Susy Schultz, President, Public Narrative
Susy Schultz is an editor, digital strategist, educator, writer and change agent, who has been telling stories for more than 20 years.
In 2017, she was named one of the 20 most powerful women in Chicago journalism by media columnist Robert Feder. Her past titles include managing, digital and investigative editor, executive director, associate publisher, president, communications director, reporter, columnist and editorial writer.
Her current title is president of Public Narrative, an organization that works with and trains both nonprofits and the media —mainstream as well as the 170-some ethnic and community news outlets in Chicago’s neighborhoods. Schultz’s career has wound her through the worlds of journalism, academia, government, foundations and nonprofits. She ran the Chicago Department of Public Health’s communication department and held the title of advocacy and communications director at the Chicago Foundation for Women.
She has taught journalism at Columbia College Chicago, Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and Roosevelt University. She is the founding president of the Association for Women Journalists’ Chicago chapter, a member of Investigative Reporters and Editors, the Society of Professional Journalists and was president and vice president of JAWS, Journalism and Women’s Symposium.
The Important Role of Journalism in Democracy
Journalism plays a critical role in preserving democracy. Although currently under attack, it is important to understand the role of journalism and the process of journalistic accountability. Refreshing our perspective on what good journalists do in writing a story is important, along with understanding the importance of placing the public good above everything else.
Journalism is a process in which a reporter uses verification and storytelling to make a subject newsworthy. Also, with Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffett buying newspapers, we discuss how business leaders are engaging journalism in a new way.
Join the conversation with Susy Schultz, President of Public Narrative.
Listen to more: Activate World
The Important Role of Journalism in Democracy
Susy Schultz, President, Public Narrative
Season 2, Episode 3
Jon Mertz: 00:16 Welcome to the Activate World Podcast, a series on how business leaders have more power to solve societal issues than any elected official. We explore business activism with substance and depth of thought. We’re excited to have Susy Schultz with us. In 2018, she was named one of the top 20 most powerful women in Chicago journalism. We’re anxious to hear about your background and how you got to this point.
Susy Schultz: 00:43 Thank you so much for having me, Jon and I’m really excited to talk with your listeners as well. I really identify as a journalist but my career has been predominantly in journalism, I’ve been a reporter, an editor, an investigative editor and a managing editor and I’ve also done my time in government and also done my time in academia. The little non profit I run these days is called Public Narrative and what I like to think of it’s an amalgam of everything in my career in that we … and something that I was lucky enough to be chosen to do. What we do is we teach and we train people in the community. How to tell their stories in different ways so that different audiences will hear them. The people that I train are predominately, 63 percent of them are people of color in low income neighborhoods and they have just phenomenal stories.
Susy Schultz: 01:35 But very often, as we well know, not always are they listened to and not always are those stories heard so we try to actually pump up and amplify the stories by not only introducing them to the media but also talking about their work after we train them and making sure that people know about the work. We really want to make sure that the public narrative in Chicago is changed. That we really dig deep into racism, sexism, and xenophobia and talk about the issues, not just with people of power and what they believe the solutions are.
Susy Schultz: 02:13 And so the other part of what we do, is when we’re training those nonprofits, we also train journalists and a lot of the work that we do, some of it is local but a lot of it is also national. We train them on better story telling, deeper story telling, engagement.
Jon Mertz: 02:28 Let’s just start with a basic question, why is good journalism required for a strong democracy?
Susy Schultz: 02:33 It’s crucial for a good democracy, it’s crucial for healthy democracy in fact to holds it up. If you do not have those advocates who are going to power and holding them accountable then you’ve lost everything. You have no way to gauge democracy. What we do know is we do know that when people get into power, power has a tendency to corrupt, right?
Jon Mertz: 02:53 Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Susy Schultz: 02:54 So holding them accountable, it’s also the idea that these are people from outside looking at a system that is entrenched and asking logical questions that sometimes can’t be answered. So then you do have to retool everything because you haven’t thought of everything. Very often I’ve seen that policy programs and whatever are made in a vacuum, they’re not made with people in mind and so journalists bring that element.
