Wendy Norris

Wendy Norris

Wendy Norris describes herself as a “Journalist. Rabblerouser. Entrepreneur. News hacker. Crowdsourcing enthusiast.”

Currently, she is publisher and editor of Tekhne, an online magazine covering Colorado-based startups, technology and innovation. In Greek mythology Tekhne, “embodies the muse of the entrepreneur,” reads the website’s About page.  According to the Tekhne site, “Our aim is to be the catalyst for inspiring stories and practical knowledge that drives innovation.”

Norris’ path to journalism was a circuitous one.  She was a social worker and non-profit executive for 20 years. In 2005, after blogging under a pseudonym for three years, she launched Unbossed, a group blog with a focus on investigative reporting. The site was a direct response to the mainstream media and bloggers’ obsessions with political horserace reporting to the detriment of needed attention on public policy issues.  In 2006, Norris began her journalism career as managing editor, and later editor, of the Colorado Independent and political columnist for the Rocky Mountain Chronicle. Her leadership at the Independent resulted in two dozen journalism awards for the site and court judgments against leading state institutions for violating transparency laws.  She left the Independent in 2009 to launch Western Citizen,  an online news network with a focus on Rocky Mountain West politics after completing the Knight Digital Media Center’s News Entrepreneur fellowship at the University of Southern California.

While operating Western Citizen, Norris also served as an investigative reporter for RH Reality Check, an online site for reproductive health news sponsored by the United Nations Foundation, and produced freelance work for Religion Dispatches and Ms. Magazine.  Committed to improving her skills as an online journalist and editor, Norris earned a second Knight Digital Media Center fellowship in multimedia reporting at UC Berkeley in 2010. She was also designated a 2010 H.F. Guggenheim fellow at CUNY’s John Jay College Center for Media, Crime and Justice to produce a series of investigative pieces on domestic terrorism at women’s health centers.

Norris was named a 2011 Stanford Knight Fellow, where she accelerated her entrepreneurship skills and produced a crowdsourcing prototype as a newsgathering and community engagement tool. After returning to Boulder, Colo., from her year at Stanford, she founded her latest venture, Tekhne. She graduated from the University of South Florida with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. She can be contacted through her website at tekhne.co or email wendy(at)tekhne.

Norris was interviewed by Abbey Edwards, 20, who  is currently working towards a B.F.A in Studio Arts with a focus in photography as well as a minor in Journalism.

Abby Edwards: Why did you become involved in journalism?

Wendy Norris: I transitioned from a 20 year career in the not-for-profit sector to online journalism out of frustration. Coverage of public policy issues was not only inadequate, it was often glaringly erroneous. The critical decisions made by politicians and regulatory bodies on funding allocations, legislation and policy were often informed by wholly deficient media reporting. These frustrations became more evident when a fellow social worker was murdered on the job. The news stories describing his life, the crime, and the perpetrators could not have been more stereotyped, unnecessarily racially charged and offensive to those of us who knew him and lived/worked in that neighborhood. The community was maligned in stories rife with assumptions and a lack of historical/cultural context. I knew then I had to do more than write the occasional letter to the editor and monitor local government meetings.

AE: How do you define journalism today?

WN: Journalism today is unfortunately defined by two predominate camps: infotainment designed to evoke an emotion response conducive to advertising goals – and – thoughtful, evidence-based reporting, analysis and mutual conversation with the public.

AE: How has technology influenced or affected your career?

WN: Technology has significantly influenced my career. Initially, as a blogger in 2002, the barrier to entry was greatly reduced by free and easy to use online content management and commenting systems. Later, as new technologies were developed to enhance storytelling through audio/video, social media, feedback loops, aggregation/curation. mobile devices and crowdsourcing. I would not have been able to make the career transition nor developed a broad readership without open source tools. It also inspired me to learn programming and web design to enhance my readers’ news experience.

AE: How will technology affect the future of journalism?

WN: Technology has an important role to play in journalism in augmenting the newsgathering and production process. Innovations in machine learning, markup schema to improve search, more powerful data analysis tools and contextual infrastructures are just some of the near-term opportunities to improve journalism. Yet, the human element of this craft may prove to be more important and more challenging to the future of journalism. The need for relevant, verifiable and evidence-based reporting is crucial. Technical bells and whistles can’t disguise poor reporting methods.

