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Podcast Episode 029: Hillary Frey outlines the importance of listening without judgement, without a story or a headline in mind

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Did you vote in the last presidential election? Did your candidate of choice win or lose? Were you surprised? Rather than listening to people, the media listened to the polls. The cost of not listening can make you become very disconnected from things that affect you and others on a daily basis. Not listening has an impact on lives because people feel unheard.

Today’s guest is Hillary Frey, director of editorial strategy at HuffPost. She is challenging you to talk to someone and ask them a question, then actually take a moment and listen to their answer.

It’s easy to make a gesture toward listening and caring. So, slow down and get past checking the box by asking a question, just to be considerate. It takes effort and practice, but becomes easier. Hear what is being said. Listening offers inspiration and bonding

Tune in to Learn

  • Huffington Post did a Listen to America tour to interview people about the last presidential election and to teach young journalists how to listen deeply and without judgement to stories.
  • Hillary shares her journey to becoming a news editor. She enjoys listening to her reporters report stories. The best reporters ask the fewest questions, but they ask the right questions.
  • Hillary’s passion is listening because everybody has a story. You can find yourself moved and engaged by a story you didn’t know existed.
  • On the tour, HuffPost did not go in with an idea about what to ask, but made interviews as open-ended as possible to get people to share their stories.
  • The bus tour was an opportunity that would help HuffPost talk directly to people and approach journalism differently than it had been done in the past.
  • People wanted to talk about serious topics and issues that are deeply personal to them, such as education and health care.
  • People were eager to share their stories and opinions. They had something to say.
  • The tour was open to the public, but HuffPost also wanted to meet with specific communities, including the deaf and poor.
  • HuffPost workers approached interviews in their own way. Some would ask, “What’s on your mind today?” Or, “Why are you here?”
  • Interviews were brief to be able to talk to as many people as possible. About 1,500 recorded interviews were conducted.
  • Consistent patterns from the interviews were people’s gratitude for being heard.
  • Where you go is critical to listen to specific people and communities.
  • Experiencing empathy and understanding makes for better journalists and reporters, and being a better person.
  • As a result of the tour, HuffPost gave young journalists with little experience in the field to do reporting and look for great stories.
  • HuffPost wants to make sure to continue interviewing and getting stories from various communities to cover the country better and differently.
  • There are stories happening across the country that are of national importance but are missed because of the way media works.
  • Our interactions with each other, especially at work, are usually superficial and a formality. Pull the threads of the conversation for it to be meaningful.
  • Create a daily life where your force yourself to listen to people. It changes from being work to being a privilege.

Links and Resources:

Hillary Frey

Huffington Post

Transcript

Podcast Episode 029: Deep Listening with Hillary Frey

Oscar Trimboli:

In this episode of Deep Listening, Impact Beyond Words, we have the opportunity to speak to Hillary from the Huffington Post about their ambitious 25 city-tour across the United States, where they recorded over 1,500 interviews from people they never used to get a chance to listen to.

 

Hillary does a great job of explaining the cost of not listening but more importantly, more optimistically, the multi general impact of teaching young journalist how to listen deeply and without judgement to the stories that present themselves when you’re on a 25-city tour listening to other 1,500 people, let’s hear it from Hillary.

Hillary Frey:                          

But I ended up at this magazine, and at first, I worked in advertising, and I worked on the business side, but I loved it, and the editors I worked with and the writers I worked with, they work at the New Yorker and the New York Times, and they’re just the most amazing people. I didn’t want to leave that environment, so I did things. I wasn’t a writer initially, I did some magazine production, I did some sales, I did some adverting, but over time I was able to move to the editorial side of that magazine. I was a managing editor, and I did some line editing, and I did some reporting, and it was an amazing experience being there, and I went from there to The Nation magazine and some other places where I worked on books, book reviews, book coverage and publishing stuff.

But later, about 10 years in here, I ended up migrating to news, and I very much had a culture and literary sensibility when I got to New York, and that was really what I pursued. I had an opportunity to sort of get my feet wet in news, and I seized upon it, and at first, I worked at Yahoo News in 2012 and did our election coverage. Obviously, that was a huge historical election here. Yeah, that was in 2012. I mean it was the re-election of Obama, and that was a really exciting time to be working in politics, but I went from there to NBC News, where I worked in general news, and really started covering the breaking stories.                  

