In college, I received an enamel pin. It shows a typewriter with a skull and crossbones. “Write Hard, Die Free,” it reads. It’s an expression of the idea that journalism is a calling, that this profession is a staple of democracy, the Fourth Estate. It exists to hold truth to power. Journalists are here to give voice to the voiceless and empower citizens with news and information. I have ordered this pin to give as a gift for many years, and especially lately as it seems our power is being called into question.
The American Press Institute makes specific note of this in their Journalism Essentials:
Viewing the reader as less a consumer or audience member and more a decision-maker is a good place for the journalist to start. In one sense it’s about self-respect – an assumption the reporting will have some utilitarian value – and respect for the reader, a belief that the audience really does want to make the best possible decisions.
We’re in yet another era of journalism consolidation and innovation in journalism, depending on whether you’re a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty kind of person. Building trust with audience members and engaging them where they gather is a concept that, excitingly, is gathering more traction.
Part of the hope in engaging our audiences is to bring them into our funnels and hopefully convince them of our worthiness of their membership. For many people in marginalized communities, paid news subscriptions and memberships are out of reach. They are struggling with rising rents, healthcare costs, and underemployment. Giving a news outlet $10 or even $5 seems impossible, especially when so much news is “free” on the internet.
On the other side, as newsrooms shrink and consolidate, we’ve lost touch with our readers, viewers, and listeners (for those organizations that were in touch in the first place). It’s a rare luxury to have a reporter to cover every school district and more likely that a single reporter is expected to cover all schools in a metropolitan city.
Combine these two issues and you have a bit of explanation for the rise of projects revolving around training citizens. Traditionally surrounding the idea of community contributors, the more modern version of these involves training and mentoring.
With dwindling time and resources in newsrooms, does it make sense to invest in citizen-powered journalism and training? These programs might accomplish the mission of many newsrooms and improve democracy as a whole, but do they actually change communities? There are plenty of places to seek answers, because there is no shortage of programs that seek to train and “empower” people on behalf of journalism. At least part of the answer lies in those existing programs and their successes and failures. I want to understand the ingredients of a successful strategy to shift power within communities through training and journalism contributions, and whether people who were involved stay involved or become more active citizens.
Why this is relevant to membership? Knowing whether involvement and training qualifies as a “sufficient” investment to warrant membership (by boosting the overall knowledge and information available to a community) can help us understand how people might pay in participation.
In “Understanding Alternative Media Power: Mapping Content & Practice to Theory, Ideology, and Political Action,” author Sandra Jeppesen wrote about the theory of citizen produced media this way: “People producing citizens’ media develop a growing sense of themselves as participants in democratic decision-making, able to influence policy-makers and shape the direction of their local communities, often addressing inequities and human rights violations.”
That is my hope. The idea of non-financial contributions from the community comes with the hope that it contributes to public knowledge. In training citizens to commit acts of journalism, they might feel more empowered. These trainings may teach people to be the record for city council meetings, or asking people in countries where journalistic resources are scarce to write about what is happening. They might translate articles or submit FOIA requests. They might be more likely to vote or more likely to run for office or advocate for issues. In some cases, this is very much true and possible, but it depends on many factors, primarily the relationships between news organizations and citizens.
But I believe we need relationships between the powerful and the people who lack power to tip the scale.
Transactional relationships versus building relationships
When I ran OnCentral for KPCC in Southern California about eight years ago, I spent a significant amount of time listening to people in the area, attending meetings, and introducing myself to people. I was asked to run a grant-funded community news service in South Los Angeles, with a few freelancers, interns, and no staffers. I wanted to run a site that really built relationships and was less transactional. I wanted the community to understand that this was their site: we were just hosting it. I’m not sure I ever met the council representative, but I did meet business owners, librarians, mothers, and advocates. Here’s what I heard: No one knew what public radio was. They did not trust the LA Times. They did not have time to watch the evening news. They might catch the news from Piolin, a radio show host. They often didn’t know there was a Spanish-language newspaper in town. Few of them participated in social media the obsessive ways many journalists do; they had families and work to attend to.
It was disheartening to hear. How could we get this audience to not only read and listen to our stories, but to actually participate in them? I emphasized to community members that I was not there to drop in. I wanted to help them tell their stories. This was a substantial amount of work and time, meaning I showed up at meetings, listened, and talked to pretty much anyone who would let me in the door. My personal plan was to work with contributors, eventually bringing them to a point where I could hire them as freelancers, create lasting relationships, and share unique stories.
A few years later the grant ended and KPCC folded the publication into their existing blogs. South LA still has poor coverage from local news outlets, and a few years later when I moved into a different part of South LA, I understood more what the community had been telling me. I could find stories about shootings and the random non-profit-feel-good story, but no one could tell me what that development down the street was.
