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The people we spoke with are working outside of legacy institutions and instead operating within — and very much with — their communities.

We’ve seen how communities take it on themselves to reimagine the structure of our media system and how it can be designed and resourced to support a just society. While these movements have been going on for decades, they have taken on a new dimension with the ongoing uprising for racial justice. Calls to invest in alternative social systems are growing louder and have brought to the foreground an examination of the role that legacy news outlets play in upholding the status quo.

Our conversation featured founders of four media initiatives that have taken root in the past two years, including:

  • Hillary Flores of La DePaulia, a DePaul University bilingual student newspaper that launched after the Chicago Tribune ceased publication of its Spanish-language paper, Hoy
  • Anna Lamb and Marques Thompson of the Heads Up! monthly newsletter, which connects residents of Eastern North Carolina with progressive organizations, events and opportunities
  • Ken Singer of the Lyons Recorder, a news outlet in a rural Colorado town; volunteer contributors launched the site after the longtime weekly newspaper closed down
  • Pedro Hernandez and Mayra Becerra of the Ivanhoe Sol, a monthly bilingual paper delivered to every address in the Central Valley town of Ivanhoe, California

We also heard from Michael Romain, publisher of the Village Free Press in the Chicago suburbs, who shared how he has been working with community members to develop the outlet’s growth strategy; Letrell Crittenden, who discussed how the Germantown Info Hub has grown with community involvement every step of the way; and Christina DiPasquale, who discussed a historic movement led by Puerto Rican activists to produce television programming for, by and about Latinx people. Finally, Carolyn Powers from Internews shared how the Listening Post Collective works with organizers and journalists to identify community assets to build local news.

Whether you’re considering starting or supporting a news outlet in your community — or already have — our conversation provides an inspiring look at the history and future of local news by and for local communities. If you missed it live, check out the video here or read on for what we learned from the conversation.

Here are four things we learned about building local news:

1. Seriously, build with community

If you follow News Voices, you know this is one of our core values. But we never get tired of saying it, and sharing how others are putting this principle into practice.

Lyons is a small town in rural Boulder County, Colorado. It’s rich in stories, culture and engaged community members, including retirees and students with time on their hands. By tapping into these strengths, the Lyons Recorder has developed a network of contributors to make the outlet’s revival possible.

As Carolyn Powers of the Listening Post Collective said, identifying community assets is just as important as mapping community needs. “There are often people who really deeply care about journalism and information and community issues.” She said that finding and involving those individuals is a key step in building and strengthening local news.

That’s precisely what Michael Romain is doing as he develops plans for the future of the Village Free Press. Hosting focus groups and workshops to hear residents’ visions for the paper has provided valuable insights to help him meet the evolving needs of the communities the paper serves. The next step, he said, is launching a news-ambassador program to deepen the involvement of the paper’s most loyal readers.

Marques Thompson of Heads Up! put it this way: “Whatever you create, you have a stake in. You care for it like a child.” The more people who contribute to the process of creating local news, the more people who will be invested in its success.

2. Communities will push for the news they need

As long as there have been legacy news institutions, there have been communities they leave behind … and community members who organize for the news they need.

In the 1970s, Puerto Rican artists, educators and organizers in New York City did just that.

A decade after the start of public television, there was still no Latinx programming. As Christina DiPasquale explained, these organizers used civil disobedience to force New York’s flagship public-television station to invest in programming by and for Latinx people. The resulting series, Realidades, became the first nationally broadcast bilingual TV programming, and was an important milestone in the push for greater diversity on the public airwaves and in public media.

DiPasquale is working on a film about this movement. She said that in her interviews with its leaders, they discussed having “the very same conversations that I’m hearing journalists and independent media makers of color having today.”

The community activists behind Realidades were asking questions such as “How do we restore this public understanding that the media should be working for us? ... How are we reimagining media in ways that can better shine a light on our perspectives and issues that affect us?”

Hillary Flores, editor-in-chief of La DePaulia, shared that similar questions motivated Latinx students at DePaul University to create their own student newspaper. “We’re hoping to inform our community around us — the Latinx community — in our native language as more and more Spanish publications are being shut down.” La DePaulia provides both a training ground for Latinx reporters and a platform for young Latinx voices that aren’t reflected in other outlets.

This push to address gaps in local media was a throughline of our conversation. Whether the outlets are in a big city like Chicago or Philadelphia or a rural town like Lyons or Ivanhoe, local media have left their communities behind. And the desire for connection, information and community voices has motivated residents to organize to create change.    

3. Community-rooted news builds stronger communities

It’s no wonder the folks behind the Ivanhoe Sol, Heads Up!, Realidades and so many other news initiatives are not journalists but community organizers.

Not only does organizing provide a community-centered approach to building local news, journalism itself — providing information, connection and a platform for local voices — is a tool for organizing and a foundation for stronger communities.

Anna Lamb of Heads Up! has experienced how local news impacts civic engagement. When she moved to Eastern North Carolina after several years away, she wanted to find ways to get involved in her community, but was stymied by the lack of information. “I didn’t know what was happening on the ground. I did research but found outdated Facebook pages, outdated websites; it was all very decentralized.”

When Marques Thompson of Democracy North Carolina shared the idea of creating a newsletter connecting people with regional organizations, events and resources, Lamb realized it would solve the challenge she herself had faced.

For the Ivanhoe Sol, connecting people with each other and with local issues, relevant information and organizations is part of the outlet’s service mission. As Mayra Becerra explained, the Ivanhoe Sol team constantly asks its community, “How do we help serve you?”

The Germantown Info Hub takes that role of connector one step further by connecting residents not only with one another and with local issues, but with other news outlets. Letrell Crittenden described “accountability discussions” the outlet has organized that convene community members with journalists from across Philadelphia to share what stories they’re working on or have produced about the Germantown neighborhood. “Community members provide feedback as to whether or not they felt [their stories] fairly represented their community.”

The word “ecosystem” didn’t enter our conversation, but the concept was very much a part of it. By investing in the role a news outlet can play as a connector throughout a news ecosystem, Heads Up!, the Germantown Info Hub and many others are strengthening not only their individual outlets but the larger network of relationships that underpin strong local communities. 

4. Connect with other local-news builders

Earlier this year, the Ivanhoe Sol brought its reporting to life with a Facebook Live town hall on COVID-19. Michael Romain of Village Free Press has his own plans to host similar forums on COVID-19 and race later this summer. This is the type of cross-pollination that happens when you build news not only within your own community but within a community of practitioners sharing, learning from and inspiring each other.

There are several spaces to connect with other people building local news with their communities. A few networks and resources that participants shared include:

  • Engagement Exchange: a monthly online conversation for journalists and researchers working on community engagement in journalism. Here’s a preview and invitation for the August call. 
  • LION Publishers (Local Independent Online News) works to help members build sustainable local media. It offers a new membership tier for aspiring entrepreneurs. 
  • The Listening Post Collective includes a playbook and other resources that walk through the process of listening to community members to create news around their assets, needs and interests, as well as a network of others who are doing just that. 
  • Gather is a platform and an online global community of reporters supporting one another to advance the field of community-engaged journalism. 
  • ONA (Online Journalism Association) has a library of free resources on its website. 
  • Here on Free Press’ website, you can find News Voices resources about creating local news with and for local communities.

How are you building local news with and for your community? What resources do you need to get started? News Voices would love to hear all about it. Reach out any time at newsvoices@freepress.net.

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