“Community engagement happens at the speed of trust,” is a mantra for Genia Billingsley, Community Engagement Coordinator with Canopy Atlanta. It’s something she reminds all of us occasionally, especially if we get more focused on the number of people we talk to, instead of simply listening to community voices and community concerns.
This community listening is at the core of all we do, a basic tenet that turns our journalism into what the community wants and needs, rather than what the editorial team decides. But this work takes capacity and time. We are grateful the Walton Family Foundation provided us with a grant last year to fund even more of this work. The foundation also asked us to put together a white paper to share with journalism organizations across the country, to be used as a template and guideline for engaging communities.
We are sharing a sneak peek of that white paper with you, our members.
America needs trustworthy, accurate news more than ever, yet local news organizations continue to shutter and news deserts are expanding at record speeds.
In the last 15 years, the number of journalists employed by newspapers has been cut in half and one in five papers has closed.
Even more alarming, “the people with the least access to local news are often the most vulnerable – the poorest, least educated and most isolated.”
Without access to local coverage, citizens turn to broader, national options, and in the process, countless neighborhood stories get lost. When these stories don’t make headlines, citizens are less informed, leaders are held less accountable and neighbors are less equipped to take action in their communities.
A new model is needed. Community listening can build engagement from the ground up, fostering trust between communities and news and ushering in a new season of local journalism.
So often, media does not meet the needs of the communities it is designed to cover and serve.
Readers report low levels of trust in the media; incomplete coverage, particularly in historically underrepresented communities; limited interactions with reporters; evident biases; and limited representation of nuanced perspectives.
Lack of Trust
Just 34% of Americans trust the media to report the news “fully, accurately and fairly,” only 2 percentage points higher than the record low trust reported during the 2016 election.
This lack of trust is found at higher rates in communities of color, especially when it comes to local news.
- The Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas found that Black Americans believe journalists’ coverage of their issues to be incomplete and skewed negatively.
- The Pew Research Center reports that “ residents of both higher-proportion Black and Hispanic areas are less likely than those in higher-proportion white areas to say local journalists are in touch with their community.”
Incomplete coverage of neighborhood issues leads to overly negative, inaccurate, and biased journalism.
- The Pew Research Center reports that only 21% of Americans have spoken with a reporter.
- The Local News Initiative at Northwestern University reported, “More than a fifth of the nation’s citizens live in news deserts—with very limited access to local news—or in communities at risk of becoming news deserts.”
Americans want their neighborhoods covered by journalists who understand their communities.
- The Pew Research Center found that 48% of people say it is very important that journalists understand the history of the community they cover and 42% say it is very important for journalists to be actively engaged in the community they cover.
- According to the UNC School of Government, one way newspapers — increasingly owned by consolidated companies — cut costs is by prioritizing broadly applicable content. “The larger the media firms became, the less connected they were to individual communities.”
Tyranny of the Urgent
The breakneck pace of breaking news compounds these issues, removing opportunities for intentional journalism. The urgency reporters feel to be first on the scene, first to cover an issue or first to “break” the story prevents them from investing in long-term listening on any given topic.
This urgency is often powered by an extreme focus on a newsroom’s bottom line. For-profit newsrooms are beholden to their shareholders, who are primarily concerned with the business’s profitability.
In 2020, a group of journalists and long-time media leaders gathered in Atlanta to discuss these challenges. Inspired by the work of organizations like City Bureau11 in Chicago and the success of an initial pilot program in Atlanta called The Pittsburgh Journalism Project, they dreamed up a new reporting strategy—one that ran counter to many current journalistic priorities; one that was rooted in listening, powered by the community, and designed for action.
A new method for neighborhood news
Canopy Atlanta exemplifies this new model as a community journalism nonprofit that chooses, reports, and shares stories with Atlantans, redefining who journalism is by and for. It serves the five-county metro Atlanta area by developing place-based Community Issues. Each issue reports the news residents want to see in a specific neighborhood.
To serve the communities they cover, Canopy Atlanta emphasizes three key responsibilities:
- Listen. Local communities set the reporting priorities. Canopy Atlanta staff learns about neighborhood priorities by reaching out to residents through listening conversations, phone calls, social media, and other engagement methods. A paid Community Editorial Board then helps refine story topics for Community Issues.
- Train. Canopy Atlanta pays and trains residents through the Fellows Program and Atlanta Documenters, a project designed to shine a light on decisions being made by local government by employing citizens to attend and report on public meetings. These roles begin with comprehensive training led by experienced journalists and industry experts.
- Share. Canopy Atlanta shares reporting with community members who need it. They ensure that journalism gets to residents through events, partnerships, and printed materials.
These goals are powered by intentional community listening and brought to life by local voices.
Neighborhoods are selected by the Canopy Atlanta team using a rubric that prioritizes:
- Communities of color
- Lower-wealth communities
- Communities without responsive news coverage
- Communities with lower rates of civic participation
Listening is the first step to covering underreported issues. Before writing a single word, the community engagement team spends 6-12 weeks talking to community members—at coffee shops, festivals, neighborhood association meetings, and other community events. Residents are invited to share their thoughts and provide basic demographic information and opinions through a Google form.
- We want to know: What stories matter to you and your community?
- What do you love about your community?
- What are five community issues you would like to have more information about?
- Are you facing any difficulties in your life right now? If so, what resources or information might help you?
- How long have you lived in the community?
- Is there anyone else we should reach out to with these questions? If so, how can we contact them?
Community Editorial Board
Throughout the listening process, the engagement team is also looking for potential members of a Community Editorial Board, a team of representatives selected from the community. As a group with deep ties to the neighborhood they are representing, the Community Editorial Board reviews listening data, determines which topics are of the highest importance and interest to their community, then assigns stories for that specific Community Issue. Ideal candidates are those who are active in their community, but not in official positions of power. They ensure that a given Community Issue is representative of the interests and perspectives of the community it is covering.