One of my favourite things about being an editor, and being an editor at a newsroom has always been listening to my reporters report stories, because the best reporters ask the fewest questions, but they ask the right questions, and they also have a lot of sensitivity in how they approach their subjects. So, I’ve never been a news reporter. I’ve been an editor, but I have been very moved by the ability to sit in a newsroom and overhear those conversations happen, and then how we put those stories together with those voices. So here I am 20 years later, and I don’t do so much editing anymore, but my passion at this point is really trying to stay close to the ground, and I think everybody has a story.

This was what I sort of learned in news. I mean, we would go down these paths with different people. You’d call somebody for one story, and you’d end up with three other stories, because people, once they start sharing, it’s just this kind of amazing thing where you can find yourself just so moved and engaged by a story you didn’t even know existed. It’s not the one you set out to find, it was something very different, and it might be a better story.

So, when it comes to the bus tour, which we can obviously talk about more, our approach was not going in with an idea of what to ask. It wasn’t, “What do you think of Donald Trump?” Or, “How do you feel about this?” It was as open ended as possible to really get people to share the story that they wanted to share, and then help them share it.

 

Oscar Trimboli:                   

So, I’m intrigued, I’m visualising a group of people, or maybe one person who was thinking about the idea of the Listen to America tour. Take our listener back in time a little bit. Where did the idea come from, and how did it get from there to a bus?

Hillary Frey:                          

I think when I came to HuffPost in January with our new editor in chief, now she’s been here a year, Lydia Polgreen, who came from the New York Times, she started about two weeks before I did, and I came to help her set up the organisation here, her leadership team, things like that. There was an opportunity here to come up with a project that would help us get the word out that there’s a new editor in chief at Huffington Post, that we want to approach journalism differently than it had been in the past. There had definitely been some kind of idea floating around here about, “How do we go out and hear directly from the people?”

This was a huge trope after last year’s election, where every news organisation beat themselves up because they felt they hadn’t listened to people across the country. They listen to polls, and missed what was going to happen. So, no one was unique in having the idea that we need to go hear some other voices, but when I got here, Lydia would say that I had the idea for the bus tour. I don’t know if I actually did. What I did have was some knowledge of how to do a bus tour from a previous position I had at a company called Fusion, where I had started working on a bus tour related to the 2016 election and college students.

When I started thinking about how a bus tour like this would work, how a project like this would work … We’re going to go across the country, and we wanted to have some kind of vehicle or thing that would be a listening booth situation. I always loved this idea of taking a travelling touring coach, like a rock band would use, and turning it into a studio. Sort of taking that somewhere, they come onto the bus and share your story. We wanted something that felt very grass-roots-y, and down to earth, and there’s nothing here that’s more like that than a bus ride across the country. You know?

Overall, we’ve published almost 300 stories around the tour, both from the road but also from amazing reporters here in New York who’ve done work, as well. At some point in early May, we got the green light, we got the budget and the financing to do this project, and we really at that point just went into high gear, starting to identify where we were going to go, and what it was exactly we would do when we got there. Then we went to 25 different places, we had to work with each place to figure out, “Where do you take this bus? Where is there an environment where we can get a cross-section of people to come share with us?” You know, felt diverse and environmentally appropriate, and that was a process that took most of the summer, and we were still putting pieces into place in some cities while we were out on the road.

Oscar Trimboli:                   

What I’m most curious about is, what do you think the cost of not listening was that prompted this tour?

Hillary Frey:                          

To me the cost of not listening based on what I heard was that … Especially working in media, you become very disconnected from the things that affect people on a daily basis, and have a very material impact on their lives.

So, I said to multiple people in the last leg of the tour, I was out for a couple stops in the last two weeks, that as Harvey Weinstein, and Hollywood, and sex abuse was dominating every single news organisation here in the states, there wasn’t a single person who brought that up to us. Even in casual conversation while they were waiting to do an interview. What people came to share was about their kids, the future, education, healthcare, mental healthcare. Things that are serious, serious structural issues in this country that are deeply, deeply personal to people.

