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Generative Journalism Workshop Sparks Life-changing Conversations

On May 15 I was one of 30 participants in a workshop on generative journalism led by Peter Pula, CEO and founder of Axiom News. We were all former participants and students in Appreciative Inquiry (AI) networks. It was my first formal encounter with generative journalism, but being an AI practitioner, what Peter told us sounded familiar. At the same time it was very provocative.

The workshop took place in the brand-new, energy-producing building of Stebo in Genk, Belgium and was organized by Griet Bouwen and her colleagues from De Werf. At the beginning of 2013 Griet launched the Belgian counterpart of Axiom News, In Belgium there are now three organizations working with AxiomNieuws: a social-housing company Cordium, an umbrella organization for social-economy initiatives Vosec and the Support Center for Holiday Participation (Steunpunt Vakantieparticipatie). Most clients of Axiom News are organizations with an overt social purpose. Articles are published on their own websites and Axiom News.

The essence of generative journalism is the same as one of the leading principles in AI and can be formulated as follows: “What you study (or focus on), will grow.” The questions you ask people, determine the answers you will get. In generative journalism, articles will always talk about the strength or possibilities in an individual, organization or system, those aspects that give hope and perspective, where passion and talent are engaged and a social plus is created. The focus is set on what is already happening concerning the change we want to see. This is how we can co-create this new world by telling stories that are harvested through interviews with the grassroots.

Peter summarized the four principles of generative journalism. First of all, it is important to engage the grassroots, to tell their stories, not the dominant stories in the system. The second principle is probably key to understanding generative journalism: ask provocative questions. The third principle is to write short pieces, "easy to write and easy to read." This means you concentrate on a single idea, or one aspect of the story and you don’t try to be complete. You make sure the questions you ask hold the space for the story that is told by the interviewee. And the last principle is: publish frequently and regularly (e.g. three times a week) and engage your reader. An example of a very simple way of doing this, is posting the articles on the inside of toilet doors every time a new article is published. Another important way of doing this is by asking the interviewee for a new story: Who do you think I should interview next? Who do you admire? According to you, who has an interesting story to share?  

Peter then elaborated on the characteristics of provocative questions. They must be always sufficiently ambiguous: this way the interviewee can choose how he or she approaches the topic. Secondly, provocative questions are deeply personal: they engage you to talk about what really matters to you. And thirdly they are slightly disturbing: they provoke the interviewee and invite him/her to stretch his/her view on the topic. They allow the interviewee to discover new aspects on the issue he’s talking about or to gain new insights.

After that, we went into an exploration of what a provocative question might be and what it does to a conversation. We started out interviewing each other with the following question: "On which crossroads are you today in life?" This question immediately engaged me and my interlocutor, a person that I had never met before, in a deeply personal conversation on both our entrepreneurship, and what we wanted to contribute to society through our personal projects. The question took us to the heart of our professional practices, and connected us with each other and the deeper purposes of our work. Not only did we learn from each other’s stories, we also connected and decided to continue this conversation outside the workshop.  

Concerning an organization, the crossroads question can sound like this: "On which crossroads is your organization/company now?" In the event your interviewee is uncomfortable with this question, you can reframe it: "On which crossroads is society now, and how does your organization respond to that?"

We also engaged in designing questions ourselves, and stretched our brains into asking provocative questions in the organizations and systems we work and function in. A set of questions that were deeply stimulating to me are: "What is the risk you are prepared to take to realize your dream or the goal you set yourself?" and: "What is the risk you are not prepared to take?" and the question: What is the best that can happen when you take the risks? These questions allowed me to define some things that are essential to me: working together with other people on a goal which serves the community as a whole.   

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Lisa Coppin's picture

In 2011, Lisa got involved in an Appreciative Inquiry (AI)  network on talent in Belgium. This felt like coming home to a community holding similar hopes and dreams for our society and earth. Focusing on what is already a success in the larger system, dreaming about what can happen if this success is expanded and taking actions to realize a common dream are important steps in an Appreciative Inquiry  approach.

Co-creating new realities is what Lisa has been doing in all kinds of organizations (profit, non-profit and public organizations) for more than 10 years now, focusing on the power of diversity in the workplace and on change interventions.   

Lisa learned about Axiom News from Griet Bouwen, who was one of the organizers of the AI network and of the Fifth AI World Conference in Belgium and who is initiating an Axiom News affiliate in Belgium and the Netherlands, together with a small team of engaged friends. Lisa also met Axiom News CEO Peter Pula in Genk, Belgium, and was deeply touched by his insights. She immediately felt that Axiom News has something significant to add to our society and wanted to be part of the movement.

When Lisa decided to study Languages and Literature at University 15 years ago, it was precisely because she had experienced the power of storytelling herself. Deep inside she was convinced of the fact that with our words, we create realities. Writing has since then been an important part of Lisa’s life, more particularly telling the stories of people and initiatives that are already making a difference.

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