Jon Mertz: 03:24 Our current president doesn’t seem to enjoy the press and facts are becoming increasing dismissed. How does that place an added burden on journalists and what can they do to try to overcome some of that?
Susy Schultz: 03:35 So I really think it’s not even a political or partisan thing to say that our president has dominated the conversation with his opinions as opposed to policy, as opposed to facts, as opposed to anything and as such he has interjected a toxic element by saying that the media are the enemy. The press is just not the enemy. Facts, for many of the things that our president wants to push through are the enemy, so there’s that whole big thing that’s going on there but I think where the media are at fault, and we’re talking about the legacy media as well as some of the digital media, I think in general you can say that we have really fallen short in journalism in telling our own story. Why we are integral, what our process is, we’ll anywhere to talk for free about the importance of journalism in a democracy and what the talk really becomes is I actually explained to you how journalism works.
Susy Schultz: 04:37 I talk to people about the SPJ Code of Ethics which is the Society of Professional Journalists. Code of Ethics is really an amazing one page document that anybody can download off the web in a PDF form. And it talks about the standards and [inaudible 00:04:53]. It talks about doing no harm to those who really are outside of the limelight. It sets up criteria. I show people the Associated Press book, the guidelines, right, for the Associated Press, that the majority of legacy media, newspaper media, digital media follow. And this again dictates all sorts of things that you need to do, how you need to report things, how you need to write things. It talks about verification. It talks about identifying. It talks about accuracy.
Susy Schultz: 05:26 And then I even show, there’s a wonderful, I print it out, even though it’s really ridiculous because it’s an online verification tool. But I print it out for drama. And it’s this more than 100 page document about if you are dealing with online information, a photo, a tweet, a post, how do you verify it?
Jon Mertz: 05:46 Has social media blurred how real journalism works?
Susy Schultz: 05:50 It’s upended it, put it in a blender, turned it around on high speed. We made it into a big mush pot.
Jon Mertz: 05:57 Right.
Susy Schultz: 05:58 Social media has done everything. I mean, when you think about it, the old forms of journalism, radio, TV, and print, I mean, not only did they control what was in the information, all of those outlets, but they controlled the method of distribution, right? Paper went onto your doorstep with the delivery boy. You turned on the radio, you turned on the television. And now that distribution system, that’s what’s gone haywire. We are now the ones who are forced to, or not forced, we’re not forced at all.
Jon Mertz: 06:30 Right, right.
Susy Schultz: 06:30 That’s the problem. We’re the one who are distributing content. And we’re the ones that are deciding whether or not that content is credible. But more often than not, we’re not even taking that step to decide it. We’re just kind of passing it along and not thinking of it. Again, in this talk that I give on fake news, I show this one post about Obama benefiting from Obamacare. Obama has made millions off of Obamacare. And it’s a breaking news headline and then right underneath it, in not that small of print, it says, you are an idiot. And this thing was shared and reposted millions of times. When you click through it, and there’s really not that much to know when you’re trying to judge the veracity of a news report. If somebody is writing an opinion and there’s not attribution in it, all of a sudden, your truth antennae should go up. If there’s no verification of facts, if there’s, again, no identity of sources, unnamed sources said, right there right then, you should be saying, wait a minute, I don’t know if this is credible.
Jon Mertz: 07:45 That puts the needed burden on the readers because they have to take the time to read the complete article and look for those elements as well, right?
Susy Schultz: 07:52 Totally. And what I say is that you know, we are doing way too much anyway. We’re plopping things on there. We’re throwing spaghetti against the wall without even looking. And what’s important is again that method of distribution we have to take responsibility for. If we’re pushing it out there and our name, you know, with a reporter and with an editor, with a news outlet, their name is on it. Those of us who have had a byline, and who know what that means, know that your credibility rides with that byline. If we as a public felt the same way about what we were putting out there, we would be pushing less content through. And to me, there’s nothing wrong with that. That doesn’t impede anybody. That’s not a restriction of free speech, right? It’s a restriction of responsible speech. Is this credible, should I be putting it out? And I think this is also now our role in a democracy.
