This is Akron: Journalists and Community Members Discuss Local Solutions
This story was written by Doug Oplinger, former managing editor of the Akron Beacon Journal, who now leads our Your Voice Ohio media collaborative.
Sunday’s Akron Beacon Journal front-page presentation on what citizens told reporters and editors about Akron represents a transformation in Ohio news media as journalists search for ways to help fix what ails this troubled state.
In conversations like the four this month, journalists have heard a resounding call for help. People want solutions rather than media saying, “We’re all going to die.”
The Akron meetings are part of a statewide experiment launched by the Your Voice Ohio project, with its seed at the Beacon Journal in 2015. Media provide opportunities for citizens to gather, identify problems and negotiate solutions. That gives us a starting point for changing our coverage and new ideas on how to hold leaders — and ourselves — accountable.
Today, more than 50 news organizations participate, and in three years we’ve listened to more than 1,200 people discuss solutions in 27 community meetings and four three-day citizen retreats on the addiction crisis and revitalizing local economies.
Every meeting is unique. The Akron Buchtel High School session was the first in which the majority was people of color, and it was one of the most collegial and upbeat.
This project represents a shift in coverage that begins with the people — not politicians. Much credit goes to Beacon Journal reporter Doug Livingston, an early participant in the Your Voice Ohio project.
In the 2016 presidential election cycle, he worked with WKSU radio news director Andrew Meyer’s team and reporters and editors at The Blade in Toledo, The Repository in Canton, The Dayton Daily News, The Lima News and WEWS Cleveland and WCMH Columbus television on story creation and sharing.
That team’s effort to represent Ohio voices ended with a post-election observation about journalism by Livingston that went something like this: “I don’t think Ohioans are feeling the change, but journalists are.”
So here we are, after building media engagement collaboratives in the Mahoning Valley, the Miami Valley, the Ohio Valley, Columbus, Lima, Cleveland, full circle to Akron where it began.
And there was a new participant this time: The Devil Strip. The significance of that shouldn’t be lost on this town. The architect of that organization, Chris Horne, has been a rightful critic of traditional media and the Beacon Journal and meanwhile successful at carving a niche. And, while Horne was away on a Knight fellowship this year, his staff carried on his passion for the community, innovative journalism and working with others.
Livingston saw the benefit of The Devil Strip and WKSU adding their unique audiences and methods of delivery, working together to listen, analyze and share. Michelle Henry at Center for Marketing and Opinion Research assisted in meeting facilitation and provided a wealth of polling. The comradery was delightful.
Other Ohio news outlets plan to use Livingston’s model to sponsor their own pre-election meetings.
Meanwhile, in Dayton, we’re working with WYSO public radio and Cox Ohio, which publishes several daily and weekly newspapers and owns radio and television stations, on race relations. Did you know Ohio has emerged in the last several years as one of the worst offenders for hate crimes?
Out of that we hope will grow statewide introspection on media’s role in racial tension and how we can do better.
In the Mahoning Valley, news media are discussing engagement on what to do after the closing of the Lordstown plant.
After each meeting facilitated by Your Voice Ohio, competing journalists gather to share what was heard and to help one another.
After the fourth Akron session, a citizen asked if she could listen to the debriefing. “Wow,” she said afterward. “This was more fun than the [two-hour community] meeting. Now I see how sausage is made.”
That’s another lesson for us: People are fascinated by spy and detective shows because they like to know how complex questions are answered. That’s what journalists do daily, and she had a peek at the process.
So, let’s bring Ohioans into this even more. How do you think journalists should approach topics identified as most important?
- Comprehensive education so that we have a creative population able to adapt to rapidly changing needs.
- Jobs that pay living wages.
- Equal economic opportunity.
- A safe place to live.
- A strong sense of community, of friendships, of working and playing together.
Residents who attended four solutions-oriented discussions in Akron this month want to keep the dialogue going — and so do we.
Many of the 100 participants at Buchtel Community Learning Center say they went home more willing to talk to neighbors and create new neighborhood programs. Those who went to East, Jennings and Innes expressed a strong desire to volunteer because of the talks.
Organizations keen on strengthening democracy, including Your Voice Ohio and the Center for Marketing and Opinion Research, are helping local journalists convert that energy and input into meaningful action, from responsible reporting to community events.
All 200 participants are being invited to join a private Facebook group, where we hope to cultivate solutions and share the stories that need to be told to move Akron forward. There will be opportunities for everyone to get involved in the near future.