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Inside the newsroom: The view from the Netherlands may keep us on the right track

ZWOLLE, Netherlands — A problem on the tracks meant the train from Amsterdam to Zwolle would wind a little farther through the small towns of the Netherlands, where the markers of industry towns are interrupted by fields and forests and the distinctive small homesteads that make up the route to this city of about 120,000 people.

At the end of this line lies Windesheim University, which has made a commitment to finding successful models for journalism that make a difference. Friday it hosted the first international conference "Exploring Constructive Elements in Journalism" under the direction of Cathrine Gyldensted, the director of the program, who invited me to participate on two panels with distinguished journalists from around the world.

She noted the leadership role the Deseret News is playing in innovation and relevant journalism and asked that I participate in panel discussions on finding effective business models and a second on community building through rigorous, constructive reporting.

Troels Mylenberg, editor in chief for 12 newspapers and 67 weeklies in Denmark, joined my group, as did Martha Riemsma, editor in chief of Twentsche Courant Tubantia, a regional Netherlands newspaper, and Gilles Vanderpooten, editor and chief and director of Reporters d'Espoirs, translated as Reporters of Hope, in France.

There were many insights, but perhaps the most noteworthy is also the simplest, and it came from my Danish colleague as we framed our discussion: a newspaper must stay connected to its community in as many ways as possible. The Deseret News has been around since 1850 and carries a rich heritage. Mylenberg leads a paper that was printing about 100 years before that and continues to publish.

How does it stay connected? Choir nights.

Subscribers have events they attend and among the most popular are coming together to sing. It's a Danish thing, and it's effective. He tries to hold events every week, giving the public a chance to be with their journalists in any number of activities. Great ideas on story coverage come from those meetings. Cost of entry is a subscription to the paper.

Vanderpooten in France works with the media to "spotlight people who take the initiative around the world and contribute to tackling environmental, social, and economic challenges."

Riemsma and her colleagues are seeking solutions to problems, most recently water seeping into the basements of citizens. Citizen outreach brought to light the severity of the problem. For the locals, it's a huge issue in need of a solution. And her reporters are looking for that solution, rather than simply reflecting back the problem.

Over dinner with Maren Urner, I learned of the passion that prompted her to launch the publication Perspective Daily in Germany earlier this year. She is a neuroscientist working in journalism and tries to have her team produce an article a day that looks to the future and asks, "How can it be better?" She sees the positive impact on the brain that such reporting can bring and she's creating a community of subscribers hungry for her team's work.

I ran into Terhi Upola, another news colleague, over breakfast Saturday following the conference. She reports with YLE Finnish Broadcasting Company in Helsinki and said she was struck by some of the presentations on best practices. Among the best advice was to pay attention to people and report without victimizing them. A homeless person is a person first. Leave homelessness behind when trying to determine their story.

Over croissants, fresh juice and salty meats and cheeses we talked about the 30,000 refugees that came into Finland in autumn of 2005 and whether journalists really have covered what that means. We also talked about her 8-year-old son and a planned trip up the coast of California. We're all people, even journalists.

If there is an issue worth reporting, it should start with the people affected by it, rather than those perhaps making the decisions that will affect those people. What do people really think and what's happening in their lives?

Ethan Zuckerman, the director of the MIT Civic Media Lab, gave an insightful keynote address on how to better engage and interact with citizens. His research is fascinating and worth following, particularly as the U.S. embarks on President-elect Donald Trump's coming term. The people spoke. Are journalists listening?

My own participation reflected on the stories we are embarking on, our commitment to Utah and beyond, and our desire to get closer to the people our coverage impacts. Zuckerman was complimentary about the important voice the Deseret News carries. The coming year is again an opportunity to amplify that voice.

When the tracks were blocked on the way to Zwolle, I boarded another train with now a plan to switch trains in Amersfoort. I asked questions of students headed for school and others bound for work. The locals kept me pointed in the right direction and literally, on the right track.

It proved an apt metaphor for our journalistic pursuits at the Deseret News, and for the many wonderful colleagues returning to their countries to meet another deadline.