Trust, Listening, and “Loveful Nonsense”: A Look Back at Modifier Live

By Aubrey Nagle

For two days in early April 2024, a neutral hotel conference room in Charlotte, North Carolina found itself transformed by jewel-toned furniture, signage with every color of the rainbow, and an abundance of greenery. In other words, it looked just like Resolve Philly had opened a satellite office.

In a way, it had. Resolve’s professional development and training arm, Modifier, was hosting its first in-person learning event, Modifier Live. The way the Modifier team splashed our signature hues across the otherwise bland space set the tone for the equally vibrant intellectual adventures to follow. Pressing play on the staff’s “Pick Me Up” Spotify playlist during breakfast helped, too.

Over the course of six sessions on Wednesday, April 10 and Thursday, April 11, an intimate group of working journalists gathered at the AC Hotel Charlotte City Center to learn from the Modifier team and two inspiring guest speakers. Both days were full of conversation, with attendees sharing ideas, asking questions, and even conspiring on potential new projects.

From the outset, we planned this event to be imminently useful. Rather than create a space meant primarily for networking and lightning rounds of new ideas, we intentionally designed our programming to dive deep. We recruited journalists from North Carolina and beyond (as far as Colorado!) to join us in small teams so they could grapple with the workshops and guest speakers on the agenda together. This way, instead of being overwhelmed by the sparkling ideas flying around the room, they could focus each other’s energy and create plans for applying what they learned to their shared newsrooms.

Modifier Live’s programming opened with guest speaker David Dylan Thomas, a UX expert, filmmaker, and author of Design For Cognitive Bias. His provocatively-named talk, “No, Seriously, F*ck Engagement,” provided just the right spark as he focused on how, over the course of human history, we’ve created a very “thing-oriented” society as opposed to a healthier, happier “person-oriented” one. Thomas’s presentation prompted us all to imagine what the internet could look like if it cared about people, and what world could result. In a room full of journalists whose work lives on the web, it became a foundational question for the rest of our sessions.

Next, Director of Practice Change Aubrey Nagle led a session called “Writing for Intent and Impact” which explored how thinking abstractly about words and language can help journalists understand when and where they may be miscommunicating with audiences. Nagle helped attendees understand why inclusive and human-centered language isn’t just about what is considered offensive, but about what is accurate and authentic.

Our second guest speaker, interdisciplinary artist Alexandra Bell, followed. Her journalism-inspired series Counternarratives has been shown in famed art museums across the country. Bell took us behind the scenes by sharing her journey as an artist, including how she started turning the front page of The New York Times into evocative cultural criticisms with editors’ marks and wheat paste. Bell even gave us a sneak peek at new, upcoming work that — without giving too much away! — also uses language and media in a way that many journalists will appreciate.

Jean Friedman-Rudovsky, Executive Director of Resolve Philly, rounded out our first day with her session “Working Well: Creating the culture (or subculture) you want in your workplace.” We started off by defining what it means to work well together before, as groups, designing sets of operating principles that could guide the work of real newsrooms. When sharing back, it was clear that this exercise provided a framework attendees would come back to.

On the second and final day of Modifier Live, our in-house experts led deeper interactive workshops to teach attendees new skills. First, dynamic duo Director of Community Engagement Derrick Cain and Community Engagement Program Manager Jingyao Yu directed the room through a discussion of off-line community engagement tactics. By exploring their benefits and potential challenges and discussing how to obtain buy-in from colleagues, the pair got everyone talking about new ways to get to know their audiences and beyond.

In our final workshop, Senior Director of Collaboration Eugene Sonn taught attendees about listening for understanding in a way that was applicable both inside and outside of the newsroom. He and Digital Communications Manager Gabriela Rivera demonstrated both good and bad ways to listen to a partner in conversation before attendees got to try the techniques out for themselves.

We ended Modifier Live by setting aside time for attendees to gather with their teammates and turn to the end of the workbook we designed specifically for this event (with the help of our friends at Myth). Past the speaker bios, the QR codes for further reading, and notebook pages, they found a section dedicated to creating an implementation plan. Our goal with this time was to give attendees space to actually think through how they’d apply the ideas they’d just learned before they got swept back into their daily routines.

From the outpouring of thoughts that attendees offered as they shared back, it was clear that both this special time, and Modifier Live overall, were a success.