Susy Schultz: 08:45 I really really think that there’s only, there’s two things that at the bare minimum you can do as a participant living in this democracy. The first and foremost is to vote. We already know what happens when people don’t vote. 111 million people did not vote in the last presidential election, so that tells you something. The second thing that I really think and public narrative really thinks is crucial is we think and we put it this way, you have to engage with a media outlet and that does not mean you have to be their cheerleader. That does not mean you have to be their promoter. In fact, it probably means you have to be their watch dog. The media journalist are the watchdog of our government. And who’s watching the watchdog? We should be. We don’t have a stake…
Susy Schultz: 09:37 Yeah, we don’t have a stake in the game. I mean, a lot of the people who are claiming to watch the watchdog are doing it right now with a partisan bend. Their intent is to take down and diminish facts that they think ill represent their point of view.
Jon Mertz: 09:51 I saw an article you wrote, you mentioned this same point. When I read an article if I miss the angle or question the facts, should I send the journalist an email? Would they reply? What’s your experience?
Susy Schultz: 10:03 So what I find amazing is yes. Journalists get a lot of email, they get a lot of phonecalls, they get a lot of them. But they don’t get enough from readers. Very often what they’re getting is they’re getting news releases from public relation people. They’re getting people who want them to write stories about it. What they’re looking for and it’s one of the reasons why they’re on social media, is they’re looking for and their editors and their companies are demanding that they actually engage with people who are consuming that media. So if you are to tweet at somebody and you’d say, I don’t understand this, there’s no attribution in this story, how can I believe it.
Jon Mertz: 10:38 Right.
Susy Schultz: 10:39 My gosh, I will tell you they’re going to respond to that right away. Because that’s again, their credibility. And I would say to anybody who really wants to engage and if you just choose one outlet that you believe in, you know could choose more, but if you just choose one outlet to help keep them honest. And that does not just mean criticizing them. It also means praising them. Listen, I really can’t believe in this era that you actually spent the time to talk about children’s television and what’s going on. This is really important to me as a parent and I want you to know that I’ve shared this with all the people in my parents group etc, etc… If they’re covering the stuff that matters to you, don’t forget to tell them that. People are now watching more than ever who’s engaging with what. If you’re on radio, I can tell you in real time when did I lose you. And that’s what other outlets are looking for. What is it that people care about? What is it that they’re authentically engaging with me? And if you start talking to them, you’re going to be really surprised that the chances are that they’re going answer.
Jon Mertz: 11:46 I think that’s a great reminder and a great call to action. I want to switch gears a little bit because story is an important part of your work. What do journalists look for in a good story?
Susy Schultz: 11:56 I mean, a good story and I think it’s what anybody looks for in a good story, a good story has character, it has emotion. You know, it has a beginning, a middle and an end. Sometimes you’re looking for a story and it hasn’t ended yet, so you had to put it on hold. But it’s compelling, it drives you. Most of the time and we teach a lot of storytelling to different groups, and what I’ve been amazed at finding out over the years is how our brain is so geared toward storytelling. There’s all sorts of things that chemically happen in our brain that are amazing when we start hearing stories. And so one of the big key things is you know, the work we do is with journalists as well as with nonprofits it. Journalists don’t do very well telling their story. Nonprofit don’t do very well telling their story. And yet they have so much story to tell. But what we like to say to them so that they can really concentrate on finding those stories is that most studies about whether or not people will support you, go along with you, engage with you whatever it is, tell you that it takes about eight to 12 touch points before somebody will actually act, you know I gotta see, I gotta figure out who you are, I’ve gotta have somebody else talk to me about it.
Susy Schultz: 13:13 What also studies show us are that if I tell you a good story and if I make a heart to heart connection with you through that story, in other words you’re able to see my work and you’re able to picture it through the story I’m telling you, all those touch points melt away. If I tell you a good story, you’re going to go along with me. And that’s what good journalists know, too. And it is not an easy thing. Storytelling takes a little bit of time. It takes a little bit of attention. And as a journalist, it takes facts, it takes information, it takes talking to people, it takes finding the right people and it takes again making sure that all of it comes together and that it’s timely. Don’t just tell me about something that new to you, tell me about something that news.
