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As underresourced and overwhelmed journalists cover the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s understandable that lots of attention is being paid to newsrooms’ needs amid worrying signs of a potential collapse of local news. Access to news and information during a public-health emergency can be a matter of life and death, and journalism plays a critical role in helping communities stay safe and healthy.

New challenges, though, have exposed deep-seated inequities to access to information, like the digital divide, paywalls, language barriers and how the ongoing local-news crisis has negatively impacted civic engagement. Despite the increase in traffic to news websites, we can’t forget that many people are isolated and left without critical information — not because they don’t think local news is important, but because of systemic barriers that make information inaccessible or unaffordable. People are also coping with an onslaught of misinformation about the virus on TV stations, radio stations and online.

During this pandemic and beyond, News Voices is committed to helping communities connect with journalists. We’re encouraging newsrooms and community organizations to respond to local information needs, and to develop new strategies so people have what they need to navigate a complicated world full of uncertainty.

Our focus will be on working alongside existing movements and mutual-aid efforts, especially in Black communities, which are disproportionately dying from the coronavirus, and communities of color at large that face greater economic uncertainty, greater barriers to online access and are less likely to be able to practice physical distancing.

What News Voices is doing

Just this past month, we’ve hosted several community conversations in both English and Spanish, through digital spaces and conference calls, in places like Atlantic City, Charlotte, North Carolina, and Philadelphia. Through these conversations, we’ve asked community members what information they need to stay safe and healthy and what questions they have about the pandemic. Participants have shared stories of community resilience and solutions.

And we’ve launched an information phone tree pilot project in English and Spanish — modeled after community phone trees — to reach people who can’t get online or aren’t likely to engage in digital spaces. We’re seeking volunteers and community organizations in several communities we work with to call their friends, families and neighbors to find out what their neighbors need from local-news coverage.

We’ve relayed those findings to local journalists to help inform media coverage, raise questions to pose to decision-makers, and suggest how to frame stories in a way that will provide value to communities.

What we’ve heard from those journalists are things like:

“These town halls provide me with an important window into the communities where we work (even more important now that I may not get to these sites in person for some time) and the questions that folks are asking both on the news side and the consumer side. This helps me and my team think more proactively about where to put our time and energy and where the most meaningful connections can be made.”

“As a media org, we need to figure out how our coverage can be helpful for the nonprofits that provide core services in the community. Journalism that provides service for 30 nonprofits, for example, might have impact for thousands of people. Everyone — companies, nonprofits, families — is figuring out how to connect their version of a community, how to rebuild that when our systems/structures of connection and interaction are rapidly dismantled. So I’m thinking a lot about our role in that, and how we might help with that void.”

Growing out of that work and the feedback we’ve heard, we’ll be launching several additional new projects across the country in the upcoming weeks.

First, we’ll launch the Chicago Information Aid Network in collaboration with our allies at City Bureau, where its cohort of Documenters will use a version of the phone tree to reach local residents.

In Philadelphia, we’ll be collaborating with the Movement Alliance Project, Reclaim Philadelphia and the 215 People’s Alliance to adapt the phone-tree model in their ongoing phone-banking and mutual-aid efforts. We’re also working with our partners at Resolve Philadelphia to support local journalists responding to residents’ information needs.

And in Newark, we’ll be partnering with our News Voices fellow Brit Harley at WBGO to host virtual town halls, as well as training the station’s community reporters to use the phone tree to reach residents who aren’t online.

As we continue to learn from these efforts, and develop new ideas and tactics, we’ll be sure to share our findings with the broader organizing and journalism communities. We hope that others will build on and adapt these strategies, and we’re always interested in learning from others.

Just as News Voices is supporting our newsroom partners across New Jersey, North Carolina and Philadelphia, we are here to support any journalist who wants to better connect with their community. Interested in starting a virtual town hall or launching a phone tree where you live? Reach out at newsvoices@freepress.net. We’re home, so we’re not going anywhere. We’ll be here and are happy to help in any way we can.

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