We also heard people who had amazing stories of successes and real acts of local heroism, and those are stories you can miss too. There are stories that get told when you have an idea for a series. It’s like, “Let’s do our 2017 Heroes of America!” But every day, there are people doing extraordinary things that have a tangible and super important impact on their own communities, and I have to say, hearing those stories, when you don’t get to hear them very often, and don’t get to hear them unfiltered, is a real antidote to a lot of what does dominate what we cover.

So to me, I think the cost of not listening is really not knowing the full … It’s just not knowing this country. This is a huge country. Everyplace was so different, even when they had things in common. Every place, the people had their own style. It’s just every place has so much distinctive personality, and flavour, and way of tackling their problems, and seeing that up close really gives you a level of understanding of the complexity of the US, that you can’t appreciate unless you take the time to see it, and hear it.

It really wasn’t a barrier to people sharing with us once we explained to them what we were up to, and people really felt like they hadn’t been heard, whether the outcome of the election last year was what they wanted or not.            .

Oscar Trimboli:                   

Talk our listener through the process you went through as the bus arrived, as you selected people, the people you listened to, and the stories that really stood out for you.

Hillary Frey:                          

We usually arrived the night before, and we had a team who would make sure that our location … We had an advance person, so we would show up the night before, but usually there was somebody already on the ground where we were going for a day or two, to make sure that we were all set with our permitting, and we knew where the bus would be parked. In addition to the bus, we had a couple of tents. So, we had a sort of waiting area for people, and we also had two other interview stations that were not on the bus, they were in tents.

So, we were running three cameras simultaneously in pretty much every location. Otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to see everybody that we wanted to see. We would typically be open for business from 11:00am until about 3:00 in the afternoon, and it was very simple. It was first come, first served. In Pittsburgh, I met a woman who drove five or six hours from the other side of Pennsylvania to come talk to us. In Little Rock, we had a woman drive 90 minutes. We had people who were really, really … They would show up and say, “I wasn’t going to miss this. I have something to say.”

Then in different places, we had sort of different ways of attracting people. When we were in a public park, like we were in Pittsburgh, we had a lot of foot traffic, or if we were on a university campus, as we were in Tucson, lots and lots of students and teachers, and just constant activity. In Des Moines, Iowa, we partnered with a non-profit called Urban Dreams I’d worked with in the past, and we were off the beaten path corner of Des Moines, in the parking lot of a Salvation Army, and in that instance, our non-profit partner really, really helped bring down clients and different people they worked with, people in local government to talk to us. So, it was not so much foot traffic and people walking by, it was having a partner that really encourage people to come share.

We used Facebook, and Facebook Invites to make sure that people in each location knew we were coming. That was part of our marketing work around this, and a lot of people did hear about us on Facebook and came down as a result. In Albuquerque, we actually partnered with an amazing school called the Albuquerque Sign Language Academy, because when we set out to do the tour, even though we were totally open to the public and encouraged anybody to come down and talk to us, there were a couple of communities we really wanted to make sure we heard from and were able to interact with.

One was the deaf community, because when we planned the tour, I thought who never gets reach out to? This was a community that I don’t see represented often in the media, and so we had an amazing day at the school, talking to teachers, parents, the kids, about their stories, and what they care about, and hearing from them both in spoken English, and in Spanish, and in sign language. We had interpreters, and it was a really, really unique experience. We heard a lot of stories there about a community that really sustains itself, supports itself. I mean, to the extent that they created their own school.

Each place was a little different, but we always had an open call basically, and we would accommodate as many people as we could until we had to move onto the next place, or the next thing we had to do. That did mean some places we didn’t get to everybody, but we were constantly busy, and had all of our cameras going at once.

Oscar Trimboli:                   

A typical interview would be how long, and what would be the kind of opening questions you’d start off with?

Hillary Frey:                          

I think each person who was doing interviews, each week we had a different team rotate onto the road, so mostly people were not out for the entire time. Everyone had a slightly different approach. One of my colleges here would just say, “Tell me what’s on your mind today.” And I think another approach was, “What brought you here today?” Here could be the bus, here could be the neighbourhood. You could ask someone, “Why are you here?” And that could mean why are you here in Des Moines, why are you here in New York.

