PUBLIC POLICY – The View From Here: Rethinking Local News

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dWeb.News Article from Daniel Webster dWeb.News

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Local news organizations are changing their relationships with their communities. From deploying new messaging platforms to deliver news to revamping their reporting practices, editors spoke to ProPublica in a series recent conversations.

Editors in Atlanta, Phoenix, and Detroit shared their views in live virtual events. They said that local news is a public good in a time of increased polarization, misinformation, and an epidemic.

Each event covered different aspects of local journalism, from Phoenix’s community journalism to Detroit’s nonprofit startups. All of the events addressed the question of how local news keeps up with the rapid changes in media and the extent to that these moves reflect the demographic shifts taking place in their respective cities.

Outlier Media, for instance, empowers Detroiters to set its editorial agenda and built an SMS platform to give residents access to the reporting and reporters. Candice Fortman, Executive Director of Outlier Media, stated that Outlier’s mission was to provide news and information services for those most in need.

The View From Here: Reimagining Local News in Detroit

Outlier Media is part of a new wave of mission-driven media organizations that are filling what they see as gaps in coverage. This includes reporting on historically overlooked neighborhoods in Atlanta, making COVID-19 information available in Spanish to Arizona readers and explaining how Detroiters can file their taxes.

Editors at legacy newsrooms say they are likewise focusing on building new relationships with their communities and the people they cover. They pointed out that newsrooms need to be diverse at all levels to better serve their communities and ensure accurate and fair coverage. P. Kim Bui from The Arizona Republic, director of product innovation and audience innovation, said that a newsroom should reflect the community. It’s easy to say but it’s difficult to do, especially in a small newsroom. Especially in a local news setting, especially in a small newsroom.”

Finally, in an industry starved for resources, collaboration was viewed as crucial to successfully rebuild a sustainable and robust local news infrastructure.

This year, ProPublica opened regional offices in Atlanta and Phoenix, and expanded its footprint in the Midwest to include reporters in more states throughout the region (one is based in Detroit). It also collaborates with partners from the Local Reporting Network in many of these areas.

Here are things we heard repeatedly during our events:

1. The news media needs to increase transparency on how decisions get made

Canopy Atlanta, a community-led nonprofit journalism project founded in 2020, deploys a unique model in which it pairs veteran Atlanta journalists with community members to empower residents to tell their own stories and to combat “media mistrust,” said co-founder Kamille Whittaker, who is also a managing editor of Atlanta magazine. Known as “fellows,” these community members belong to a specific neighborhood that Canopy Atlanta has chosen as the focus for its issue. Whittaker stated that the biggest difference between the two is that the stories are being sourced from residents and not the journalists.

The View From Here: Local News in Atlanta

The promise of Canopy Atlanta’s fellowship model was inspired by a pilot program called the Pittsburgh Journalism Project. Max Blau, who was also a founder of Canopy Atlanta, and a reporter for ProPublica South’s newsroom, led the pilot program called the Pittsburgh Journalism Project . This project coached residents through writing and reporting. Blau edited the story and it was very different from what he expected residents to want to discuss. “[Blau] thought residents would be interested in gentrification and housing affordability when they first went in,” Whittaker stated. “But when he actually did community listening and community engagement, he found out they wanted to talk about the aftermath of the Atlanta public schools cheating scandal.” The story later ran on the front page of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Though still in its infancy, Canopy Atlanta has proven to be an important addition to the local news ecosystem. Stephen Fowler, a political reporter at Georgia Public Broadcasting, said that he has learned more about the neighborhoods within 2 miles of me by reading [Canopy Atlanta]. “And it’s things that have been chronically undercovered, underfunded and underappreciated.”

2. Meet communities where they are already gathering

Conecta Arizona is a Spanish-language service journalism project on WhatsApp created in May 2020 to fill a gap in COVID-19 information available in Spanish. Maritza L. Felix, the founder of Conecta Arizona, stated that despite Arizona having a third of its population being Hispanic, there is not enough Spanish-language media available in Arizona. “When I started Conecta Arizona it was to fight misinformation through the same channels it was getting spread through: WhatsApp,” Felix said.

Outlier Media’s Fortman said delivering news via SMS is “the best way to reach most Detroiters.” Available in English, Spanish and Arabic, the news service is a two-way channel, meaning consumers can reach its reporters directly 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“Our entire model is based on basically this question: What is the best way to get information to people that makes it equal in access, but also is the most high-value, high-quality information needed in order for people to rise from crisis to steadiness,” Fortman said.

3. Reflecting the communities they cover

Newsrooms are working to diversify their ranks, not just racially but also economically and linguistically. Bui of the Republic said that numbers can be a joke. Bui chuckled, “I will admit, some newsroom survey was once about 7% of the newsroom was Asian management and I was like literally, that 7% is me.” It’s all about actions. It’s really about actions.”

The View From Here: Community Journalism in Phoenix

Nicole Carr, a reporter in ProPublica’s South newsroom, echoed Bui’s comments and said that diversifying newsroom leadership is a crucial step toward accomplishing objective and fair coverage. Carr, who was previously an investigative reporter at WSB-TV, stated that “when you’re discussing the lens of objectivity we can’t have the conversation without addressing those who make the decisions.” “Take television, the people who make the decisions are not the people you see in front of you that the public thinks they know as representative of a particular outlet.”

“Collaboration is the future of journalism”

The events gave special attention to innovation and solutions. Although the solutions were varied, many of them saw collaboration as a key to their success. Fortman stated that collaboration is key to the future of journalism.

“We are in a very competitive business,” said Robin Kemp, the founder, CEO and executive editor of The Clayton Crescent, a one-woman newsroom just outside Atlanta, “but in Atlanta there is more of a conversation happening between outlets. I think the more we can leverage that given the huge disparities in coverage areas, resources, everything, the more we can do that, it really helps everybody out.”

Kemp, who has worked in print, broadcast, cable news and digital media, captured the nation’s attention last year during the presidential election for her coverage of the absentee ballot count in Clayton County, Georgia. She was the only journalist at the counting location for the entire count.

Nicole Avery Nichols, executive editor of Chalkbeat Detroit, suggested that part of collaboration is “holding each other accountable and making sure we are connected with our community and working on their behalf towards a public good.”

The events were sponsored by McKinsey & Co., which did not have a say in the topics covered or the speakers selected.

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