by Burgess Brown and Jesse Hardman
Editor’s Note: This case study has been substantially modified from its originally published form. These modifications reflect significant updates to the project since the original date of publication. If you have any questions about these edits or would like to see the original version, let us know.
During the summer of 2017 The Listening Post Collective, with support from an Omaha based foundation, conducted an Information Ecosystem Assessment in north Omaha, Nebraska. Listening Post staff spent four days in the neighborhood, where the majority of African American residents live, speaking with media outlets, community leaders and residents about how information is created and shared in the area, how local journalism portrays the neighborhood, and the information needs of north Omaha residents. The resulting assessment maps the existing media and information ecosystem and offers examples and suggestions of steps that may improve access to information and news coverage of north Omaha.
Project Goals: The goal of the north Omaha information ecosystem assessment is to answer four main questions:
- Are people in north Omaha getting a steady flow of news and information that’s relevant to their community?
- Are people, institutions, and issues in north Omaha being covered in a holistic, in-depth way by local media?
- What are the different ways people in north Omaha get and share information on a regular basis?
- What are the topics and issues that people in north Omaha would most like to hear more about?
We explored these questions in person with 15 different community stakeholders, and observed information flow around north Omaha. We wrote up an assessment of what we heard from our respondents, and shared it back with them for feedback. The assessment led to a request for proposals. Applicants were asked to use the assessment and its findings as a guide to propose a hyperlocal news project serving north Omaha.
Tools and Technology: Information ecosystem assessments are purposefully low-tech. Our playbook focuses on offline strategies like walking through neighborhoods and frequenting local establishments to get an understanding of information flow. Word of mouth is how we found out that there’s a standing community conversation at the McDonald’s in north Omaha around 7 a.m. most weekday mornings. Our technology for this initial phase of the Listening Post process was simply making audio recordings of our community conversations and taking photos of signs, fliers, community hubs, and other physical examples of local information flow. While much of our work was done offline and on the ground, we made sure to collect links to community facebook pages and other online spaces where hyperlocal news is shared.
Impact: We produced a comprehensive assessment documenting what we heard and saw in north Omaha in relationship to information flow. We then shared that document back with the 15 people we spoke to in depth when we visited. A quarter of those folks sent us feedback. One person even printed the document out, marked it with edits and insights, and sent it to us via snail mail. Respondents said they felt heard in regards to their frustrations over how their community is covered.
We put out a request for proposals from the community, inviting people to apply for some funding to start a small news project serving north Omaha. Two groups sent in proposals, and we’re now in the process of negotiating a scope of work for the grant.
Organization Background: We met with representatives of a variety of information sharing organizations that serve north Omaha. That list includes The Reader, Omaha’s alt-weekly, the Omaha Star, the paper that has specifically served Omaha’s African American population for 8 decades, 101.3 FM, the low power FM radio station based inside the Malcolm X community center in north Omaha, and the Union for Contemporary Arts, a north Omaha based community arts and resource center. These are a mixture of nonprofit and commercial organizations, major sources of revenue include local advertising, membership, and a very active group of Omaha based foundations.
The Listening Post Collective itself, meanwhile, is run and operated by the international nonprofit Internews. It “provides journalists, newsroom leaders, and nonprofits tools and advice to create meaningful conversations with their communities.”
Project Resources: Two Listening Post Collective staffers, Jesse Hardman and Burgess Brown, spent four days in and around north Omaha. They stayed in a local home close to their research area, and the cost of this work included travel, rental car, housing, and food. This work was funded via a grant from a local Omaha foundation. The grant will also be used to help support an existing community media project or create a new project that is built in part around the assessment’s findings.
Here’s how it happened
Conversations with a colleague who is from the Omaha area led to this assessment. She spoke to some local media and foundations she was familiar with and heard concerns about an information gap in the north Omaha community. Follow up conversations began with local stakeholders, the publisher of a local alt-weekly, and the founder of a new low power FM station. Those conversations led to a list of around 20 community members with a stake in information flow in north Omaha. We wound up meeting with the majority of those people one on one.
Here’s what worked
1. Going beyond the usual suspects
In any community there are gatekeepers, people who represent the neighborhood on behalf of residents and their needs. Obviously they are more connected and acutely aware of community needs, and it’s good to get their perspective, but it’s really important to push past that gate and talk to stakeholders who might have a different vantage point. Our meetings happened in public libraries, McDonald’s, construction trailers, community centers, coffee shops, and more. This led to an assessment that, while certainly not representative of every north Omaha resident, we believe accurately reflects an array of experiences in the neighborhood.
2. Keeping an open mind
We went to Omaha with one goal: listen. We were able to visit Omaha with a completely open mind and with no allegiances to specific groups or projects. This allowed us to truly explore the information landscape in a way that can be difficult when the exploration is serving an already existing project, online platform, or organization. We listened and reflected back what we heard to the community itself.
3. Asking for help
Once on the ground we continued adding names to our list and meetings to our calendar. We asked everyone we spoke to if they could put us in touch with others who might be interested or helpful. A newspaper publisher pointed us to a local pastor. A community activist brought along a local college professor. A radio announcer brought us to a community bookstore. As a result we spoke to a network of people that likely couldn’t have been assembled by any one person.
Here’s what could have worked better
1. Allowing for more time (and following through)
We are learning how to balance our interest in showing some tangible progress in north Omaha with the fact that working WITH a community, and having the goal of a sustainable project takes time. North Omahans are used to seeing people start things with good intentions, and not following through. With that in mind, it’s important to check in often with people in the community who are motivated to be involved in a new project. You want to keep the listening process going, and keep them feeling like there’s continuity between the information ecosystem assessment, and doing something more concrete. We’re in touch with an education project in north Omaha that has been developing their community strategies for years. That investment is finally showing some real results because of their patience, and ability to stay involved over time.
Here’s what else you should know
- Start with listening: Visiting a community with the specific goal of listening is an essential first step in any community engagement project. People need to know you are willing to hear how they see the situation first.
- Keep an open mind: Suspend what you think you knew about how news and information flows. You’ll hear and see things you weren’t expecting; like a conversation at McDonald’s about housing, a flier about employment, or a church sermon about public schools.
- **It’s difficult to touch down in a community that you are not from and to ask people to give you their time and experience. That’s a big part of journalism, and it’s a big part of community engagement, and it’s often an uneven exchange. Be prepared for people to ask you what they get out of it. It’s a valid question. And have an answer prepared, even if it’s a simple one. We told people we’d share our assessment with them and give them the opportunity to comment and stay involved in the process.
Burgess Brown is a community manager for the Listening Post Collective.