Often, specifically with communities of color, journalists parachute in. We ask people to tweet, we ask people to answer polls, we ask people to take photos. Much of this journalism has been transactional: the contract is that people give us things and we give citizens “exposure.” At engagement consultancy Hearken, Jenn Brandel coined this tit-for-tat as being an “Askhole”:
Too often, when it comes to engaging communities, we act like askholes. We ask for their story, we extract their experiences and concerns, and then we package and polish them up to share with audiences for our own financial gain. We don’t follow up. We don’t thank them. We don’t ask what they need. We just ask for what we need from them.
For Oakland Voices, transaction isn’t the goal. The nine-month program trains Oakland residents to tell their stories through multimedia and text, paying them for their time. Co-founder Martin Reynolds says with each cohort of citizens that are trained to report and write about their communities, a relationship is built. The fellows are not told that they are journalists, but they often come to think of themselves as such. In reporting and writing, fellows learn and have their names published with their work.
“There's a deep reservoir of respect that grows on the part of the cohort,” Martin said. “We tell them we're not trying to have you be journalists but in the end they view themselves as such.”
It’s an unintended consequence of the project, Martin said. As the cohort gets better at telling the stories of their lives and communities, whether through storytelling or traditional journalism information gathering, they become more confident that their voices matter, and their work crystallizes how the community views itself.
“A community can't be as healthy as it needs to be if it has a distorted view of itself,” Martin said.
The cohort isn’t given power, but the program helps them find the power they already had.
Building relationships through engagement work is not easy. It takes time to work with communities. It also doesn’t result in journalism right away, often requiring listening to the needs and questions of a community before even embarking on storytelling. It may take multiple highly visible and dedicated staffers to listen and give context to engagement.
Oakland Voices works with residents and trains them through a curriculum developed with the Maynard Institute over nine months, with working journalists and educators. About 800 people are enrolled in City Bureau’s Documenters program, which holds free and public trainings held over two hours each month at libraries in Chicago. Typically Documenters work with the program for an extended period of time after training to document and live tweet government meetings.
Some traditional journalists have scoffed at this work and the time it takes, organizer Mike Rispoli said. “The job of a journalist is to build relationships with people to build stories. The people that journalists choose to be in a relationship with determine and shape the journalism they produce,” Mike said. “Journalists aren't questioning when they build relationships with people who have power or access to power.”
Mike Rispoli describes his work directing NewsVoices as “moving away from transactional relationships and shifting away from traditional newsroom culture to a culture that prioritizes deep listening, [and] relationships that are rooted in community.” NewsVoices aims to work with communities primarily in New Jersey and North Carolina to better participate and collaborate with journalism being created, building a trusting relationship between the two groups along the way. They host events, trainings, and projects to bring newsrooms and citizens together.
This relationship is beneficial for both parties if it’s truly structured as a partnership. PanosLondon, a now-defunct collaborative of nonprofits working on information, public debate and democracy, talked about the necessary relationship between media and community organizations in “The Case for Communication in Sustainable Development.” Their argument is that civil organizations need to seek out journalism, though it could easily be the other way around. They write: “Civil society organisations and government can contribute to improving the quality of debate in the media, if they see media as a partner, value its contribution as an independent social actor and actively seek to engage with it.”
This is beyond a collaboration, a contribution, or participation. The best kind of relationship is a relationship where everyone is a stakeholder, producing involved journalism.
The idea of involved journalism answers some of the value question. Done right, it moves us away from transactional journalism and provides value and a feeling of true membership to a news organization and a community. If we were to create a formula for true involved journalism, one that is a partnership and beneficial for everyone involved, I think it would look something like this:
Instead of giving power, share power
Empowerment. The word is very hip and especially in reference to social justice, marginalized communities, and privilege. The phrasing is usually about “using journalism to empower some marginalized community.”
The Arizona Republic, where I work as audience innovation director, hosts quarterly diversity dialogues with newsmakers and people across the community. In some cases, it’s a happy hour, or sometimes it takes the form of structured meetings. We hosted one within the first few weeks of my joining the paper. I popped up to meet folks and have a glass of wine and almost immediately got involved in a conversation that changed my thinking. I had been using the word empowerment to explain the kind of goal many community contributor models have. The person I was talking to stopped me. He said he regularly worked with community members as a facilitator and pushed me to rethink my language.
A newsroom empowering a community implies that the community has no power to begin with and the newsroom held all of it. Read any number of stories about declining trust in media (including this one by Dr. Susan Forde and this report from the Knight Foundation) and you will see that communities are not as powerless as we might posit them to be. The Arizona Republic reader I talked to said when he worked with communities, he described his work as showing them the light switch. The community is there. The power exists, they are standing near it but they cannot see it. It is about reminding the community of where the light switch is and helping them utilize the light once on.
