By Aaron Simon @AaronMSimon
Guided by the principles of Design Thinking, our community engagement class project led us to listen to the experiences of the NJ Transit commuters waiting for their trains at Penn Station. The goal was to prototype tools that NJ.com can use to serve this community.
Professor Jeff Jarvis’s social journalism book, “Geeks Bearing Gifts,” challenges us new-age journalists to measure success by outcomes and to forgo chasing clicks.. To immerse ourselves in communities, not just to report on a catchy breaking story, but to build meaningful relationships and build tools for connectedness. This exercise was one example of how this can work.
It’s these approaches that put a journalist and the community they serve on the same level. As service-based journalists, Doreen Marchionni explains, it’s key for our communities to gain a sense of our “humanness.” We no longer report from above, but from on the ground, at eye-level. And we report not just to create content, but also to affect change and deliver outcomes.
I think of Brandon Stranton’s Humans of New York blog as an example. Stanton connected a community of millions of people worldwide who are interested in the everyday experiences of regular people. The interest in the compelling stories of the ‘humans’ often generates crowd-funding campaigns to alleviate the struggles of the interviewee. For example, a cash-strapped middle school in East New York, Brooklyn raised over one million dollars to start a yearly program that sends students from low-income families to visit Harvard’s campus. How can we serve NJ Transit commuters? First, we must find what their troubles are.
The current commuter experience is one riddled with last-minute track notifications and delays, extending already long travel times. To interact with commuters, we visited them where they wait, and we drank the morning-equivalent of margaritas, coffee. The mood may not have been festive at Penn Station during the morning rush, but we had valuable conversations with commuters.
After talking with the commuters, our class exchanged experiences and reflected separately this week on how to further develop relationships with our own communities. My community I originally sought to engage for the social journalism program was defined by the geography of Greenpoint, a neighborhood that’s home to the polluted Newtown Creek and a host of environmental health problems. As I continued to develop relationships and dig deeper, I found a more-focused community of entrepreneurs, scientists, and students working on technologies to report on air quality using sensors in San Diego and Brooklyn. I’ve found that refocusing one a smaller subset of a greater community makes engagement more feasible.
Professor Jarvis said to find forums where people are communicating, and most importantly, “listen first.” Listening is often easier said than done; to approach a community with a preconceived notion can be detrimental.
An approach to to creating products and services the community needs is “to continually source feedback and then reevaluate,” Professor Carrie Brown said. Immersion, listening, and re-evaluation are central tenants of service journalism and design experience alike.
Lamar Graham is the vice president of audience development for NJ.com. He visited class this week to receive our insights on the commuter experience and give feedback on the tools we developed.
To develop effective tools, as Professor Jarvis said, is to “serve the community and the individual.”
We explained to Graham that after fielding many opinions, we learned that commuters want WiFi, power outlets, cleaner and more-spacious seats, and better train notifications, with alternative routes. Some of these structural accouterments are clearly out of reach for NJ.com to provide on trains, so our proposed solutions instead hinged upon social tools and mobile phones.
The prototyped tool each group came up with centered on the use of a hypothetical smartphone app. The idealized NJ.Com app would provide train notifications and news updates for trains, generated in significant part by users. The notion of a community reporting on itself fits within the social journalism approach, and frees us journalists to curate the content and make the exchange of community knowledge efficient. There was a consensus that the app should have a certain social aspect that connects riders, if not in-person, then on message boards and comment sections within the app.
According to Graham and Jarvis, who are both NJ Transit commuters, interaction with other riders is rare, much like on the NYC Subway. Many times it seems improper and uncomfortable for two strangers to start talking on public transit, and there has to be a prior commonality to ease social apprehension. Where better place to start than from a place of shared disdain for the daily commute? Commuters are in close proximity on the NJ Transit and remain disconnected from one another, at least for now.
Looking forward, I want to ask: how are we developing relationships with our respective communities? What are our challenges and successes so far? How can we use the insights from the NJ Transit research in building our own communities? Did you buy a margarita-maker yet, or practice making them?