Free Press: Listen to People Who Care

February 24, 2016


News Voices: New Jersey connects journalists with engaged members of their communities


When I was a reporter, I would sometimes find myself asking: How do I make people care?

Journalists often ask this question, especially when they’re tasked with writing about the minutiae of policy or political process in a way that conveys the high stakes involved. That can be tough.

But I recently advised a group of young journalism students to be wary of asking this question as it contains a sense of fatalism, an expectation that people would rather focus on pop culture and political scandal than pay attention to the things we think are important. The assumption underlying the question “How do I make people care?” is that people don’t.

That just isn’t true. In every community, there are people who care — deeply — about what’s happening around them and about the future they share with their neighbors. The people who care are a diverse group. They don’t all care about precisely the same issues, they don’t have the same perspectives, they face different obstacles to getting involved, and they often disagree on solutions. But they all need timely, credible, factual information on which to base their actions and inform their advocacy.

At some point, I began to make a habit of asking better questions: Who cares about this issue, and why? What do they want to know? If they wanted to make change, what information would they need?

These questions always led to better reporting, and to a stronger bond with my readers — along with a stronger sense of accountability to the people I was writing for. On my braver days, I backed up further and began with a bigger question: What do people in my community care about, and why?

From the start, News Voices: New Jersey has set out to bring people who care together with the newsrooms that serve them, and to create a space where we can all ask these questions together.

The News Voices team recently shared the lessons we’ve learned during the first six months of our project. Now, as we plan for our next event and continue engaging with the communities where we started our work, we’ve been reflecting on how our activities relate to our goals and our theory of change.

A theory of change helps nonprofit organizations guide strategic planning. It’s a way to look up from day-to-day work and think broadly about what impact the work you’re doing will have in the long term: If we do this, what do we think will happen, and how?

So here is News Voices’ theory of change, developed in consultation with ORS Impact.


It’s a bit dense, so let me break it down.

First, we engage and mobilize the communities we’re working in — New Brunswick, Atlantic City, Asbury Park, Morristown and Newark — by catalyzing conversations between community members and news organizations. We then lay the groundwork for community-driven partnerships and collaborations, letting them take shape according to the needs and drive of local participants.

As the project expands, we’re also exploring state-level opportunities to work with media organizations and consider policies that can help support journalism and press freedom across New Jersey. We’ll share what we’re learning, build networks locally and statewide, and set the stage for what may come next.

Our hope is that the work we’re doing will affect many different stakeholders, which are labeled in the theory of change with colored dots: newsrooms, residents and groups in local communities, decision-makers at the local and state levels, funders, and Free Press members across the state.

Changes in awareness, capacity, networks and local news set in motion what we think of as a virtuous cycle between community engagement and journalism. Stories become richer, presenting a greater diversity of perspectives and reflecting the needs of community members.

As newsrooms engage their communities and allow them to help set the news agenda, outlets will have greater insights about community concerns and start to regard their readers, viewers and listeners as constituents, not consumers.

As community members see their perspectives are heard, valued and reflected in local coverage, they will trust their local newsrooms more. This sense of empowerment and investment in local media will lead to deeper support for journalism and press freedom.

Down the line, this virtuous cycle will influence the actions of leaders as well.

If all of this seems crazy-ambitious, it is. But we’re not doing this work alone.

News Voices is part of a network of projects, organizations and people working toward the same goals. We work collaboratively with many of the Dodge Foundation’s grantees across the state. We work with local news outlets and journalists of all kinds: reporters and editors from daily newspapers; hyperlocal news sites; ethnic print newspapers; documentary filmmakers from public television; and independent voices from local radio, public access TV and social media. Within communities, we’re working with church groups, arts organizations and activists, and people who may not have been part of conversations about journalism until now.

And what we’re doing so far is making an impact.

In the months since our first event in New Brunswick, journalists and residents have become invested in creating a community advisory board. Advisory boards are a common tool for journalist engagement, but most tend to initiate from a single newsroom. What’s exciting to us is that multiple newsrooms in New Brunswick are interested in taking part. We continue to work with this group as its hones its plans. They hope to host their first public meeting in late spring.

The Press of Atlantic City has done a lot since the forum we hosted in Atlantic City last December.  Managing editor Buzz Keough told us that meeting residents face-to-face and hearing their stories led to several articles, including a profile of a local artist and entrepreneur. While the paper had already planned to do special coverage for Black History Month, the News Voices event helped the paper connect with new sources and ideas.

This led to a series of profiles of Black leaders in South Jersey, a multimedia story about Atlantic City’s civil rights garden, and a five-minute video, narrated by a former mayor, about the African American experience in the community. The paper is also planning long-term projects that will focus on poverty throughout the region, and on what Atlantic City can do to rebound economically. We hope to help the Press continue to incorporate community voices into their reporting process.

Our next News Voices: New Jersey event will be in Asbury Park on Wed., March 23.

Once again, we’re excited to bring together members of area organizations with local media to explore how journalism can unite communities.

In Asbury Park as elsewhere, we will build the network, set the stage, listen, connect — and support the great work that will follow.

Click here to learn more about the News Voices: New Jersey project.


Fiona Morgan
Fiona Morgan is Free Press’ Journalism Director and a regular contributor to the Dodge Blog. She works with Mike Rispoli to oversee News Voices: New Jersey, a Dodge-funded Free Press initiative designed to create conversation and respond to the needs of both journalists and residents.