AE: What role(s) will women have in the future of journalism?

WN: Women play a critical role in leading journalism as they do in any industry or segment of community. But they need to seize leadership opportunities and stop waiting for permission to add to the discussion. There are far too few women capitalizing on their positions and experience in the newsroom, academia or news startups to become a significant power in charting a course for this industry.

AE: What one word would you use to describe the status of women in journalism today?

WN: Passive.

AE: How do you feel about words such as equality, justice, or unbiased as they relate to the status of women in journalism?

WN: I think “equality” and “justice” should apply to all people whether they are journalists or not. Being “unbiased” is naïve and unattainable. We’re human. As emotional beings, we are inherently predisposed to prejudge harm/risks. Some are better than others of containing it but we all experience it.

AE: How do you feel about objectivity or the status of women in journalism being objective; what do you think objectivity means in journalism?

WN: Objectivity is a false premise. Everything that we do as journalists is subjective—from the angles we pursue in our stories, to the choice of interview subjects, vocabulary and facts used/discarded. If one decides to incorporate “objectivity” into news reporting then it should be in the rigorous pursuit of evidence and context not as a cover for balance which too often leads to a bland “voice from nowhere” that muddles the truth.

AE:  Do you think that throughout your career you’ve made sacrifices or choices?

WN: Life is full of compromises. It just goes with the territory of being a multidimensional person: woman, mother, partner, etc., don’t always peacefully co-exist with career needs. American work culture and public policy also don’t encourage a healthy work-life balance. In this hyper-competitive marketplace, personal, family and career needs unnecessarily conflict.

AE: You have a very active twitter account. Do you use it for personal posts, business posts, or both? Do you think that because of increased interest in web-based news that journalists will turn to blogs, twitter, facebook, and other social/opinion based communication?

WN: My @wendynorris Twitter account is a meld of personal and work. My sources tell me they appreciate knowing me as an individual who is smart, fair but has a sense of humor and has a life outside work. My @tekhneCO work account is largely news focused but the tweets can sometimes be a little snarky to better connect with the quirky startup/technology community I serve. My take is that business news needs to be relevant and accessible to the public. A stodgy, impersonal approach feels inauthentic on social media and the web. It’s also why too many Americans tune out and are poorly informed about economics, finance and the like. Social media definitely has an important place in the news ecosystem. It’s where people gravitate to converse with friends and easily share information. If journalists are committed to providing a public service they must engage the community where they exist. Acting as a self-important, self-appointed gatekeeper of information is outdated. News is an evolving conversation.

AE: Do you think the twenty years you spent as a social worker have affected your journalism and possibly the stories you write`?

WN: Absolutely. Whether as a social worker or journalist I still traffic in information to enable people to make good decisions. I was trained as a community organizer to listen, observe and analyze situations. Successful social workers also use the power of narrative to move people—to think, to recognize other points of view or to act.

AE: You identify yourself as a “rabbelrouser”, do you think this is part of the “power career woman mentality” or simply a personal quality? Has anyone treated you as a stereotype because of this self-claimed description?

WN: Referring to myself as a “rabblerouser” is intended to disarm media skeptics and infuse a sense of personality into my work—which again fits the audiences I have had in covering politics, reproductive health and now startups. I approach my work differently than other journalists I have known. I will ask tough questions when it’s called for but I don’t feel the need to be unnecessarily mean or aggressive about it. My stories are also more likely to include “color commentary” and non-malicious snark than typical media outlets.  As for whether I have been stereotyped, I don’t take responsibility for other people’s perceptions or behaviors. They own that.

AE: Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you would like to elaborate on or mention?

WN: From a gender perspective, I will simply reiterate a response above. The glass ceiling in traditional newsrooms exists because it benefits those in power. We should not expect the situation to change on its own because of some lofty goal toward gender equity or promotion based solely on merit. Women journalists will advance when they are willing to take calculated risks on/leading innovative projects, strike out on their own and/or champion other women in their networks.

This is part of a series of profiles of JAWS members by University of Iowa students. For a complete listing, see this page.