Jon Mertz: 14:01 Is there any difference between a journalist, an individual, and an organization? Or are the elements similar between those three different storytellers?
Susy Schultz: 14:09 The elements in many ways are similar. The intent is different. A journalist, hopefully, they’re telling a story so that they can give you this information because with verified information there could actually be actionable for you. In other words, if you tell me a false story and I try to act on it, my credibility is going to be gone because I didn’t have the information right. So a journalist’s burden is really to give me information and if you read any of the curriculum from the news literacy project, which an amazing organization, what it really shows is that again journalists are to deliver this information so that we can act on it and we can make those choices that they give.
Susy Schultz: 14:50 With a nonprofit, the intent that I have is to again make you come along with me. In many ways, it’s a sales pitch right? Sales pitch to help support me, it’s a sales pitch for you to come arm in arm and champion me. So the intent of the story and therefore the structure of the story may be a little bit different.
Jon Mertz: 15:11 As business leaders and CEOs are getting more involved in some key issues, how can they use storytelling to deliver their message most effectively?
Susy Schultz: 15:19 Well, one of the crucial, crucial things that a good storyteller does is listen and I think, let me put it this way, the things that you’re talking about, I hope that that is happening. I hope that is happening. But I think if you again tell me that it’s happening, there’s a big part of me that wants you to show me. That’s another rule of good storytelling, show me, don’t tell me, right? And I think these people who are leading the charge know I am old enough to know that every once in a while, the circle goes round and all of a sudden, we start caring about racism and sexism and xenophobia and oh, my gosh, we have to do something about it. I’ve lived through too many eras where we haven’t done anything about. Don’t give up hope. And I think the thing that is strongest right now is that there’s a lot of literature out there, one which is a bedrock for business, the Medici effect, which shows us that diversity and different voices is actually good for business. It’s not just a moral platitude. It actually makes you more money. So I think that there are people who are actually seeing that and that’s my hope that again, the more brains and the more different perspectives those brains have that you get at a table, really the better chance that you have for success.
Jon Mertz: 16:49 Listening is very important as part of that process, not just the words of support, but the actions to support them.
Susy Schultz: 16:56 And the listening part, I would just add to that, who are you listening to?
Jon Mertz: 17:01 Yeah. And on that diversity point, making sure that you’re not in an echo chamber.
Susy Schultz: 17:05 Exactly, exactly, exactly. I like to surround myself with people who, not are antagonistic to me, that’s never pleasant, right? But I do like to surround myself with people who will question, why are we doing this? What’s going on? Answers aren’t as really as important as the questions.
Jon Mertz: 17:22 So if I’m an employee of an organization and I’m disagreeing with a policy or a direction the business is taking, what’s the best way to approach it? Can storytelling play in role in employee activism?
Susy Schultz: 17:33 Well, I think it can and I think that a petition is a tool, right? Probably storytelling was crucial in getting people to sign that petition. So I don’t think you get people to go along with you unless you’re again telling them the why, telling them the what, telling them a story that really effects them. I think it’s always better for anybody in any situation, of being an employee, to not only approach those people in power with the problem, but what’s the solution? We have a whole group here who’s decided this would really help and this is why. And always look at it. Because you know the key to good storytelling is who’s your audience and what are they hearing from you.
Susy Schultz: 18:14 So if you are talking to somebody who managing a whole bunch of you, what are they thinking? Well, what’s in the company? What’s in it for me? How can we help? We need to help you as an employee that’s really important but are we also going to coming out again on the other end as a company, as an organization, able to make money, able to make a profit so that you can keep your jobs and I can keep my jobs. So if you have thought through that, again, what is that person going to hear? What are the solutions I can give them? I think that’s always a better way and a more productive way to… Discussions don’t have to be contentious if we start conversations with respect. We have so much possibility. If we start them with anger, I’d say it’s time to take a walk. It’s time to find a way to calm down, but it’s just never going to end well for anybody.
Jon Mertz: 19:01 So, with Jeff Bezos purchasing the Washington Post and Warren Buffet buying some local papers, is that a good thing for journalism, keeping news print alive?
Susy Schultz: 19:12 You know when you’re talking about Bezos, you’re not necessarily talking about news print, because they’re really exploring the digital market. The problems with news is news can be a business where you have to do it in a day, right? You have to get it done, you have to get it done. So what is it, how are you looking forward? What are you seeing? And the fact, and this is again, it is to push any cliché you want, this is water under the bridge. But the fact that for some reason, media people thought that oh, we’re using all this staff and all this resource to produce this information, but we’re going to put it online and we’re going to give it to you for free was just ludicrous. That’s ludicrous.
Jon Mertz: 19:49 We’re seeing a change now where a newspaper requires a monthly or annual subscription.
Susy Schultz: 19:54 Right, and it has to. And it’s only right. I mean, I give news literacy talk just this morning to a group of high schoolers and the first thing I always ask is where do you get your news? And one of them was Snapchat and then I said, okay, so and where’s snapchatting getting the news? And I had to actually explain what aggregation is. So I’m gathering all this information from other people and all those other people, all those other sources, are actually paying people to produce
. So really, you’re getting, a lot of people say well I get all my news online. And it’s like, well, you get it online from the Associated Press. You get it online from Washington Post. You get it online, again, reminding people that it does take time, effort, and money to really get… And these days one of the scariest things is, especially for local news outlets, we always say in the olden days, the two big costs in news were P and P. People and paper. And these days with particularly what’s with happened with the tariffs, the price of newsprint is endangering, especially some of the small… You know we have a few hundred online and in print ethnic and community media outlets in the city of Chicago. And some of the ones that inform various ethnic communities are really endangered because they can not afford the paper anymore.
Susy Schultz: 21:12 Things that really translate the community for ethnic populations and this stuff is really bad. Local news, the Pew Center is a great center that does media research, really a marvelous, talk about authentic, verifiable great information and research. But they’ve showed us there is over a period of time, we’ve lost 50% of our local news outlets. So that means we don’t know anymore what we don’t know. If newspapers are educating, then people again, they’re not going to know anything about journalism. They’re not going to know about big guys. And that’s where I really think, what I was hopeful about was that that connection and that reconnection to news, that’s trying to be cut off on a national level, that it would really be brought back through that local. These are the watchdogs watching out for me. They’re news, too. They’re journalists.
Jon Mertz: 22:08 Is there hope that storytelling can help eliminate or erode away some of the polarization that we have in our politics today?
Susy Schultz: 22:14 I think the combination of storytelling and listening is crucial. I think it’s only way. And I think we’ve already seen it. We have a lot of people up top who are telling us that this is not happening and I totally disagree. I totally disagree. Michelle Holmes in Alabama who runs a statewide news service, they put together a program with Facebook after the election and they put together a group of women from Alabama who, mostly Trump voters, considered the red state, and then they put together in that Facebook group, California women who had voted for Hillary and they had them talk for x amount of months. I can’t remember how long the process was. But it was so successful that the women even when the money ran out for the program, wanted to get continue it on their own. And I think that stability is crucial on both sides of the fence. We’ve shown that there is nobody who is, neither side is immune to exaggerations, anger and misrepresentation. And that’s when both of them go off the rails, that’s why we are where we are. That’s why what we teach is again, how to listen, how to communicate, and how to tell stories that will really be heard by your audience.
Jon Mertz: 23:31 Just a couple quick questions as we wrap up. What’s your best advice for journalists?
Susy Schultz: 23:36 Attribute. Attribute, attribute, over attribute. The more we continue to attribute things, the more we will regain trust. The whole idea of using unnamed sources, to me, just makes my skin crawl, as an editor and as a person with colleagues who are editors in high places. I think the stories can always be gotten on the record, rare that you should be off the record with people. And I think that just engenders mistrust.
