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Community engagement tips from New Jersey's Local News Lab

by: Amy Gahran |

In its first year, the Dodge Foundation's Local News Lab has adopted a notably activist approach to nurturing sustainability at six local news sites In N.J. This includes hands-on help with community engagement.

In a new report, Lessons Learned from the Local News Lab, Josh Stearns and Molly de Aguiar of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation offer insight about how community engagement is essential to sustainability of independent or nonprofit local news sites.

The significance of community engagement becomes especially pressing as local news sites look beyond ads and subscriptions to alternative revenue streams such as donations, events, services and memberships. These options cannot succeed without a community of people with a deep affinity for what journalists do.

But even before attempting to engage their communities, many local news sites must first clear the internal cultural hurdle of understanding that direct community engagement is not only ethical, but essential in order to achieve the mission of local journalism.

Many local news sites are operated by journalists formerly employed by newspapers or other mainstream commercial news outlets -- where they've often learned to conflate direct community engagement with advocacy. Three techniques have helped motivate journalists and owners at the Lab's partner news sites to make this shift:

  • Inspire the journalists with stories from their peers currently involved in community engagement projects.
  • Show that others have already succeeded. "Small sites, even those that are willing to take risks are much more likely to adopt something that is proven."
  • Incentive engagement. For two years, Dodge is helping the Lab's news partners by helping to offset the costs of hiring community engagement staff.

The Lab is supporting two projects that are specifically focused on community engagement.

Hearken is a technology and process that lets the public assign stories and collaborate on reporting with newsrooms. This helps newsrooms listen to their community and capitalize on local curiosity to craft more relevant and useful local news. Three partner newsrooms have launched Hearken projects. Curious Brick City at Brick City Live is an online form with this prompt: "Ask us a question about Newark that you'd like Brick City Live to investigate." Meanwhile, New Brunswick Today and NJTV News post public polls suggesting three local issues and ask, "Which should we investigate next? Vote!" Hearken is also used in the Lab's collaborative investigative reporting project, Dirty Little Secrets.

Also, the Listening Post project uses cell phones, public signs, and roving recording devices to capture and share voices, information, and opinions. Piloted in New Orleans last year, Listening Post seeks to spur and expand conversations about important local issues.

Jersey Shore Hurricane News (which is a Facebook page that aggregates relevant news and social media reports) recently launched its own Listening Post pilot to complement its social media-driven local reporting.

Building community around local news requires focus and resources. Consequently, Local News Lab is "investing in community organizing initiatives which provide opportunities for in-depth dialogue and media training, to empower people and give them the tools to engage their newsrooms. We talk about this as creating community literacy for newsrooms, and news literacy for communities."

Two nonprofit organizations, Free Press and the Media Mobilizing Project, have partnered with the Local News Lab on these efforts. In the New Voices New Jersey project, Free Press is using community organizing techniques and community events to engage local residents. And MMP is collaborating with the Journalism for Democracy project at Rutgers University-New Brunswick on a "Neighborhoods to Newsrooms" project to provide media training, amplify community voices on local issues, and foster better community relationships with mainstream and hyperlocal newsrooms.

What's the payoff for such engagement efforts? According to Local News Lab, "Our survey of projects like these happening across the country, coupled with results we're seeing in New Jersey, affirm for us that people will invest in the local news, when it is clear that the local news is investing in them."

This investment isn't like putting a quarter in the jukebox, however. Stearns and de Aguiar emphasize that "News organizations must have patience, perseverance, and faith that communities will come to value and sustain their local news outlets, if given the opportunity to have their voices heard, and their issues addressed in meaningful ways. Building and deepening relationships takes time, even for the most adept newsrooms."

Read the full report, Lessons Learned from the Local News Lab: PDF or on Medium.com

Part 1 in this KDMC series: Dodge foundation's activist approach helps local news startups get results, by Michele McLellan

Amy Gahran

Amy Gahran is a journalist, editor, trainer, entrepreneur, strategist, and media consultant based in Boulder, Colorado. In addition to writing
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