In the 2022 Bankhead Issue, for example, residents frequently cited community policing as an issue they faced. Out of those concerns, the Editorial Board shaped “Where in the World is Officer Gray? — Community Policing in Bankhead,” a story by Ann Hill Bond that investigated what happened to one police officer with strong community relationships before he seemingly disappeared.
Canopy Atlanta Community Journalism Fellowship
Canopy Atlanta trains new cohorts of journalists through the Community Journalism Fellowship. Powered by the same commitment to journalism with a community, Canopy Atlanta selects and platforms Fellows, who serve as the storytellers for their neighborhoods.
In a media landscape where newsrooms are shrinking, Canopy Atlanta is equipping a growing team of journalists to cover their communities. And in an industry where 76% of reporting journalists are white, Canopy Atlanta creates pathways for anyone to pursue journalism opportunities.
Canopy Atlanta Fellows are:
- Connected to the community they are covering. Anyone within the coverage area with an interest in community journalism or journalism-adjacent storytelling experience can be a Fellow. Previous journalistic work is not required.
- Interested in storytelling. Ideal candidates are curious, committed, and collaborative; research-oriented; and have an interest in telling their community’s story collectively.
- Paid for their participation in the ten-week program. The fellowship is not an unpaid internship or a volunteer position—it is a paid role that welcomes candidates of all backgrounds.
Fellows train alongside seasoned journalists and receive guidance from the Community Editorial Board. They complete the fellowship with tools to navigate community work, improved research and reporting skills, publishable text or other types of media, and a deep understanding of the coverage areas as a foundation for sustained engagement. Moving forward, many continue to pursue various forms of journalism and storytelling.
The end result of this work is a Community Issue—a collection of 6-8 stories highlighting key topics identified by community members. These stories are shared back to the community through print and digital publications, events, and neighborhood gatherings, ensuring a full circle of input, selection, creation, and feedback.
Explore past Community Issues at canopyatlanta.org.
A new form of community journalism
Through this innovative model, Canopy Atlanta challenges traditional reporting and prioritizes stories that:
- Are responsive to residents’ needs
- Increase citizens’ ability to advance their communities
- Create connection
- Equip community members to advocate for a fairer, more equitable region
As a result, Canopy Atlanta’s reporting largely avoids many common risk factors (lack of trust, incomplete coverage, outside perspectives, tyranny of the urgent, and an extreme focus on the bottom line) and demonstrates that journalism can instead be relational, comprehensive, hyper-local, intentional, and action-oriented. It makes reporting more impactful for the people it’s designed to serve.
Canopy Atlanta’s process relies upon an ever-growing network of relationships, connecting residents, other news organizations, and journalists to each other. Community members, the Community Editorial Board, Fellows, established reporters, and Canopy Atlanta staff all work together to produce a given Community Issue. Once issues are published and distributed through a variety of channels, residents are invited to give feedback. Listening occurs every step of the way.
Community listening connects journalists with networks of knowledge within a given community, providing a deeper understanding of the history and stories of a neighborhood. In addition, Canopy Atlanta tries to cover stories that have not received comprehensive coverage and might not ever be covered by more traditional media outlets.
Each Community Issue features 6-8 stories about one specific neighborhood. Fellows and Community Editorial Board members are selected from the community, giving them a unique perspective as insiders co-creating stories about their neighborhoods. Instead of bringing in outside experts, Canopy Atlanta equips residents with reporting skills, publishing stories that are responsible to the community’s needs and increasing access to local information.
After training, each Fellow is paired with a local journalist, who offers support and guidance as they develop their story. Because they are engaged in learning and reporting for ten weeks, they have ample time to deep dive into the issues. They produce stories slowly and thoughtfully, taking time to explore multiple angles, connect with a wide range of sources, and hear from as many perspectives as possible.
Specific, hyper-local news stories not only inform residents, they also spur communities into action. Canopy Atlanta ensures that neighborhoods have access to stories once they are complete, and they use their reporting to hold those in power accountable for change.
Learning from others
While Canopy Atlanta is a leader in this comprehensive community-driven and community-reported model, elements of successful and innovative neighborhood journalism are happening all over the country.
City Bureau inspired the creation of Canopy Atlanta and “brings people together to produce media that is impactful, equitable and responsive to the public.”
Block Club Chicago provides hyper-local news in Chicago, staffing neighborhood journalists who live in the communities they cover.
Outlier Detroit is a groundbreaking nonprofit newsroom designed to center and respond to Detroiters’ needs.
Resolve Philly seeks to “improve how misrepresented communities are covered by the media” and challenges reporters to rethink how they “find, frame, and tell stories.”
Scalawag uses community-driven reporting to shift narratives in oppressed communities in the South.
Press On fosters collaboration between journalists and grassroots movements and “supports journalism created by oppressed and marginalized people.”
Vox ATL trains teen journalists in Atlanta to cover their communities.
Community journalism powered by community listening has the power to break the cycle of extractive, exploitative, and incomplete reporting in communities all throughout the country.
Through restructured and innovative newsrooms that select stories from the ground up, seek community input at every stage, engage in extended listening, equip new voices to share their own stories, and build up a new cohort of skilled reporters, local news can not only survive the current struggling media landscape, but thrive in the midst of it. This kind of journalism requires dedication — to relationships, trust-building, and each community it serves — and it requires everyone to be involved. Together, reporters, citizens, readers, and neighbors can reshape journalism, redefine key issues, improve local democracy, and address the issues that impact them most.
When journalists and organizations prioritize listening as the foundation of storytelling, the result is news that is read, trusted, and used. The result is news that makes communities better.