Jon Mertz: 24:04 Then on the other side, what’s your best advice for leaders, whether nonprofit or for profit?
Susy Schultz: 24:08 For god sakes, stick to the truth. Stick to facts. Give me facts, give me facts, give me facts. Verify, verify. I mean, I wish, I ran a magazine for a number of years called Chicago Parent. It’s just a news magazine for parents and I feel right now that even though kids are a little bit grown right now, I feel so much more like a mother whenever I’m listening our political discourse and I just want to punish people and put them on time outs. This is ridiculous. I wouldn’t tolerate this from toddlers. Why is it that you can, you feel that you’re a leader and you can be so disrespectful. And the tone that is being set for generations of kids that are listening to this, this makes me sick.
Jon Mertz: 24:50 What’s your hope for the future as you look at the intersection of journalism and democracy?
Susy Schultz: 24:55 I’m afraid that I’m just more optimist than I should be. I really do believe, I know that journalism is desperate in so many ways, but I believe that quality is what, people are looking for quality. They’re almost frozen with the idea of fake news and the scares-me, etc, etc… When reality, when we sit down with them and we show them, okay, if you open this up and there’s no source here, doesn’t that tell you something? I mean, the commonsense approach is more. And what I see is I see amazing things happening here in Chicago and across the country. There’s an organization here in Chicago called City Bureau. It’s based on the south side in a community that some may say is a violent community and it’s a dangerous community. And there are some that would say that would be very wrong. It is a civics, it calls itself a journalism lab. And what it is is not only does it report wonderful stories with great journalistic tradition, but it also tells those stories, it has a session every week to talk to people about how news produced, to talk to people about how news can be crucial for you.
Susy Schultz: 26:06 So not only what happened, but what does it mean to me as a consumer? And what would happen next? What can I do with the stuff that you’re producing? It’s trained an army of people. In Chicago, just like every bureaucracy, we have a city council government and a mayor. And then we have all this work being done with our money, our tax money, and all these committees and nobody has time in the journalism community to cover those committees. So City Bureau has a program called the Documenters program that we’ve been lucky enough to help them with in editing their guide and everything. What they have done is they’ve taught citizens and they pay them to go to these meetings and they’ve taught them how to use twitter. So they have taken these meetings that allegedly are public, but really are not and they’ve put them out in public discourse on twitter. It’s just brilliant. And they’ve brought that to Detroit and these models, people are very interested in everything they’re doing. I see a lot of excitement and a lot of hope in journalism. I worry a little bit about legacy because the problem with legacy is that there is hesitancy to change. And that’s what it’s going to take is great change.
Jon Mertz: 27:14 That’s a great note to end on. Susy, thank you so much for your time and also for the great work that you do. Hopefully Public Narrative will strengthen the role of journalism in democracy.
Susy Schultz: 27:23 Can I just say if anybody wants to help us, we can’t do it alone. We can only do it if people support us. And they can always go to Publicnarrative.org and we would welcome their support.
Jon Mertz: 27:33 That’s great. And we’ll include your contact and website in the show notes. I think it’s a key point that we’ve talked about today. As readers, we’ve got to get involved and not only engage with journalists, but make sure what we’re reading and sharing is done right.
Susy Schultz: 27:48 Thank you. What a pleasure to talk to you.
Jon Mertz: 27:49 Thanks, again, Susy.
Jon Mertz: 27:56 Listeners, we’d love to hear from you.
- What stories most resonate with you? What sources of news do you trust most and why?
- Have you ever emailed a journalist about a story? What was their reaction?
Send your perspective to me at jon @ activateworld.com. That’s Jon without an “H”, jon @ activateworld.com. Write it out or record it. Send it my way. We want to hear and share your thoughts.
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And join us next time as we talk with Professor Melita Garza from Texas Christian University. We will explore the business of media. Activate World is a team endeavor. Special thanks to Kaela Waldstein and Kent Nutt. Music by Jason Goodyear. For Activate World, I’m Jon Mertz.