Earlier this week the Center for Cooperative Media released its video and full report on Stories of Atlantic City, a restorative-narrative collaborative-reporting project that brought together city residents with local journalists to tell untold stories. It was the first of its kind in the country, a unique effort that put the power of story selection squarely in the hands of the community.
Why restorative narrative?
Atlantic City has been through a spate of high-profile troubles over the last decade, including a steep economic downturn amid a wave of casino closures.
Restorative narrative is a journalistic method of going deeper into communities that have experienced such trauma to find stories of resilience and strength.
In that regard, Atlantic City was the perfect candidate for such a project. Additionally, groundwork had already been laid in the city that would ultimately underpin the project’s success: Relationships between community members and the media that were spurred in part by the work of Free Press’ News Voices program. News Voices is a project to better connect journalists and the community, and it first came to Atlantic City in 2015.
The premise of Stories of Atlantic City was simple
A group of community members agreed to scour Atlantic City for untold stories of resilience and strength, and a group of media members agreed to tell those stories. This itself is unusual, that journalists agreed to tell the stories selected by the community.
The project began with a restorative-narrative workshop in September 2018 and evolved over the course of several conference calls and email strings. The NJ Community News and Information Fund at the Community Foundation of New Jersey, a partnership of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, committed funding to the project. The financial support was instrumental in getting the project off the ground.
After that, Free Press coordinated the group of engaged community members and the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University coordinated the media partners. The team at Stockton University managed most of the budget and helped to get more student journalists involved in the effort.
Stories of Atlantic City culminated with the publication of eight stories and a community launch party in May 2019. The results were powerful and the creators plan to continue the effort in Atlantic City and take the concept to other communities across the U.S.
The project was built around three hypotheses:
- That the project would result in a more positive public perception of Atlantic City.
- That having been introduced to restorative narrative, newsrooms might begin to incorporate it into their workflow.
- That the project could help build better relationships between local news media and the local community.
While there are positive signs that the project helped achieve these goals, it’s still too early to tell given the decades of complicated relationships between the community and the newsrooms that serve the city. As the project transitions from a six-month pilot project to an ongoing initiative, those participating in Stories of Atlantic City will monitor whether gains are made.
Still, there were many successes and lessons learned.
Project impact and successes
Overall, one of the key successes of the project was getting a group of local media partners to agree to report and write story ideas selected by community members. The fact that that happened, in itself, should be considered a success.
Securing outside funding was also a critical success. Stories of Atlantic City could possibly have been done without funding, but it likely would have been a smaller project, and one without the two community parties (events that proved to be critical gathering points for those involved).
Stories of Atlantic City also spurred Stockton University to add a restorative-narrative class to its fall 2019 course lineup. Additionally, early on in the project, images and voices of hope (ivoh) decided to include Atlantic City in its fellowship program and one of the media partners, Lynda Cohen of Breaking AC, was named as one of the local fellows.
Most significantly, this initiative brought together community members and local journalists who previously had a limited relationship to build partnerships and define new community stories, together.
The project was successful in laying the groundwork for future collaborations between engaged community members and local media organizations. Shortly after the publication of the stories and the subsequent party, a conversation was in the works about how to continue Stories of Atlantic City.
Community members say that this engagement has changed their perception of and relationship to the media.
For example, community members, like Henrietta Wallace-Shelton (from the story “Taking Atlantic City Jazz History Into The Future Through Music Education”), expressed how previously she had struggled to get coverage for any of her positive community events that she felt were newsworthy. Another community member, Deon Davis, said, “Projects like these need to happen to start a dialogue.”
The participating journalists also said they had a change in perception as a result of their experience. Overall, the media partners really liked the idea of using the community to source stories and plan on incorporating that for future stories. “Where the best stories come from,” said content producer Megan Wolf, “is the community — you know you’re giving the audience stories they want.”
Furthermore, it seems that restorative-narrative methods have taken root in the newsroom. Buzz Keough of the Press of Atlantic City newsroom said, “It opened our eyes that there are deeper sources than beat reporters realize.”
As the Stories of Atlantic City effort — and hopefully others, in other cities — continues, here are the following recommendations to strengthen the project:
- Adapt the timeline to the community’s needs.
Stories of Atlantic City was purposefully a six-month project, in part not to lose momentum and to wrap up before the semester was over for participating students and Stockton. This timeline could be amended to allow for more time to solicit community stories, to increase the time that media outlets have to report, or to allow for a longer and successive multi-platform story rollout.
- Consider the diversity of the project-management team.
In the case of Stories of Atlantic City, the project-management team was overwhelmingly white in a community that is predominantly Black and Hispanic. Such a dynamic has the potential to produce distrust.
- Consider the diversity of the community and media partners.
Stories of Atlantic City would have benefited tremendously from a wider and more diverse representation of community and media partners.
- Improve the plan for story distribution.
In this temporary and separate model of collaborative journalism, each media partner produced its own story for its own platform. Although sharing content was discussed, it didn’t happen. Additionally, there ended up being no broadcast partner and there was a huge opportunity lost with the lone print partner, the Press of Atlantic City; had the team coordinated with the Press to print a special section that included all the stories, such a product could have been more easily distributed to people in the community without Internet access and it would have given the project a longer shelf life.
- Grow the number of community partners.
There was a lot of pressure on just two community members to produce a list of compelling stories. Having perhaps a board or committee could help to source more stories, to turn more people in the community into active participants, and to reduce the burden.
And watch the video below: