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Local news organizations are rethinking their relationships with the communities they serve, from deploying new messaging platforms that deliver news to overhauling their reporting practices, editors told ProPublica in a series of recent conversations.
Amid increased polarization and a pandemic in which misinformation has spread as fast as the virus, editors in Atlanta, Phoenix and Detroit told us in live virtual events that the notion of local news as a public good is more relevant than ever.
Each event examined different aspects of local news, from community journalism in Phoenix to nonprofit startups in Detroit. But all addressed how local news is keeping pace with rapid changes in the media industry and the extent to which these moves reflect demographic shifts in their cities.
Outlier Media, for instance, empowers Detroiters to set its editorial agenda and built an SMS platform to give residents access to the reporting and reporters. “We understand that Outlier’s mission is to serve those who are most underserved in Detroit by news, but also by systems,” Executive Director Candice Fortman said.
Outlier Media is part of a new wave of mission-driven media organizations that are filling what they see as gaps in coverage. This includes reporting on historically overlooked neighborhoods in Atlanta, making COVID-19 information available in Spanish to Arizona readers and explaining how Detroiters can file their taxes.
Editors at legacy newsrooms say they are likewise focusing on building new relationships with their communities and the people they cover. They noted that diversifying newsrooms at every level is necessary to better serve communities and to ensure fair and accurate coverage. “Your newsroom should match the community,” said P. Kim Bui, director of product and audience innovation at The Arizona Republic. “It’s the easiest thing to say, it’s very difficult to do. Especially in a local news setting, especially in a small newsroom.”
TEMPE – It all started over a bowl of “medicinal menudo,” a term political cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz coined as part of a running joke.
Several years ago, during a convention at Harvard University, social scientist Gilberto Lopez took Alcaraz to a spot that served the Mexican beef tripe soup. Thankful for the meal – and the dish’s reputed abilities to alleviate hangovers – Alcaraz told Lopez, “I owe you my life.”
The menudo forged a bond between Lopez and Alcaraz, who has consulted on popular TV shows and films and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2020 and 2021. During the pandemic, Lopez invited Alcaraz to collaborate on a Hispanic-focused education campaign about COVID-19 prevention and vaccinations.
Lopez, an assistant professor at Arizona State University’s School of Transborder Studies, launched the COVID Latino project with the goal of using art and social media to disseminate information – and counter misinformation – about COVID-19 throughout the Southwest.
The effort brings together experts from Arizona and California’s Central Valley, home to many Hispanic farmworkers, and provides culturally relevant campaigns by way of the internet and social media.
The project so far has included animated public service announcements in Spanish and neighborhood murals to better connect with the hard-hit Latino population.
Lopez said the project stemmed from his frustration over the type of information being circulated in rural, Hispanic communities – “very technical, very jargony information.” Through the collaboration with artists, Lopez said, the resulting pieces are easier to share online and will help make the topic more digestible.
“Humans are storytellers,” Lopez said, “and we’re telling stories in a way people understand.”