SRCCON 2019: Journalism of Empowerment

At the Jefferson Center, we believe that individuals are capable of coming up with creative solutions to today’s toughest challenges if they’re given adequate information, resources, and time. With the spreading of fake news to the shuttering of local outlets across the country, the need for unbiased, transparent, and accurate information seems more vital than ever. That’s why we’ve committed to strengthening local journalism through the Your Voice Ohio media collaborative, and why we were eager to attend SRCCON 2019 in Minneapolis just a few weeks ago.

Attendees openly reflected on the challenges and successes they’ve had, but repeatedly returned to imagining what is possible — approaches and practices that could make journalism more meaningful, responsive, and empowering to the communities they serve. After two energizing days at SRCCON, we wanted to share a few takeaways from the conference that excite us about the future of journalism:

1. Collaboration can help avoid parachute journalism

Parachute journalism is just what it sounds like: media professionals, often representing national news, “parachute” into a community to write a story. They don’t usually stay long, they record a few soundbites and snap some photos that fit into a preconceived narrative, then leave. This incomplete story is then distributed widely and the media organization moves on, leaving the community members to pick up the pieces.

In a session facilitated by Lewis Wallace, co-founder of the newly-formed Press On, we heard from participants that coverage of local stories don’t have to be an ‘either-or’ between local and national news organizations. One way to avoid parachute journalism is for national outlets to actively seek collaboration with smaller media organizations located in the communities whose stories they want to amplify. One benefit of this approach is that local journalists often already have the relationships and credibility needed to create more honest and complete stories, while larger organizations have a bigger audience and more resources to support the story’s development.

By supporting collaboration and joint bylines, national media can lift up local storytellers and acknowledge their own potential assumptions and blindspots, creating spaces for those most familiar with the community to tell the story. After the piece has been published, a local partner may drive, support, or monitor ongoing discussion and developments to support the community as they move forward.

A selection of recommendations from the session include:

  • Establishing clarity on how the story’s subjects could benefit from participating in the story’s development
  • Understanding what the story’s subjects might be risking by participating in the story and whether there are possible mitigations for the risk
  • Identifying opportunities for improvement related to the topic being covered
  • Including context related to related ongoing local organizing work
  • Covering possible solutions to the identified challenge(s)
  • Creating opportunities for feedback/interaction with local activists

For more on this, take a look at Natalie Yahr’s excellent work in “Why Should I Tell You? A Guide to Less-Extractive Reporting” for the Center for Journalism Ethics.

2. There are promising new models for journalism

At one of our favorite sessions, we discussed what it might look like to build a membership model that is more inclusive, and makes information more accessible to the people that need it most.

The group discussed questions like:

  • Might membership be more than simple monetary transactions and early access to events and special features?
  • Could membership be used to build community loyalty and engagement while supporting better reporting and organizational sustainability?

Then brainstormed solutions:

  • Pay-what-you-can tiered membership system
  • Collaborating with other newsrooms, museums, concert venues, etc. to offer joint memberships
  • Individuals participating as volunteers during newsroom engagement events in exchange for memberships.

As journalists explore those questions and try out different approaches, success will look different. We thought of Your Voice Ohio member The Devil Strip, which is becoming a community-owned co-op, where readers and reporters have an equal stake in the magazine.

3. Data review resources are available

Most newsrooms have a rigorous process for editing a traditional story. But, how can data journalists ensure that they’re reviewing data analysis with the same rigor? Something we’ve heard from many Your Voice Ohio members and at SRCCON was that when it comes to stories that rely heavily on data, there’s often not the resources for newsrooms to productively navigate that data or for editors to review the data.

A primary challenge that was discussed in the conference were the perceived knowledge gaps between data journalists and their editors, which could potentially lead to little oversight and review of data journalists calculations. Moreover, data analysis and its corresponding oversight and review process is typically treated differently than the traditional reporting and editorial process — but these should be seen as the same thing. We learned about a few potential solutions, including the importance of formalizing the data editing and review process within each newsroom, as well as documenting (in plain language) how you’re collecting and analyzing data. Interesting tools discussed included: The Accountability Project, Associated Press Data Distributions & Datakit, Coral Project, MuckRock Assignments, and Workbench.

4. Accountability and transparency will be key to newsroom sustainability

The importance of practicing accountability and transparency was woven throughout the conference, and two examples in particular stood out to us:

Diversity reports — In recent years, many organizations have published their diversity reports to indicate that they are taking newsroom diversity seriously. Diversity committees at news organizations are also navigating how they can convince management to publish effective indicators of diversity. In a session led by Moiz Syed & Disha Raychaudhuri, they discussed what should be on newsroom diversity report, including both board and management breakdown, to give a more comprehensive view and show whether or not people from historically marginalized groups are in positions of leadership within newsrooms.

Untangling how stories are told — The concept of ‘objectivity’ has long been considered a core value in traditional newsrooms. However, many folks in one SRCCON session identified that the simple act of telling a story and prioritizing it over another makes objectivity unattainable. The question of how best to tell stories, further explored in “Where Does Journalism End and Activism Begin?” by Michael Blanding, may not have a clear answer, but some at SRCCON imagined a start. A possibility to begin untangling journalist perspectives from the stories they tell could be to make visible the history or perspective from which a journalist approaches a story.

5. Changing roles will create opportunities to redefine journalist-community relationships

One of the most exciting experiences of the conference was the ongoing discussion about the ways journalist roles are shifting.

As newsrooms continue to search for ways to improve their relationship with their audience and establish more resilient revenue models, a growing number of newsrooms are turning toward an engaged journalism approach, which aims to put communities at the center of journalism to better serve their needs. Pushing that idea further, many journalists are embracing their ability to distribute power through stories and advocate for their communities and a healthy, equitable society. As Darryl Holliday from City Bureau puts it, “Don’t Just Engage, Equip

This is exemplified by members of Your Voice Ohio, internally known as the Akron Collaborative, which consists of The Akron Beacon Journal, The Devil Strip, and WKSU. Since the community conversation series What’s Your Future, Akron?, the newsrooms have been creating resources that will benefit their readers, including exploring how to create better public meetings and make solutions to local housing issues more accessible.

Imagining the Future

We will continue to reflect on how best to integrate what we learned at SRCCON ’19 with our work at the Jefferson Center, from convening rural conversations about the future of energy to supporting Your Voice Ohio. Although it’s an uncertain time for journalism, we left feeling ready to support a more empowering, collaborative, transparent, and community-driven future.

This article was co-written by Katherine Sims and Camille Morse Nicholson of the Jefferson Center.

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