For decades, we have been able to take local journalism for granted. Today, we no longer can. Local journalism is facing a number of challenges.
Traditional newspapers look to transform processes into the digital space and shift the internal culture towards new ways to engage with their communities. At the same time, some pioneering news organisations are exploring innovative ways to develop sustainable business models that support their work without dependence on grants.
So how can local news innovate its products and workflows to better serve and inform communities, as well as to monetise this relationship?
To find some answers, our team headed to Cardiff last Monday for the second edition of the 2018 News Impact Summits, focusing on Local News & Community Engagement and powered by the Google News Initiative.
During this day full of inspirational talks, conversations, case-studies and hands-on workshops, one thing became clear: while local journalism is facing many challenges, there are smart strategies and ideas we can practically implement in our newsrooms to deal with them.
Here are six approaches from local news organisations from Europe and beyond.
1. Respect your community — and report with them, not on them
Community involvement in local journalism is not about gaining new subscribers, but a genuine way to enrich the journalists’ perspectives, bring new opinions, story angles and details to the table and open up new access to data.
“When you include the community in your reporting, the very act of journalism becomes different,” explained Megan Lucero, director of The Bureau Local at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
This can only succeed if you respect your community and face them on an equal level, as Kathryn Geels, director of the Engaged Journalism Accelerator, emphasised:
“Journalists need to stop parachuting in and out of communities. Show up consistently, only this way you can create trust.”
One way to hit these points is to take your communities on a joint mission. The Bureau Local has done this with the project “Homelessness — a national scandal”, in which all readers were invited to contribute.
The team was surprised by the vast response: not only fellow journalists but also doctors, family members and community-minded citizens chipped in providing stories and data. The result was a report that could have never been realised without the support of the community.
2. Share the power with your community
While media is commonly talked about as being essential for democracy, its production is often not democratic. As Andrea Hart, co-founder of City Bureau explained, we should approach the current crisis of trust in journalism as a chance to democratise the process.
If we really want to regain readers’ trust, we need to radically rethink traditional power structures between media and communities. Andrea suggested that newsrooms should ask themselves what power they are holding that can be shared with the communities they serve — and even go one step further:
“This is about more than sharing power, it is about eradicating dominance between media and communities.”
The ideal result of community engagement is a brave space,
For Adam Cantwell-Corn of The Bristol Cable, giving readers a “real stake in the reporting” is one of the key elements to create a meaningful relationship. The newspaper is a democratically owned media, meaning that it has over 2000 owners that partake in the decision making. They can join monthly meetings, discussing strategic and political issues of the upcoming months and even be elected to the board.
3. Design opportunities, not demands
When journalists are disconnected from their community, their attempts to involve the audience are likely to fail. If you don’t know how they think, the risk is to design opportunities for participation that miss the true points of interest and thereby come across as demands.
In her lightning talk, Camille Pollie, community manager at OpenVRT in Belgium, shared her experience on how getting to know your community better can help to shape a successful project or strategy. Some of her main lessons are:
- Address topics that are truly important to your community.
- Find out who your community members’ heroes are, and give them the chance to talk to them.
- Be honest, because your audience can smell it from a mile away if you’re just in it for the numbers.
Resources and energy put into investigating your community’s needs are an investment that pays off, as Alison Gow from Reach plc explained:
“People often complain about time issues. But the only way to get back time is to stop doing things that don’t matter to your audience, and start doing those that matter.”
Richard Gurner, publisher and editor at the Caerphilly Observer, succeeded with his fortnightly publication specifically because he started it as a community member: he saw a lack of news in a geographical area he deeply cared about.
Today, the Caerphilly Observer has been named the best independent community news service of the year for the fourth consecutive time by the Wales Media Awards, is selling 12,000 copies distributed through various outlets — and there is an ongoing demand from retailers, readers and advertisers for more copies.
4. Go where the people already are
A big advantage of local journalism is the possibility to interact with the community face-to-face. A great way to do that are news events that bring together journalists and communities to a physical place.
In her session, Charlotte Knowles from News Peeks discussed the mission and the challenges of running News Clubs, live events designed as a new way of getting involved with news coverage.
The key to their success is accessibility. “People just walk in from the street,” she explained. This is because the News Clubs are organised in places that people already know, are free of charge, offer food and drinks and tackle issues that people deeply care about.
“We are not a travel agency but we want to take our readers on the road,” explained Marianna Bruschi, Head of Visual Lab at GEDI Digital, in her presentation. In-person gatherings are a key element for the success of the membership model that 13 local titles of GEDI Digital are implementing.
Their events — simple and yet appealing like a Coffee with the Editor — improve trust between journalists and the communities they serve. They also help to strengthen hyperlocal communities themselves by bringing people together, giving them a chance to interact and fostering interest in local topics.
5. Share your knowledge
In her opening speech, Emma Meese, director of the Independent Community News Network at Cardiff University, stressed the importance of local and hyperlocal media working together:
“We’re all in this together. We are passionate about journalism, media and democracy. That is our common goal.”
Getting together with other news outlets, no matter their size or funding model, is crucial to gather the knowledge needed to navigate through the transitional time.
Charlotte Knowles confirmed that training others is key for the long-term success of your project. “Stop thinking that it has to be you doing it as an individual.” Her plan for the future of News Clubs is to train people in the community to run sessions themselves, getting in more expertise, new perspectives and opening up new possibilities of funding.
6. Be careful with what you change
Change is necessary if local media want to improve how they listen, understand and serve their communities. But this does not mean that we have to change everything. It’s crucial to recognise the positive elements of our journalistic work, celebrate them and continue working with them. As Megan Lucero put it:
“Qualitative reporting is viable for the public interest and this should never change. The question is: How do we ensure that?”
A similar sentiment was shared by MaryAnn Astle, executive editor of StokeonTrentLive: “While we are busy growing audiences, it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that we still need qualitative journalism.”
To navigate this space, it’s important to clearly define your mission before diving into any community effort. Kathryn Geels suggests investing time into strategic planning, asking yourself the following questions: what impact do you want to make? Is your internal process supporting that goal?
Through all these examples, speakers and attendees of the News Impact Summit Cardiff showed us again why local journalism matters. It brings people together, sheds light on important but underreported issues and empowers civic engagement.
The challenges that local news is facing are numerous and working together we have a better chance of overcoming them and allow local news to thrive again.
Stella Volkenand, Community Coordinator, European Journalism Centre (ECJ)
This article first appeared on ECJ’s Medium page and is re-published with kind permission
The next News Impact Summit will take place in Berlin on 3 December 2018. Check out newsimpact.io for all the details and subscribe to ECJ’s newsletters if you want to stay informed about future opportunities. The participation to the Summits is free-of-charge and you can already sign up at newsimpact.io/registration/summit