Every month, residents of Charlotte, North Carolina; reporters from The Charlotte Observer; and Free Press get together for conversations about stories that need to be told about the city.
During these discussions, we talk about the information community members need and open up the Observer’s newsgathering process.
How we got here started over a year ago, when Free Press launched News Voices: North Carolina. Since the beginning, our team has been in the work of building bridges between journalists and community members. We believe that to build power in communities to reshape local journalism, it’s important to uplift the wide array of stories people carry and ensure residents have access to the information and insights they need.
Shortly after our launch, we were invited to facilitate a meeting and discussion with the editorial board of The Charlotte Observer, one of the longest standing newspapers in the city. In our time together, we discussed the media ecosystem in Charlotte, the role the Observer plays within that, and ways that the newsroom can deepen its relationships with the communities it’s part of.
Since then, we’ve had several opportunities to share space and get to know one another. Journalists have shown up at events we’ve organized; we’ve had one-on-one meetings with various Observer reporters and editors; we’ve been in trainings together with the Agora Journalism Center; and we’ve been in ongoing conversation about community building and what’s important in Charlotte.
Our first community meeting
Some of the honest and vulnerable conversations we’d had with Observer staff have led us to collectively acknowledge that relationships with community members have to pre-date the need for a story. These discussions have also helped us remember that none of us want to be gatekeepers to the way that news and information are shared in Charlotte.
Questions like “How can we do a better job at hearing more voices?” arose. And our commitment to continuously showing up for and with each other led us to the idea of co-hosting a community meeting.
We didn’t know much about what these meetings would look like or what they’d become. However, we did know that we wanted to make it an intimate meeting, with fewer than 20 people, because it’s easier to begin building more authentic relationships that way.
We knew we wanted participation to include everyday people — deprioritizing directors of large organizations and corporations, for example, and others who may already be in regular contact with Observer staff. We knew we wanted to talk story, information and process. And with that in mind, the Charlotte Observer began recruiting newsroom staff to be part of this meeting and we began outreach to other community members.
Our first meeting happened in May at the Observer office. In our time together, we had a range of participants, from reporters and photojournalists to artists and high-school students. We discussed the stories that need to be told in Charlotte and new ways that storytelling could happen. We shared the information that the various communities we’re part of need.
Journalists had the chance to ask community members questions, but not because they were seeking a quote or a source. Community members had the chance to ask questions of the Observer staff — questions about their process and about why they do the work they do.
One becomes many
At the end of our first gathering, we decided that these community meetings needed to happen more often to create the continuity that helps in building trust. They needed to continue happening even if the number of people attending waxed and waned. So the Observer and Free Press began co-hosting these meetings monthly.
Our second meeting together was held in June at a retirement community in Charlotte’s Eastside, and even though it was supposed to be only two hours long, people stayed two hours longer, later into the night, because the conversation was so rich.
We saw folks who’d been quiet in the first meeting speak up a little more. The conversation was a little more dynamic, with journalists who were used to only listening speaking up, pushing back and shifting previously held beliefs. We saw community members feeling more comfortable with asking questions and engaging in gentle debate with the journalists in the room.
We held our third and most recent gathering at a coffee shop in Charlotte’s Wesley Heights neighborhood. Three new people from the city joined the wide-ranging discussion, bringing in fresh perspectives. This was a signal that if newsrooms keep showing up and investing in speaking with their communities, the public will take notice and engage back.
We’ve brought into the conversations small-business owners, wellness practitioners, community organizers and other residents. We’ve been able to have hard conversations and we’ve been able to talk about how much both the community and the newsroom want to see each other succeed.
And we’re going to continue hosting these gatherings. We’ll continue changing the location where we meet and we’ll continue to invite new people in.
What this means moving forward
One thing that’s been true and resounding throughout these discussions is the need for all kinds of journalists to be in direct conversation and relationship with residents in the communities they’re a part of.
These conversations have to start before a story idea arises and they have to sustain past a brief interview. These interactions and the commitment they communicate are one of the ways to repair and build trust between communities and the journalists who are reporting in them. They’re a way to ensure that the stories told about our communities are rich and full of nuance.
As Tiffany, a Charlotte organizer, shared in our video, “I think there was a lot of great ideas on the table about how to have more representation, holding our leaders accountable, and really putting faces to stories.” These gatherings are a way to begin forging the relationships necessary to transform the future of journalism into something that none of us can yet imagine.
And while these particular conversations are happening in Charlotte, these kinds of discussions and meetings can happen anywhere to influence local journalism.
News and information are shared relationally — person to person in coffee shops, at the corner store, at parks and playgrounds. For local journalism to contribute to and shape community building, journalists have to exist in relationship with the community members surrounding them.
We’re always open to talking through with folks how they can pick up this work wherever they are and are ready to help support people. For more information about that, visit newsvoices.org.