So, they were really opening prompts more than questions, and then it was like a tree branch. You’d sort of start at the base, and then pick up a branch to wander down, and get into the tiny details of that story, and where you went. The interviews were usually about six minutes long, sometimes longer, sometimes a little shorter. We tried to keep them short so that we could talk to as many people as possible.

What we also did was for as much as possible before people actually sat for their interview, there were a lot of us who were engaging with people while they were waiting. So, we’d sort of get them warmed up for their interviews, so they weren’t just walking in cold and taking three minutes just to sort of get their thoughts together. There was a lot of interaction, and talking, and listening that happened before people even sat down to share with us.

We did a little over 1,500 interviews on the tour. Some of those had multiple people, so I think the total was around 1,700 people, but 1,500 or so recorded interviews.

Oscar Trimboli:                   

What were the themes that emerged? What were the patterns that were consistent no matter whether you were in Charlottesville, Akron, or in Des Moines?

Hillary Frey:                          

I do think one overarching thing that we heard from people was their gratitude for being listened to, and that was something very single place had in common, was that people need to know about my community. People need to know about what’s happening here. This place has so many problems, but I’ll never leave it. This is my home. That pride and sense of place was really felt in all of these places. In a way, it’s a very simple thing, but I think even if people understood how connected we all are to these places we choose to live, and thought about that as something we have in common instead of something that separates us …

Our geography seems like it’s something that separates us, but actually our feelings about where we live and how we talk about where we live is very, very similar. I found that just fascinating, and we met a woman in Birmingham, and she walked up. I started chatting to her towards the end of our day there, and we were in a beautiful park called Railroad Park that was recently, in that last couple of years, created urban park in an area of the city that had previously just been pretty run down and dangerous. It runs along the railroad, across 19 acres, and there was an amphitheatre, and marshland, and a pond, and bike trails, and all these families are out there enjoying it, and bicyclists and stuff.

She walked up, and I started chatting with her, and I said, “How did you hear about us?” And she said, “Well, my friend at work told me I needed to come down today, and she’s really cool. So, I like to do what she says, and I take her advice, but she’s actually sick, so she can’t be here today. But I promised her I would come.” And I asked her about her job, and some things that she did, and I said, “Have you lived in Birmingham your whole life?” And she said, “I have.”

And she shared that her sister had been one of the children killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, and they had just celebrated an anniversary of that event a couple days before in Birmingham, and she said, “You know, I don’t talk a lot about my sister, and I’m so deeply tied to this major event in history, and the city, and there’s all this pain associated with it, and this grief.” But she said, “That’s also why I’ll never leave here. This is my place, I’m part of this place.”

And she said, “I did not plan on talking about that when I came down here today,” but the way that our conversation went, she just felt like ready to open up about it. She then shared the story more formally in an interview that we recorded, but it was just one of these incredible moments that you’re sitting with somebody who’s part of the history of this place, and there are all of these complicated feelings attached to it, but overwhelmingly there was just this kind of depth of love, and essence of belonging there that came through everything that she talked about.

Oscar Trimboli:                   

I’m curious. After going through 25 cities over a couple of months, and seeing 1,700 people, and no doubt hundreds and hundreds of people in preparation and advance parties, and lots of logistics … Knowing what you know now, what would be one thing that you might do differently to listen differently, apart from where you’d go?

Hillary Frey:                          

Well, I think the where is connected to that. We did in our last week, between our self in Tucson, and our self in Albuquerque, we were able to take the bus to a tiny town in Arizona called Arivaca. They’re about 650 people who live there, and it’s I think about 13 miles from the Mexican border. We went down there because we knew we were going to interview an amazing woman who runs a humanitarian operation there called People Helping People in the border zone, where they go out into the desert and they look for migrants coming across to give them food, water, whatever they can legally without risk to themselves, but to help these people who are coming across the border, and are many times on the brink of death.

This is a great trip to set up, and exciting to go down there. What I didn’t expect was that the second the bus pulled into this town that has four buildings and a dirt road, it’s mostly ranchers, people just started walking towards the bus. It was a Saturday morning, and everyone who was in town coming out to talk to us about their town, about the work of the humanitarian operation, also about the militia movement that’s rising there, about their own experience getting death threats over political positions, or different things. All kinds of stories.

