Declaration of Dependence

April 27, 2015


Communities and news organizations working together will transform local journalism. Here’s how.

The long-term sustainability of local news depends on deepening journalists’ engagement with communities. Through shifts in technology, economics and newsroom processes, the public has become increasingly central to journalism as creators, consumers and collaborators. Today, news organizations should be vibrant hubs for community information, engagement and debate that people depend on.

As the longstanding advertising model for daily news has transformed, news organizations are exploring alternative revenue streams — from donations and events to services and memberships. Each of these models depends on developing a community of people with deep affinity for the work journalists do. But, engagement is not just about creating more sustainable news organizations, it is also about creating healthier communities.

Building community should be an end in and of itself for journalism, not just a means to its own sustainability.

Our communities need local news, but local news also has to adapt to the needs of communities. The reporting and publishing process has to better incorporate opportunities for listening between communities and journalists. This does not diminish professional journalists’ role or the importance of their craft, it actually enlarges it.

Our Vision for the Engaged Newsroom

At the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, we believe that a community-first approach will result in journalism that better reflects the diversity of our communities. An engaged newsroom will better respond to and serve community-identified needs and result in more people participating in the journalism process. Through deep collaboration with community we believe that news, media and digital literacy will increase, and that we’d see a boost in civic participation. Solutions to local problems will more readily emerge through journalism as people ask new kinds questions and put reporting to work in their daily lives. And finally, news organizations will be more financially secure, with diverse revenue streams and a community of supporters. We envision newsrooms and communities invested in each other’s success.

We need to create better roadmaps for communities who want to participate in making media and partnering with newsrooms.

From writing code to crowdsourcing, shooting video to sending tweets, there is growing agreement on the core knowledge and skills needed for today’s digital journalists. However, there is no such agreement in terms of the core competencies for journalists who want to build deep reciprocal relationships with the public and reorient the fundamental processes of journalism around service to communities. Similarly, we need to create better roadmaps for communities who want to participate in making media and partnering with newsrooms.

As part of our journalism sustainability project, with funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, we are investing in creative journalism experiments at the intersection of community and sustainability. Below, we’ve begun to outline the core knowledge and skills we believe are central to fostering deeper relationships between newsrooms and communities. Our hope is that this document can be a starting place, but that others will build on it and adapt it.

What Newsrooms Need to Understand About Their Community

What do newsrooms need to know about their communities to build trust, deepen relationships, and strengthen local reporting?

  • Understand community demographics (ethnicity, language, median income etc.)
  • Understand how different groups access information, consume news and use social media (e.g. mobile vs. desktop vs. print)
  • Recognize when newsroom ethics/values differ from community expectations and values
  • Understand different modes of listening and the need for empathy.
  • Understand broad and inclusive, subtle and sophisticated definition of community — it is both geographic and demographic
  • Understand historical issues around race, gender, and power in your area
  • Understand the role of key local institutions and systems
  • Understand community needs, assets and desires and how to identify them
  • Understand that solving community and social problems is a collaborative, ever-renewing mission
  • Understand that building relationships and trust takes time

Critical Newsroom Skills for Engaging Community

What new skills do journalists need to cultivate to deeply engage communities? What strategies and tactics should we be training journalists and newsrooms to help them more effectively partner with their communities?

  • Strategies for developing stories by following the community’s lead
  • Strategies for gathering regular feedback from communities (regular = at all stages of reporting)
  • Strategies for encouraging community participation in the reporting process, eliminating as many barriers to participation as possible
  • Strategies for engaging with communities across linguistic/ethnic barriers
  • Strategies for making the journalistic process and the business model as transparent as possible
  • Strategies for assessing how editorial decisions challenge, contradict or align with community priorities
  • Strategies for actively reaching out and inviting in new audiences
  • Strategies for communicating goals, mission, purpose to your community
  • Strategies for assessing impact rigorously and honestly against your mission
  • Strategies for journalism that helps surface solutions, not just highlight problems
  • Strategies for collaboration with non-traditional information sources outside journalism who are providing important news and information.

What Communities Need to Understand About Newsrooms

What do communities need to know about newsrooms?What are the cultural, structural and professional norms of journalism that communities should know as they try to navigate their local news organization and build closer relationships with journalists? What does news literacy look like when built for inclusive community participation?

  • Understand how stories are constructed, editorial decisions are made
  • Understand how sources are chosen, what journalists look for
  • Understand who works at a news organization, what various titles mean and positions do
  • Understand how newsrooms are supported/funded
  • Understand what newsrooms can provide (services, meeting space, free ads for community groups, etc…)
  • Understand journalism and media making tools, how to use and access them
  • Understand newsroom ethics, generally and specific to your local newsrooms
  • Understand who owns the media in your community
  • Understand your First Amendment rights
  • Understand avenues for providing input and feedback to newsrooms
  • Understand newsroom reward structures and values

Critical Community Skills for Engaging Newsrooms

What are the core skills for communities that want to build relationships with news organizations? What strategies and tactics should communities develop to partner with journalists and hold them accountable. What are the tools and resources communities need to tell their own story?

  • How to contact a journalist/editor
  • How to address concerns about coverage
  • How to constructively contribute to an article before, during and after reporting/publication
  • How to tell your own story with a range of media making tools (citizen journalism and media making skills and and access to equipment and technology)
  • How to verify claims, assess quality and truthfulness and fact check reports
  • How to file complaints at the FCC/FTC
  • How to get legal support and aid as a citizen reporter
  • How to create space for public debate around news stories in your community

Add your ideas

Please help us build out this vision for sustainable local journalism and stronger communities by sharing your feedback, adding your ideas, and making suggestions for what’s missing. We want to expand this list and create an annotated version full of links to useful resources.

We’ve set up a form where you can add additional knowledge and skills for communities and newsrooms. We also welcome feedback right here on Medium or via Twitter at @grdodgemediaand@jcstearns.

Molly de Aguiar is the Program Director for Media and Communications and Josh Stearns is the Director of Journalism Sustainability at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

The Dodge Foundation’s Media grants seek to strengthen and grow the New Jersey news ecosystem and support local journalism as a critical space for innovation, creativity and community building. For more information on this work, visit the Local News Lab and the Dodge Foundation’s website.

Illustrations in this piece were originally created for a multimedia report on New Public Media Networks, by Jessica Clark and Ellen Goodman. They were used here via creative commons. 

Image at top by Flickr user timoni used via creative commons.