a Fellow's approach
Kate Shellnutt, News21 Fellow.
On Kate Shellnutt’s first day of school, she found in her lunchbox a note from her mom: Remember, in order to make a friend, you have to be a friend.
That was first grade, at Roosevelt Roads Elementary School in Ceiba, Puerto Rico, where the military Shellnutt family was stationed. Then, for the next nine first days of school, in Puerto Rico, Hawaii and Virginia Kate was five more times a new girl Michelle Shellnutt wrote the same note: Remember, in order to make a friend, you have to be a friend.
As a Carnegie-Knight 2009 News21 Fellow, Kate was a friend to Muslims, atheists, Calvinists and Mormon missionaries; a friend to Methodists, Jews, Theosophists, Catholics and Salvation Army soldiers.
Through aggressive networking, equal parts digital and face-to-face, plus immersion, understanding and respect for her audience, Kate made friends, too thousands and thousands of friends, if her story views and social-networking contacts are an indication.
Kate’s reporting assignment: How do young, urban adults relate to religion, spiritually and culturally? The way she went about it was an example, perhaps the best example, of the audience-focused approach that the Medill’s Fellows applied to their News21 assignment.
An undergraduate major (Washington and Lee University) in religion and print journalism, Kate came to her News21 assignment with good background and contacts among those of many religions, in Chicago and nationally. She knew people, or knew people who knew people who could connect her and get her started on stories.
Given Medill’s target audience, however, Kate recognized that it would be very important to connect with Muslim-Americans, but her roster of potentially helpful Muslim-American contacts was slim, at best.
So she networked, seeking young and involved Muslim-Americans to meet in person, but mostly on social web sites.
Using tips from the few people she initially met and her own research, Kate participated in on-line forums, joined Facebook groups focused on Islam and Muslim-Americans’ interests, and found Islam-interested people and organizations to follow (and soon, to be followed by) on Twitter.
Kate was transparent about her purpose, announcing herself as a reporter who wanted to learn more about Muslim-Americans, their religion, their interests and concerns.
She wasn’t a social-network trespasser. Kate participated fully in forums; she tweeted and, very importantly, re-tweeted she calls that “echoing back” and became a very involved and visible part of the communities she had found. She started, continued and passed along provocative conversations that got to the heart of her journalistic issues, while establishing herself as a friend.
“When I thought of what my mom always told me about ‘first, you have to be a friend,’ that’s when I got Twitter,” she said.
Within just a few weeks:
- Kate developed a Muslim-American following on Facebook and Twitter, and was a presence in their online communities.
- Her first story on Muslim-Americans interviews with activists in Chicago, New Jersey, Washington, D.C. and Ontario was published on Shift.
- Her networking led her to a dingy Chicago basement, filled with hookah smoke, where she shot video of a Muslim punk-rock band, as part of her national story, “Punk and Pious: Muslim-American Rockers’ Unconventional Islam.”
- Kate had received about 200 invitations to events.
Then in early August, Kate was on assignment in Washington, D.C. She described what happened:
“I went to an art auction at the headquarters of CAIR, the Council for America-Islamic Relations. It’s an advocacy group, one of the biggest non-profits in the country. I’d been following CAIR on Twitter (@CAIR_USA)... and had re-tweeted posts from them a few times. So at the event, when I went to introduce myself to someone, before I could open my mouth, she looked at my name tag and interrupted me to say, ‘Oh, you’re Kate Shellnutt! From News21! We’ve read your articles!’”
Kate subsequently mentioned the CAIR event in an article; CAIR shared it on Facebook, and emailed it to its membership. The friendships broadened and deepened.
Eight of Kate’s 26 News21 stories focused on Islam and Muslim-Americans. All were constructed through networking, the thorough and ongoing engagement with her audience. She’d had no preconceived story ideas.
Atheists, the same. Kate entered News21 with no meaningful contacts but found an extremely active online atheist community. She networked into it, openly and sincerely; she tweeted, re-tweeted, discussed and listened. Her “Coming Out Atheist: Young Nonbelievers Build Community in College and Online,” a written story with charts, became the most-viewed Shift story. (Five of the 10 most-viewed stories were Kate’s.)
“It does take time and effort,” Kate said of staying engaged with her audience. “You can’t expect people to come to you. You have to open yourself to them, serve them, be a friendly face.
“When you make the effort, digitally and in real life, to engage with them, that’s where conversations take place, and where relationships are formed.”
Find more of Kate's stories here.