We were invited to a cake party at 1:00 in the afternoon, and a barbecue at 5:00 in the evening. Unfortunately, we couldn’t stick around, because we had a very tight itinerary, and had to get back to Tucson to move onto the next part of the tour, but if I were going to do this again, I would build in the time and space to allow for more discovery of places like Arivaca, and trust in the process that even if we’re not in a public park, or a big university, or partnered with an organisation that’s going to ensure that we have 40 or 50 people come down, or whatever it is. People will be curious, their curiosity will bring them to see us, because we’re curious, and that’s when the sharing happens.

I think we could see even more places that we don’t know anything about, and get to know them, and get to know them really personally, because it’s just overwhelming how open people can be when they trust you. That’s the core of what the listening was about, right? It’s like we’re telling you what we’re doing here, we’re just here to listen, and following through on that contract meant that there were whole other doors that could be opened for us to see even more into peoples’ lives.

That is where the empathy happens, and that is where the understanding happens, and that’s ultimately what will make us all better journalists and reporters. Because we just don’t get to experience things that way, and it makes you a better reporter, it makes you a better person. So, I would crave more opportunities to be able to go to the town’s potluck, or whatever it is that we get invited to, to do more interviews, but also just to get a little more personal with people and understand more about their lives.

Oscar Trimboli:                   

What’s the biggest thing you think the HuffPost will do differently as a result of the Listen to America tour?

Hillary Frey:                          

Well, there are two things. One is that a lot of our travelling tour staff, they’re young, they haven’t had a tonne of experience in the field, and this was a huge opportunity for them to have this kind of experience of … And it is reporting. It’s like the purest kind of reporting. It’s not, “I have a story and I’m trying to report the story,” it’s, “I’m looking for a story, and I’m looking for great stories.”

It had a profound impact on our staff, both in terms of inspiration and bonding, and really was an experience that will go down as a formative one for a lot of people, and not just the young stuff. I mean, it was for me too, and I’ve been at this for a long time. So, there’s that piece, and I think in that regard, the lessons learned from the tour are going to carry on with a generation of reporters here, that’s like really, really important to their work.

But I also think strategically, we are trying to figure out … Okay, how do we keep covering some of these places? How do we stay on some of the bigger themes that we’re seeing and that we will see emerge once we really go through all of the interview work? And how do we cover the country better and differently, and that’s an ongoing conversation. I have some ideas about it, and hopefully we’ll make some moves to really have some depth of knowledge about places that we don’t currently have. This was just a first step, but definitely the stories are out there, and there are things happening across the country that are of national importance that we can miss every day, just because of the way the media works right now.

Oscar Trimboli:                   

For our listeners out there in corporations and in organisations, what’s the legacy that Listen to America can bring to them about how they can listen to their employees differently? To their customers, and their supplies, and their stakeholders differently?

Hillary Frey:                          

That’s a big question, and something we’ve sort of started to talk about here even internally inside of our own company. One thing I’ve said, I said this at our closing. We had a big closing event in New Orleans, and at the end, I was speaking to a hundred-odd people who were there for our event, and I just said, “You know? Tonight, when you’re talking to somebody, or you’re introduced to somebody, take a moment. If you ask them how they are, or what they do, or where they live, or whatever it is, actually listen to the answer, and then maybe ask them another question.”

Because I think so much of our interactions with one another, especially in the workplace, even just peer-to-peer, it’s like performative formality, or custom, or whatever it is. It’s just like, “Oh, how was your weekend. Great.” Okay, but was it great? What did you do? It’s like pulling the thread of the conversation so that it can be meaningful, and not just something perfunctory. I mean, I experience this with managers, or people I’m managing. It’s like, you know when you’re inside of an office space or corporate environment, and we all have phones, and we’ve got our computers, and you may have even more devices than that. It’s so easy to make the gesture towards listening and caring, and much harder to follow through on the promise of an actual interaction.

So, I would sort of challenge anyone to slow themselves down, and get past that just checking the box, “How are you?” Even when we’re all busy, or follow up with somebody, but close your computer, turn your phone upside down, and just take like three minutes to actually find out how somebody’s weekend was, because it takes effort, and I find it sad that it takes effort, but when you start practising that slowing down, I think it can have also a pretty profound ripple effect in how you start being in meetings, and really listening.

