by Gordon Klco
In 2015, Free Press launched News Voices after recognizing that community members aren’t often included in the discussions around how communities get news or how journalists and newsrooms could better serve the communities they work in. The program started in New Jersey with World Cafe style listening forums where community members could come and share their concerns with journalists. They have now expanded their focus to North Carolina, and the project has evolved into a combination of large and small listening sessions and partnerships with community organizations, artists, journalists and newsrooms. Ultimately, the project seeks to answer “How can journalism support community building?” and “What is journalism’s role in the community?”
Project Goals: At the outset, the project’s goal was to develop a constituency for local journalism. While Free Press is a national organization, the local journalism approach required intensely local organizing. They began by building relationships with target communities in New Jersey, a densely populated state that lies between two of the biggest media markets in the country. The team focused on bringing the public and journalists together to talk about local community concerns and how journalists could better serve the address those needs. By turning news consumers into a constituency to support local news and information, News Voices aimed to help communities understand their role in local journalism and at the same time, help newsrooms better understand how to serve the public. Now, as the project has expanded to another state, North Carolina, the same core goals still apply, but the News Voices team is also focused on scaling their process, creating toolkits that local citizens can learn and use in their communities, all while continuing to build deep relationships with the communities they work in.
Tools and Technology: News Voices uses social media like Facebook Live, Facebook groups, platforms like Action Kit and Relay peer-to-peer texting to connect with communities, but the bulk of the work is done through one-on-one community organizing and outreach. Project leaders stressed how important real, in-person relationships are to the project. Both their New Jersey and North Carolina projects are built on face-to-face interactions between them, journalists and community members. Technology serves to maintain and expand upon those relationships, but organizing principles always take precedence over digital tools.
Impact: Launched in New Jersey in 2015, News Voices expanded to North Carolina in 2017 and is now working with dedicated newsrooms and community members around the country. The New Jersey project has received awards for its collaborative and innovative approaches to community building and engagement which has led to a number of successful collaborations between newsrooms, artists and community members. The News Voices work has sparked projects like New Jersey’s 37 Voices, which brought journalists, students and community members together to lift up the voices of those in poverty. While the North Carolina effort is more recent, it has developed in coordination with Democracy Fund’s local news ecosystem development in that state.
Organization Background: Free Press is a national nonprofit that advocates for people’s’ rights to connect and communicate with each other. They leverage their digital and in-person organizing expertise to work on issues around broadband access, net neutrality, and press freedom. With a growing membership of 1.4 million nationwide, the organization mobilizes members to participate in rallies, town hall meetings and targeted actions, as well as supports other organizations by crafting policy, conducting research and arguing policy in court. The organization is funded through charitable organizations and member donations.
Project Resources: Free Press has four full-time staff members working on the News Voices project. The project receives funding from the Democracy Fund,the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and the News Integrity Initiative. The team relies heavily on their community organizing roots to continue their work.
Here’s what worked
1. Outreach and Relationship Building
News Voices has held dozens of public forums and community led meet-and-greets over the past three years. The initiative develops resources for newsrooms and runs workshops to train reporters on topics such as how to use organizing strategies in their newsgathering. They also offer workshops and resources for the public to help them have a greater voice and role in local news. In New Jersey, News Voices has campaigned for the Civic Information Bill, legislation to allocate revenue from the sale of publicly held broadcast licenses to a fund that would invest in innovative news and information projects.
“We place special care on listening deeply, working collaboratively, and making sure that all our engagement (events, projects, workshops, campaigns, etc) centers community voices and not our own.” – Mike Rispoli, Director, News Voices
The relationships built through the forums and training programs rolled into a real collaboration between journalists and the communities. For example, CoLab Arts, a organization in New Brunswick, NJ, was supported by the work of News Voices’. NV trained freelance journalists how to think like community organizers and connected them to anti-poverty organizations so they could dig into the data surrounding poverty. This training showed the journalist how to do outreach so they could better report on poverty in the city. News Voices’ broad community organizing uncovers issues in communities while fostering relationships with a diverse group of people who can then come together and collaborate.
3. Local Engagement
News Voices is building tool kits for local community members and journalists to continue the work they have set in motion. By giving these powerful skills to community members, it allows News Voices to step aside and empower the citizens rooted there.
Here’s what could have worked better
1. Building Groundwork
The News Voices team quickly found that if they tried to work in too many communities at a time, it prevented them from doing deep follow-up. They steered their strategy away from large scale public events across several communities to intra group dialogues and smaller more frequent events.
2. What are the roots?
The News Voices team found that it is important to pay attention to how they develop the community relationships and who they empower to continue the work. One of the hardest parts is making sure resources and time are spent in the right place and the community is left empowered and self-sufficient. They are constantly trying new tactics to make sure projects are being led by the community and not newsrooms or the News Voices team.
3. How they talk about their work.
The News Voices team also realized that they saw more interest from stakeholders when they focused less on media and more on how people get information to stay civically engaged.