Making the News Relevant: What’s Your 9/11?

I was a high school senior in New York on 9/11, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that that day profoundly changed the way I look at the world, as it did for many members of my generation.  But it seemed to me that in focusing their 10th anniversary coverage on how 9/11 changed young Americans, the newsmedia were missing something – the fact that 9/11 is one of many experiences that will shape the next generation of world leaders in America and abroad, and that by learning how young people are growing up to view the world, we can start to understand how they will eventually lead it.

What's Your 9/11 website

Screenshot from the website, showing the two most recent stories

For the anniversary, I pitched, developed and executed a project called “What’s Your 9/11?“ that focused on this question of what will most define the next generation of world leaders, and how those experiences differ around the world.

Our goal was to build a living database of these life-altering events, as seen through the eyes of those who experienced them. In doing so, we hoped to not only memorialize 9/11, but also make it relevant to our global audience.

And I also hoped, in some sort of roundabout way, to find out if our generation was being shaped in such a way that we would show more compassion and understanding for our global peers than the perpetrators of 9/11 did.

We asked users to share their stories about the event that most shaped their life and their worldview (in video, audio or text form), and received submissions from all across the world – every continent except Antarctica in fact.

Taken as a whole, the stories present a moving picture of how major events have shaped a generation.  They show how 9/11 sparked anxieties in many Americans, forced Muslim-Americans to become advocates for their faith, and changed the daily reality for young people in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and how other events like this year’s earthquake in Japan or a shooting in the Armenian parliament have shaped lives elsewhere.  If you want to read more about the stories we received and what they say about our generation, take a look at the write up over on the Student Union blog.

I knew that by asking this particular question, we were embarking on a harder road than the many other news organizations asking “where were you on 9/11?”  Theirs was an easier and more emotional prompt to respond to, and had a cathartic element for many people.

Bahrain and Japan responses

Two responses

But I really thought it was important to ask a question that would resonate with our audience, which by law is nearly everywhere in the world except the United States itself.  I also very much wanted to do something different, and something that advanced the story rather than retreading what we’d been doing on every anniversary for the previous 9 years.

That’s not to say that there weren’t some truly well done “where were you when” type projects – RFE/RL and the PBS NewsHour come to mind – but I’m proud of our resolve to do something different and I believe it paid off.

My original goal was to receive 20 submissions.  We far exceeded that, getting over 50 usable entries in the end, and hitting every continent (except Antarctica – I keep promising myself that someday I will reach the goal of capturing every continent).

The website was shared well over 1,000 times on Facebook, gathered a bunch of likes, reblogs and follows on Tumblr (where it was hosted), and received visitors from literally hundreds of different countries.

I think this success was due to the fact that, despite the fact that we took this project from pitch to launch in a matter of weeks, we strategized it really thoroughly.

  • We went into the project planning as if we wouldn’t get any submissions at all – that is, we knew we’d be able to generate enough content ourselves that even if no one participated we would still end up with a product.  This gave us the confidence to experiment, because we knew we couldn’t fail.

  • We also made sure we were asking a very specific question that would not only compel people to respond but also indicate to them how to respond, and provided clear examples of how submissions should be presented.

    In fact, a few days into the project we actually tweaked the question – we had started out asking about the experiences shaping “young people” worldwide, but soon realized if we wanted to make people feel they were part of this community rather than doing us a favor by participating, we needed to make it about “our generation” and create the idea that we’re all in this together.

  • We worked hard to reach out to VOA’s lead users, and to follow up personally with everyone who expressed interest in the project (liking it on Facebook, commenting, etc.), and we reached out to target niche communities like

  • Probably most importantly, we partnered with a number of VOA broadcast programs, including some in languages other than English, to help them develop programming around this concept that would serve their audience and also generate material we could use online.  It was really a lovely example of the symbiosis that can occur between “traditional” media (ugh, hate that term) and digital/social when they are working together towards a common end.

As the project came to a close, there was one major thing I wish we had done differently – developed an exit plan.  We built up a lot of momentum over the 3 weeks this project was running, but not quite enough momentum for the project to develop a life past the 9/11 anniversary peg.  So what happened was that on September 13 the whole thing just ended.

I wish we had given more thought right from the beginning about how to keep the momentum and hang onto all the people who had participated in the project.  Even though there are ways they can continue interacting with VOA, it still felt to me a bit like we had unceremoniously dropped them once they had served their purpose.

It really reinforced to me that we need to start some sort of ongoing and iterative UGC project so we start building an audience that’s used to participating in a way that goes beyond just talking to us on Facebook, and a place to do this sort of deeper interaction on a regular basis.

I’m thinking I’d like to do something that combines participatory projects with a media training component, because I think for our audience this notion of being empowered to do things themselves is very powerful.  I have a pitch in mind, actually (I almost always have some sort of pitch in mind!) – just need to figure out how to make it. So stay tuned!

Oh, and hopefully whatever I do will allow me to finally break the continent barrier and get some UGC from Antarctica. I’m tired of always having to caveat my claim of reaching every continent (although…).  Perhaps asking people to photograph their favorite iceberg (mine…) or polar bear?

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