By “empowering” communities, we are perpetuating privilege. The privilege of giving a starving group the thing you hold in vast quantity. It’s time to rethink our language. What if instead of empowering people through non-financial contributions, journalists shared their existing power or access to power?
Journalists can vastly underestimate their own power, thinking they could have more access and need more power. And in a time when the sustainability of a free press is under threat around the world, we are perilously in danger of losing more access. However, despite that, journalists do maintain some power. The power of having a voice, being able to publish and have their thoughts shared to the world. But also the power of access. Journalists, for the most part, have access to people who have power. We know how to navigate court records and we might have the senator’s cell phone. That’s something not many people have.
That is power we hoard. We do not share phone numbers. We take our source lists with us when we change jobs. It makes sense to remain skeptical of handing that crucial (and sometimes confidential) information out, but we can be conduits between groups who have power and those who seek access to it. There are myriad ways you can responsibly, enthusiastically allow your community past the gatekeeper, and you and your coverage will be better for it.
To share power with our audiences is a different framework for thinking of contributor models. Organizations that employ community contributors in some form with success train and teach along the way. The fellows at Oakland Voices might not be told they are journalists, but they come to think of themselves as journalists. This makes some people uncomfortable, and it’s possible because of the relationship of power between people who work in the press and people who have historically been the audience. The pedestal journalism we used to practice (let us tell you what’s newsworthy) is degrading in favor of collaborative journalism (help us tell your community’s story). Newsrooms have begun to embrace models like dialogue journalism and people-powered journalism, though the concept is not quite commonplace--yet.
This concept is not new. In 1996, Danladi Musa wrote about empowerment and journalism in Africa. He stipulated that by broadcasting a story, or choosing to write about it, journalists give the idea legitimacy:
There is a general acceptance of the view that publicity given to an issue in the media can give it more objective status as a valid issue of public discourse or concern than would have been the case had the issue not been picked up by the media. Thus media as public sphere have been commodotised [sic] with a disempowering effect on the financially weak actors in society. Such concentrated media attention confers the status of high public concern on issues which are highlighted. In reality, this public sphere has been effectively transformed into a sphere for elite discourse. Issues that receive little or no media mention on the other hand are conferred in this way, with the status of unimportance and irrelevance. So, issues become understood by everyone as the pressing issues of the day. The ‘Better Life for Rural Women’ or ‘Family Support' programmes as genuine ways of empowering women in Nigeria is a typical media spectacle of agenda setting role of the "fourth estate".
Teaching journalism to people who have not gone to elite journalism schools does not lessen the power of the press. It amplifies it. Sharing power develops empathy and allows reporters and citizens to see through each others’ eyes. And in many cases, the voices that need to be heard the most are not ones that are in the current journalism school pipeline, which is full of socio-economic privilege and unpaid internships. Perhaps the best way to amplify voices is not to use someone’s voice, but to help them find it and use it.
Telling the difference
What if using someone’s voice in a story, we are doing just that, using it and appropriating it?
Nikki Usher explores this concept in her research on citizen journalism, The Appropriation/Amplification Model of Citizen Journalism: An Account of the Structural Limitations and the Political Economy of Citizen Journalism. She outlines two kinds of appropriation:
Direct, when journalists specifically ask for contributions and solicit permission like American Public Media’s Public Insight Network, and
Passive, when journalists use public posts as part of their reporting process, whether verified or not. Journalists don’t regularly seek consent in these instances, often embedding social media posts without thinking about the consequences.
Community contributor models could be viewed as an extension of these types of appropriation, as Nikki wrote:
In each pathway, appropriation is a key word because the content—though created by an ordinary non-journalist, becomes the content of the news organization...the user content becomes part of the larger narrative that the news organization is telling about an event, and it is given meaning and context. User content is now the news organization’s to share with the public and the content is explicitly used to further the news organization’s own ends.
The results of equitable power-sharing
The news cycle’s move toward 24 hour coverage is partially to blame for appropriation. It takes time and trust to build community and equitable power sharing. Not all newsrooms have the time to explore the subtle difference between volunteering for a news organization because you share their values and beliefs about the community and becoming a non-financial contributor to the journalism produced by a news outlet. This is especially true for many commercial media outlets. While The Guardian, Buzzfeed, Slate, and others have been testing out membership platforms, readers still don’t understand the revenue challenges news organizations face.
If sharing power means that journalism becomes less transactional, many outlets need to measure it and prove impact for funders in an effort to report back to the audience. It may be tracking legislation changed, return visits, and audience actions on a scorecard (and perhaps sharing those successes with the audience).
