“Journalism is a process, not a product,” says Josh Stearns, director of The Local News Lab, emphasising the increasingly participatory nature of the news creation process – and especially that of local news.
Stearns, together with Malachy Browne, managing editor of reported.ly, Mary Hamilton, executive editor of audience at The Guardian, and Larry Macaulay, founder of the Refugee Radio Network, spoke at the panel discussion “The case for engaged journalism”, that took place as part of this year’s International Journalism Festival in Perugia.
“We [at Local News Lab] are working […] to help support the future of local news by orienting journalism to engage communities,” Stearns said.
All four panellists agreed on the importance of involving citizens in day-to-day reporting – not only to encourage them to help co-create the news, but also to be able to get a glimpse into the everyday needs of the communities they belong to.
‘We began to count’
In mid-2015, Hamilton and her team at The Guardian, set out to do just that – engage citizens in the reporting process, while looking deeper into the needs of their communities.
Focusing on the U.S., in particular, “we decided to [keep track] of the number of people killed during encounters with the police”, Hamilton explained. “We thought it was time to start a conversation on the issue,” she added, since there are barely any national statistics on the matter.
In 2015 alone, The Guardian counted 1,145 deaths – the data for which was partially based on official statistics, but even more so “on local media reporting and the community of people we created and managed to help collect the data”, Hamilton said.
The project required a hands-on approach: it was necessary to go out to the community and encourage people to open up about the issue. As a result, The Guardian was able to report on deaths that they wouldn’t have known about, if it wasn’t for the citizens’ contributions.
One thing is important to remember: community engagement is an ongoing process – something you do on a regular basis, day after day. Perhaps even more so, community engagement is a two-way conversation – and Hamilton reiterated that: “Every time people give us information, we reply and say thank you. You can’t do it without a personal connection.”
Today, The Counted has a Facebook community of more than 20,000 members, according to Hamilton, and a Twitter following of nearly 16,000 users.
Growing the crowd, building trust
When it comes to reaching out and building relationships with the community, the team at Local News Lab follows a three-level framework, in which no level is more important than the other, Stearns explained; it all depends on the news organisation’s own mission and priorities.
The first level consists of community outreach and on members of the organisation being willing to immerse themselves into the community, participating in it as individuals. The level that follows is conversation: this is the time to talk as well as listen.
“It is important to host discussions in person and online, [as well as] participate in conversations we’re not hosting,” Stearns said.
After that, all that’s left is to collaborate. News organisations need to be able to show their users that they rely on their contributions, “allowing the community to shape what we cover”.
Browne and the team at reported.ly – currently six full-time members – are an example of exactly how well contributions from the community can lead journalists to new stories. At the end of October 2015, reported.ly received a signal from eyewitnesses that a cargo plane was carrying bombs from Italy to Saudi Arabia. The story was put together with the help of community-sourced social content, as well as live data from plane tracking service FlightRadar24.com, according to Browne and his report.
“If private people hadn’t sent me a tip about this, I wouldn’t have known it was happening,” Browne admitted. The coverage ended up being both an act of good journalism and an opportunity to build a sense of trust among users, whose input had contributed to breaking a news story.
A radio program to engage with the community
The story of Macaulay is slightly different.
While he and his team have been able to build a community around their journalistic endeavor, Radio Refugee Network, they have done so with the goal to inform, educate, and build relationships with the local community, rather than engage it in user-generated contributions.
“I’m a political refugee,” Macaulay said.
When he and several others fled war-torn Libya in 2011, they took refuge in Italy only to realise that “the European society didn’t really want us,” he said. What’s more, people didn’t really know why they were there, nor what was happening back in their homeland. In 2013, after three years in Italy, Macaulay was forced to leave, and that was when he found his way to Hamburg, Germany.
Again, he had a hard time fitting in.
The way mainstream media was covering news from the region was “toxic”, Macaulay said. News reports often described refugees as “terrorists” and “mercenaries”, which, in turn, left a gap open for an alternative media. That media became Macaulay’s Radio Refugee Network.
The mission of the radio program has been to shed light on the life situation of refugees in Europe, as well as to “engage with people and deconstruct the fear” that hangs around the topic. Today, the team has grown from its three original members to a staff of eight, has a growing Facebook community and syndicates across radio stations in seven localities in Germany.
At the end of the day, growth and community go hand in hand, as Hamilton put it. Building an engaged audience is, therefore, key for any news organisation, whether the focus of that relationship would be on spreading information among like-minded people, or attracting user-generated contributions.