interview in the street, which then kind of started like a domino effect with journalists and newspapers. One of whom was a neighbor of my own who was able to get the story onto the front page of the regional Belfast Telegraph. It was then carried by the local papers in Derry over a period of about three or four days. Local television turned up. It went out on television across Northern Ireland that Sunday, and two more heavyweight interviews from one of our leading investigative journalist, Eamonn McCann, really kind of put the thing to bed. So within about 10 days, the two government departments involved had done a complete u-turn and we ended up saving the cast iron street lights and the rest of the city and repairing five of the ones that had been pulled out.

So it’s just a little story, but I kind of was gob smacked at the effectiveness of all these journalists who all came together. It was like Jane Jacobs talks about a ballet on a sidewalk. Well, this was a ballet of journalists.

Paula: I just wanted to say, Mary, that was a beautiful story, and you perfectly described how news moves through the ecosystem of news. A little goldfish and then a bigger guppie moves, it moves, it moves. So that’s how they grow often and become big stories.

Becky: We do have some other folks who are ready to come on…

Peter: Paula, while we’re waiting, I think the story of the evolving … what’s happening in journalism in itself is a mesmerizing story. I just think the fact the questions you’re raising and the language you’re introducing is in itself an amazing invitation to those of us that are working in communities and stuff like that. Because I felt that I had to take it on myself, and I did for a while. And then I backed off the last minute because I felt I didn’t have the commitment to do it. But knowing now that you can be five or 10. I can imagine a GoFundMe structure around news and stuff that’s probably fallen. So I just think it’s wonderful to hear.

Paula: The world is catching up to your idea, and I always remember Steve Johnson when he writes about innovation, one thing he talks about is spare parts. The challenges, you can have an idea long before the parts to pull it together exist.

Frankie Lee: That was one of the most easy to understand representations of journalism as I’ve experienced it through my life and I’ll turn a lot of people onto this broadcast as a result.

I have crossed over now living in over 200 homes in seven and a half years on the road after 20 some years growing the story of the art of living, and the notion is that we’re the artists of our lives. When we took into a living model for a project called Circles Uniting, and we’ve been narrating the story in small ways all the way along towards taking it to a larger form. So this is a beautiful time to be together, but rather than talk about it, the reason I wanted to call in was that it really does work with the principles that we’re speaking to today. It’s about showing process, actually the living of our lives and what it takes to move into community and to orient to what’s right about our being together. The sense that like Peter is an artist of life, and that makes possible that someone else as well. Someone who lives in their gifts who contributes naturally and who is supported in it in life and that we can be creative about where we’re coming from with one another, different than circumstances delegating things that we simply can deal with. So it’s a way to bring consciousness into the mainstream in a way that’s very, very practical and proven. Because this many people, six states, 200 homes, seven in a half years, and I’m still standing to tell the story.

So I would love to be able to grow this conversation with all of you because, frankly, I’m aware that I’m at this point the poster girl for what not to do, which is that I’m too much out on my own, and I really do need help to bring this story out because I don’t know all the ingredients, but I would love to share how it shines light on the very things and makes possible.

Gary: First of all, I wanted to say good to see you guys again, Peter and John. It’s always an inspiration to plug in to this as an opportunity to learn something new. So I want to start by saying I’m not a big time journalist, but the topic is of interest. I’m not even sure I’m a little time journalist. However, I have a lot of experience with writing locally within my neighborhood here. Writing for our neighborhood newsletter, and sometimes I struggle with that because I’m an engineer, I’m not a writer. But it does come out. I just throw out here somebody advised me. When writing a newsletter, try to make it personal for the person who’s reading it by including, for example, pictures or an actual quote that somebody said. It makes it more grabbing for somebody to hear your message when it comes across that way.

I was also reminded of at church we often have somebody who stands up and makes announcements, makes announcements for your project and everybody else’s project. The difference those announcements sound when the person who’s in charge of the project makes the announcement, doesn’t that come across with a lot more enthusiasm and meaning instead of somebody else just reading from an announcement? So I think about that when writing locally, try to be personal with it. So stories by a journalist versus by the author whenever possible. I guess journalists can try to include the author’s words as best as possible when they’re doing.

John: Then, Paula, everybody should know about your letters under, what’s the title? Two Women and a Republic.

Paula: Oh yeah. Two Women and a Republic, letters between friends to democracy. Wendy Willis and myself started this. Oh, it’ll be a year in January. She’s a poet and a deliberative, democracy person, and myself. And so I owe her a letter Thursday. Every Thursday we exchange a letter about democracy and the idea really is to bring in the cultural dimensions of it so that folks don’t all think of everything as dull but important and boring and something other people do. We try to sort of normalize it in every day culture.

So any final thoughts, Paula? Anything that strikes you from this conversation?

Paula: I think that as you can tell I’m just sort of forging for partners. So for folks who these ideas are striking nerves and how journalism might be able to help create the space, generative space for people to solve problems, we are very interesting in that. And then the just simple one that I was just thinking of as Mary was talking also is that journalists only know what people tell them. That’s it. They’re regular people who are trained in a certain way with a certain set of disciplines on … I won’t get into. But what we know is what people tell us. Just, Peter, in the way you tip the woman.

Paula: So that’s it. That’s the currency of the trade is the relationships.

