Insight: Let community members into your journalism
When Raleigh Convergence received a Facebook Journalism Project Community Network Grant for a newcomers project, I began recruiting for community ambassadors — not writers.
In the description soliciting people for this paid work, I asked for people who knew their communities. Journalism experience was not needed.
I avoided choosing anyone who might have a monetary interest in reaching newcomers (such as real estate agents), selecting folks who had a wealth of community connections.
Bringing the community into community journalism
New Neighbor Project community ambassadors were involved as nonprofit founders, influencers and organization leaders. One literally held the title of Ms. Cary.
Partnering with people who were embedded in their communities brought a wealth of knowledge and context. By choosing purposely broad categories for the content series (must-do experiences, local history, how to get involved, a self-guided tour), the storytelling format for each story was different.
To ensure we were ethically on the same page about newsgathering and content creation, we talked through a document of basic journalistic ethics, which I revised as time went on to encompass more empathetic news gathering practices. I also made sure each person was comfortable with Raleigh Convergence’s mission and values.
It’s not foolproof to work with people who don’t have the muscle memory of “how things are done” in journalism, but any ethical issues should arise for discussion with good communication and trust between editor and journalism practitioner.
The success of the series and future work with freelancers showed in practice that community journalism is a process that can include more participants.
Too often, the scope is too narrow for assigning and paying for journalistic work. Leaders prioritize a college degree and fewer gray areas to navigate over a depth of community connection and insight.
Earning trust as a neighbor
Partnership with trusted community folks brings deeper knowledge of a community to a publication’s offerings. That relationship can support the institution, too, by lending credibility and connection.
Raleigh Convergence readers subscribed in part because they wanted to support me, the individual, they said in surveys and interviews. This is an important lesson about the human connection that’s lost when residents don’t know journalists.
Reporters move a lot — it’s often the only way to get a raise or promotion. I should know; I’ve moved from Georgia to Iowa to California for roles before deciding to live here.
It reminds me of the feedback I received before launch when I was testing out taglines for Raleigh Convergence from a longer-term resident: “So you’ve been here a few months but you’re going to tell us where to go and what to do?” Cringe, but a good point: A newsroom with only newcomers lacks institutional knowledge.
Even more cringeworthy is newcomer articles with new reporters “discovering” a city (a term with unfortunate colonial connotations). Paying community members who are trusted sources in their networks to create something for newcomers is a more equitable way to build community, trust and content resources.
Beyond community engagement, a newcomer series can serve newsroom and audience growth goals by “onboarding” new area residents in a similar lead-generation series.