Like, what do we each need to do in order to create the space that we can actually hear what’s being said? It takes practice.

Oscar Trimboli:                   

And what’s intriguing to me is the question I should’ve asked that I haven’t asked, Hillary.

Hillary Frey:                          

I have to think about this, and that could take me a long time. A lot of people ask me what my favourite stop was on the tour, or what the best place was, or what’s the issue everybody brought up. It’s like, I have answers for some of those questions, but I think the question that I am trying to answer for myself is like, how do you create a life where you’re actually listening? I mean, I don’t have an answer to this, and it goes a little bit to what I was talking about before.

I think for us, forcing yourself to listen to people for four hours a day is … I mean, you’re forcing yourself because it’s work, so we sort of all had to do it, but it very quickly goes from it being work to it being a privilege, and sort of how do we remind ourselves that people sharing with us is not a burden? That it’s actually a privileged that people are comfortable sharing with you? And how do you let that create space in yourself to continue growing as a person?

Oscar Trimboli:                   

An amazing project with its impacts still to be felt, not only in the next election cycle, but I think as you mentioned, for many generations of journalists to come. They’ll think about listening in a completely different way. Thank you, Hillary.

Hillary Frey:                          

Thank you so much.

Oscar Trimboli:                   

Before we finish, a quick note, a few months down the track I asked Hillary to record a quick summary of 1,700 interviews through the lens of themes and what surprise her the most. An undertaking of this size takes an enormous amount of time and effort not only in the collection but the collation in creating the key patterns and context and themes that emerged from a research project of this size.

Hillary was kind enough to record a summary three month down the track to explain what these key themes were.

Hillary Frey:                          

In terms of themes from the bus tour, we conducted over 1,500 interviews with 1,700 people, some people did interviews together so we actually talked to about 1,750 people and some of the themes that emerged very strongly were people really wanted to talk about jobs and the economy in their areas, they wanted to talk about business and local industries, health care, housing abilities, job opportunities over and over again.

We also definitely heard from people about race, race relations in their areas, issues around policing and opportunity. Everybody in each location had their own way of talking about different issues, they came in from different angles but those were some major themes, that did come up while we were out on the road.

 

The most surprising thing was how personal people were.

How when you approach people to talk, they opened up so quickly and had so much trust and they’ve really wanted to be heard. The appreciation that was expressed to us for coming to the different places that we went, that was really, I guess if I had a surprise that was less than the theme or a topic that emerged than that, people really wanted to talk and they wanted to share, they were so grateful for having the opportunity.

So, for HuffPost and the media, I guess were looking at the result from the bus tour and starting to think about how we can go deeper in some of these issues while we approach the 2018 midterms this year, and really think about how we can go deeper with people and places, that we didn’t go to as well. This is really some foundational research we have knowing that people care about this issues that they want to talk about them and really use those issues, you think about and frame some of our coverage as we go into covering senate and congressional races, governor races across the country.

Beyond that, we now know that there’s this incredible hunger for people to have facetime with the media, really getting out there in person, as humans connecting with people did have an effect on how people thought about HuffPost. We did a brand study and saw that before and after we were in a location people felt more favourably towards HuffPost, they were more inclined to read us, to engage with us, you can’t replace that understanding that comes from having genuine connections of people. I think also this kind of work, getting out in the field, representing your media organisation fosters like a larger trust in the media at whole, instead of seeing us as these coastal elites or far-flung people who are just seating in offices all day, they see us out in the field, they understand what we’re doing and that’s how you build trust, by seeing not just having news handed to you over the internet or you know through Facebook, that I think as we go forward as an organisation will definitely be keeping in mind, like in the long term how valuable building that trust on the ground has been to us.

Oscar Trimboli:                   

What a privilege it was to listen to Hillary, what an impactful artefact she has created, 1,500 hundred people, having their stories recorded, analyse and looked upon for insights, I’m sure the impact of these works will be felt in many generations to come, across the United States, not just for journalist, and how they listen not just for the media and where they’ve focused their stories but ultimately helping communities, towns and states to have their voice heard, effectively, consistently.

The biggest cost Hillary talked about, was the cost of people not being heard, and this bus tour across 25 cities, across the United States is a great example of what’s possible when you listen deeply.

Thanks for listening.

 

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