Peter: I did have one thought, Paula, talking about relationship journalism. I think one of the things that I’ve learned with John is the word hospitality, which is the welcoming of the stranger. And John talks sometimes about the tribal nature, but if you have a welcome at the edge, so what I was hearing is you talking about telling stories that have a welcoming at the edge and treats the strangers as somebody I need to understand, otherwise I’ll never be surprised. And so the world hospitality just has a lot of meaning for me, even when you hold a neighborhood gathering. I always had people sit with a stranger, and they’re always irritated because they came to be with like-minded people, but if you make eye contact, they’ll do it. Then they have a different experience, and I think that’s what you’re about, which is helping us get connected in that way, that communal.

John: In the couple of minutes we have left, I want to ask Paula, because it’s so important everybody who’s a listener should follow up on it. Paula was at the Knight Foundation,  and they did a study called the Soul of Community, and I encourage you all to go and look at that. But, Paula, can you tell us in a couple of minutes what are the main factors that reflect whether or not people in a community feel attached to the place and each other?

Paula: Okay. And it’s this attachment is psychological and emotional attachment, and what we were trying to discover was, is that an essential precondition for taking action in your community. And so the three elements that attach people to their community are: number one, is it an open and welcoming place; number two-(these aren’t necessarily in rank order but there are three) -number two is the aesthetics of the place, the sort of built environment and the natural environment. When you see picking up trash programs, that’s speaking to the aesthetics. And then the third one is something that we call social offering. So it’s really social offerings and generalized caring. And what that means is places where we can meet, ways that we can kind of exchange and get to know each other. So those are the three.

Is it an open and welcoming place? Is it aesthetically pleasing? Does it have social offerings? And this research was done 46,000 people surveyed over three years, and we kind of invented this new language to get the ideal of engagement out of the sort of highly connotative areas that it was in and to really just talk about psychological and emotional attachment potentially as a precondition for doing stuff. And there were about 16 things, including news, that didn’t create attachment.

Becky: So quickly we want to make sure that everyone is aware of our next call. This is our last call of 2018, but we will be back with Peter Block and John McKnight on January 16th, that’s a Wednesday at 1:00 p.m. Eastern time with a guest to be determined and announced soon. So we look forward to being back together with you in just a couple of months.

John: Yeah, Paula, it’s been wonderful you would take this time to join us, and, again, I want to encourage people to look at your blog, Two Women and a Republic. That’s the kind of discussion that connects in ways that builds a civic life that has respect and possibility. It’s so valuable. Thank you.

Paula: Thank you all. It was fun.

Contact Paula at
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Image: Magenta Rose

About the Lead Author

Paula Ellis
Paula Ellis
Paula Ellis, a former foundation executive, senior media executive and journalist, has long been a leader in journalism innovation, transformative change, and employee and community engagement. Today, Ellis focuses on civic entrepreneurship with a twin emphasis on reimagining journalism to better serve democracy and on fostering more inclusive communities and workplaces. She has decades- long experience with the for-profit and non-profit sectors. As vice president for strategic initiatives at Knight Foundation, Ellis shaped the “informed and engaged” strategy; shifted the evaluation focus and launched a series of initiatives that would become signature efforts. She managed more than $700 million in grants when she retired after seven years in 2013. Prior to joining the foundation, Ellis was an officer of Knight Ridder Inc., then one of the nation’s largest, most-respected news organizations. Ellis began her career as a journalist at several metropolitan newspapers. In 1980, she joined Knight Ridder Inc. where she worked for 26 years rising through the ranks as an editor, publisher and vice president/operations of the Fortune 500 firm she helped sell in 2006. A member of the management committee that set overall company policy and strategy, Ellis was responsible for 20 city group newspaper and internet operations, which comprised about 34 percent of EBIDA. Known for innovation and collaboration, Ellis often was tapped to lead key strategic efforts in for-profit and non-profit enterprises. She is a respected change maker who employs strategic and tactical insights to attack complex, systemic challenges. A respected national journalist and popular public speaker, she also delivered operational excellence. The Sun News in Myrtle Beach was Knight-Ridder’s top performing news organization for five of the seven years she led it. Throughout her career as a news, corporate and civic leader, Ellis developed deep experience in national and community issues. From Washington, D.C., Ellis led Knight Ridder’s coverage of the end of the Cold War, the 1988 presidential elections and the Iran Contra Investigation. Later, as a top executive at the State in Columbia, S.C. and as a publisher, Ellis worked with community groups and institutions to foster community vitality. This work shaped ideas that would evolve into the groundbreaking Soul of the Community research at Knight Foundation. As an innovator in the journalism field, Ellis has a long affiliation with the Poynter Institute, was at the forefront of the coaching writers’ movement, newsroom organizational redesign and the public journalism movement of the ‘90s. A Harvard Business School case study in the mid- ‘90s explored her early work in transitioning The State newspaper to digital. Ellis is a senior associate with the Kettering Foundation; a trustee of the Poynter Institute, a director of the National Conference on Citizenship; and board member of Images and Voices of Hope (IVOH), The Engagement Lab at Emerson College and the Philip Merrill College of Journalism (University of Maryland) board of visitors. She is president of Paula Ellis and Associates, a consulting firm headquartered in Charleston, S.C.

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