When pruning projects is like pruning plants

Julie Christie
Julie's plants

Sometimes you have to pluck a dying leaf to let new ones grow

As the Data & Impact Editor at Resolve Philly, the short and sweet version of my role is to help our newsroom partners produce data journalism and to track the internal and external impact of our work. I’m also in charge of keeping our office plants alive as Resolve’s resident plant lady.

Those aspects of my work aligned this spring when we created an FAQ in response to Philadelphians’ immediate information needs as the city shut down due to COVID-19. Our idea was to create a collection of the most critical COVID-19 information, based largely on reporting done by our newsroom partners, that didn’t bounce people around the internet like a ping-pong ball and wasn’t limited to one organization’s output. The FAQ would be one slice of our coordinated, city-wide crisis response to the pandemic.

So, we created a database of questions that Philadelphians were asking about COVID-19 along with answers from our Broke in Philly news partners, government sources like the CDC, and community organizations that provide specific support, like Community Legal Services. Then, in partnership with Distributed Media Lab, we created a site that could be embedded anywhere on the internet and that, when interacted with, wouldn’t redirect users to a different page. Our goal was to have the FAQ embedded on the websites most frequently visited by Philadelphians, especially those most vulnerable to COVID-19 and the long-term economic and social fallout of the pandemic. In this way, we hoped to meet people where they already are with life-saving and life-sustaining information.

We believe this was a really good idea; the problem was, by the time we got it up and running, news and information flow and distribution had changed. We learned a lot of lessons during this time, the most important of which was when to stop putting work into something that wasn’t working.

By June, the information needs we were looking to meet in the immediate aftermath of local lock-downs had changed in a way that couldn’t be served with the centralized FAQ we had envisioned. First, newsrooms citywide were producing vastly more service journalism than ever before and community-based organizations proved their strength as key and effective information messengers. This is a good thing — a great thing — but it meant that the gap we sought to fill with our FAQ didn’t exist in the same way. We often felt like we were stepping on toes when talking about our work and at Resolve we are steadfast against doing work that feels like it reinvents the wheel or is in competition with newsroom or community partners. Given this, it suddenly felt clear that the intense work required to maintain the FAQ with up-to-date information was no longer a good use of our time.

I realized that this lesson was similar to best practices when it comes to taking care of plants, specifically pruning dead or dying leaves. After putting a lot of care and attention toward a plant, it hurts to take off a yellowing leaf. However, if you don’t do that, the plant still puts its energy and nutrients into the bad leaf, reducing the care the other leaves get.

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Take the plant above, for example. At first glance, this cutie looks pretty healthy — shiny leaves, bright greens and pink variegation. (Calathea medallion, in case you’re curious.)

However, on closer inspection, you can see the two leaves on the bottom left of the plant are shriveling, and one is all curled up. Like our FAQ, these leaves were sapping energy from everything else. The rest of the plant represents the work being put toward the community engagement, newsroom stimulus and public health messaging parts of our Equally Informed crisis response project — all of which are thriving.

And so, Co-Executive Directors Jean Friedman-Rudovsky and Cassie Haynes made the decision to prune our FAQ leaf and put more of our energy towards the things that were working and that showed promise based on the long-term information needs that our community engagement team has surfaced over the last three months.

As a testament to how important it is to acknowledge when something isn’t working, there was collective relief (and even a little delight) as we turned our attention to effective work that accomplishes our goals. We’re now focusing on using Reach, a text- and web-based survey service used by Outlier Media and others, to channel the information we amassed for the FAQ directly out to Philadelphians via text, and to set up an easily accessible feedback loop for questions and thoughts from the community that can flow to our newsroom partners. Just like plant material can be composted and reused for more growing, the content we used to build the FAQ is the same content that will build out the “information trees” we use in the Reach platform.

COVID-19 presents an uncertain timeline — we don’t know how long the repercussions of the pandemic are going to last or what kind of impact it will have long-term. But crisis situations like natural disasters and other large scale emergencies can give us intelligence on how information must flow for communities to effectively respond and recover. So, we may use the FAQ structure again sometime in the future. But, for now, it’s been pruned from our plans and instead the energy and nutrients we put into it will be repurposed for other projects.