A problem to tackle is that contributor models that focus on marginalized communities and do not pay for contributions can fall into the trap of appearing to take advantage of disadvantaged audiences. Martin says many of the former fellows from Oakland Voices want to continue to contribute, but are unable to do so without financial help.
“You are getting a higher percentage of people who are in a certain economic class [as a result],” Martin said. “If we had more support and were able to pay them more to remain involved, they'd do more. “
Oakland Voices is exploring a buddy system that allows alumni to act as mentors to newer fellows and remain involved in the community for their 2019 class. This will give fellows someone within the community to learn from, as well as journalists, solidifying the bond and teaching leadership skills to alumni as well.
Sharing power can result in true community change
Dr. Andrea Wenzel, assistant professor of journalism at Temple University, studied the communications infrastructure in neighborhoods in Los Angeles. She said she found it was important community organizations and neighborhood non-profits focusing on building up a community have good relationships with the local media for things to change for community members individually.
“In South LA, there weren't good relationships between community organizations and media and that history meant that organizations weren't really connecting well with local media,” Andrea said.
When that structure is stronger, there is a strong efficacy to journalism produced and higher levels of civic participation. And it goes beyond voting, it can be running for office. A true involved relationship with communities is worth well beyond the tradeoff of creating non-financial membership. Civic participation is crucial to press freedom and the ability to report and publish journalism that matters.
In Alhambra, not too far away from South LA, the University of Southern California embarked upon a research and journalism project that became the Alhambra Source: a site that reported on a community that was mixed between Asian, Latino, and White, not often covered by area or any media.
Eric Suada became involved with the Alhambra Source early as a community contributor. He says he was already civically engaged, but the Source was pivotal for his community and his life. He attended meetings, met other people who cared about Alhambra and later was one of the founders of Grassroots Alhambra, a citizens’ group focused on civic engagement. Eric also ran for office.
“They really provided the glue and the information as well as the dissemination of information,” Eric said. “To make change is difficult but there is a chance of making change at a local level and the Source brought it out. Reading about it makes you think.”
Sandra Ball Rokeach is a professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and one of the founders of the Source. She said that prior to the project, city council and school board elections regularly had uncontested races. Since Alhambra Source, there have been more contested race, including a city council race where Eric ran for election.
Part of the success, according to Sandra, is that the founders of the project spent a significant amount of time listening. There were two years of focus groups and multi-method research focusing on residents and a community that had extremely low civic engagement.
“You can't go into the community and ask what they need to know,” Sandra said. “You need to ask them what they want to know and how they want to know it.”
To Eric, The Alhambra Source was accountability where there was none before, of course, but it was also a catalyst for people to understand, in their own language, from their peers, what was happening in their neighborhood. Today, Eric contributes to the Source. He describes himself as “a member, contributor, and supporter” of the publication.
There is a cycle: involved journalism produces a better community, which enables and supports better journalism. This kind of journalism can build a relationship that better utilizes unused power, instead of falsely “empowering” people. The investment involved goes beyond money, but time and emotional investment from newsrooms and the public to shift power together. Eric’s and other experiences underscore that the relationship of power between a newsroom and the public involves confronting and mutually questioning existing power structures. This relationship, possibly, could be better supported by thinking of contributors as members of a newsroom, not just a news site.
Correction: An earlier version of this report incorrectly stated how long Documenters work. The program has two-hour training sessions monthly that are open to the public and many Documenters sign up to live tweet and document government meetings over a long period of time. It is not a one-year program.
Emily Goligoski, Jessica Best, and Lukas Kouwets contributed to this post.
How power and privilege shape communities
(Journalism.co.uk, Destiny Alvarez and Damian Radcliffe)
Tips from Sue Robinson on how journalists can work with underrepresented communities. She pulls takeaways from her upcoming book: "Networked News and Racial Divides: how power and privilege shape progressive communities."
Why journalists need to double the five Ws
(Radio Television Digital News Association)
Garnered from the Center for Media Engagement, RTDNA explores how the traditional idea of the “five Ws” is a good model for transparency with audiences.
Journalism needs an audience to survive, but isn’t sure how to earn its loyalty
(The Conversation, Jacob L. Nelson)
Jacob Nelson, a researcher at Arizona State University, thinks deeply in this piece about how metrics and engagement are and are not tied together. He pushes that the only path forward is to forget better relationships with audiences.
Lifetime membership value, or what is participation “worth” & how should we measure it?
(The Membership Puzzle Project, Joe Amditis)
Fellow MPP researcher Joe Amditis looks at what participation is worth in the context of lifetime membership value. It’s a good basis on how journalism should value community contributions.
Report: What would journalism look like if it was generated from within communities?
(Engaged Journalism Accelerator)
An excellent report from the Engaged Journalism Accelerator that looks at the mechanics of creating journalism with communities.