Journalists across the country are reimagining how we do our jobs and for whom. Many of us are trying to get away from what’s known as “extractive journalism,” where we go into communities with a story in mind, looking to find and record the voices, characters and scenes we need to tell that story. The stories that emerge from that form of journalism may or may not actually be the story about that community and may or may not reflect or serve the actual needs of that community. Our journalism has been solid, but our methods need to change.
That has never been more apparent than in the last year, in which overlapping national crises — the pandemic, racial strife, disinformation and political warfare — combined to drive a relentless demand for trusted information and coverage. The pandemic accelerated a transition to digital and social media platforms for news, fueling audience expectations for sincere engagement with media creators.
Many public media stations across the country responded by becoming their communities’ “help desks,” answering thousands of audience questions during a time of high anxiety and fear. As quarantine set in, stations learned new ways to uplift community voices in unnarrated audio diaries that brought the personal experiences of frontline health workers or racial justice activists directly to the listener and viewer, minus a reporter’s filter.
True community engagement journalism flips the script on how we report on our communities — instead of reporting on them, we report with them and for them. Engagement takes place before the reporting begins, as part of the reporting process, and then after a story has been broadcast and published. It is a full cycle: engaging to identify gaps in your coverage, reporting on that issue, and then reengaging to learn more. This can be an uncomfortable change for many in the industry, but it is being embraced more and more by newsrooms intent upon building or rebuilding trust and upon widening their appeal to the diverse communities they serve.
At many public media stations, engagement is an aspirational “add-on” to traditional journalism activities that consistently feed the beast. Community engagement goes by many names — participatory journalism, civic journalism, citizen’s agenda — but whatever it’s called, it takes time, money and personnel, and it involves a cultural shift in newsrooms.
Community-engaged newsrooms are doing some of the most innovative and creative journalism in our industry today. Some examples include CapRadio’s upcoming podcast After the Assault, in which reporters worked closely with a cohort of sexual assault survivors to shape their reporting; Chicago’s City Bureau and its use of Public Newsrooms; WFYI’s partnership with the Indianapolis Recorder on “Where Do We Go From Here,” a multiplatform series exploring disparities in public health, education and housing; and of course KPCC’s constant innovations in engagement across multiple platforms.
That’s what we’ve been learning about and supporting at America Amplified. Our initiative began in 2020 with support from CPB as an experiment in helping public media stations use community engagement in the lead-up to the presidential election. Based at member station KCUR in Kansas City, Mo., our first year’s mission was to help create innovative journalism at eight public media collaboratives by listening to communities and elevating diverse voices. The initiative culminated in a series of national talk shows in the weeks before and after the election, as well as in a comprehensive Community Engagement playbook that spells out how public media can take steps towards engaging their communities.
America Amplified 2.0 is a new initiative, for 2021 and 2022, supported again by a grant from CPB, and this time it’s hosted by WFYI in Indianapolis. WFYI was part of America Amplified 1.0 and has a strong team of community engagement specialists already operating within its station newsroom and its collaborations. It has woven engagement-based journalism into its beat systems and its entire ethos and sees deep engagement with its community as one of the key assets that sets it and public media apart from other media.
This new initiative will work directly with 20 stations, prioritizing those operating in underserved or rural parts of the country, especially areas lacking daily newspapers and consistent media coverage. These stations will go through an application process to help us determine engagement priorities and degree of commitment to the process; we’ll learn what they’ve tried and where they’ve been successful, whom they want to reach and why.
We’ll divide these stations into four or five peer-learning cohorts, depending on their desired audiences and engagement strategies. These cohorts will be the principal learning vehicles for stations to deepen and improve upon engagement activities and strategies. We’ll offer substantial trainings to share the basics of community engagement reporting as well as digital content management, source diversity tracking, marketing, development and other skills that will contribute to engagement journalism’s sustainability and accessibility. We will work closely with stations to help them translate engagement into innovative content and help them close the loop by bringing that content back to those engaged sources. America Amplified and WFYI’s community engagement team will function as a kind of brain trust for engagement, providing a consistent support system for stations willing and able to take the leap into this experiment.
Putting community engagement at the center of the reporting process does disrupt workflows — it means that stations and newsrooms will have to do some reprioritizing. They will have to figure out what they really need to do and what they can stop doing. This seems like a difficult transition, but many news organizations have found that lessening the quantity of news delivered has significantly increased the quality of their news. Moreover, doing less but doing it better opens up time and space for engagement, for stories that dig deeper and offer solutions to intractable problems, for expanding source diversity and for identifying ways to really get your stories in front of audiences that will read them and can use them.
America Amplified 2.0 will build on the work that the initiative piloted in 2020 by using our Community Engagement Playbook as a road forward for talk show teams, general managers, news directors and reporters/producers to integrate engagement into their newsrooms and reporting processes. As we continue to experiment and innovate in this community engagement space, we’ll add to the 1.0 playbook to build on best practices.
In its recent “existential” issue exploring what journalism is today, the Columbia Journalism Review asked, “What if our goal, as producers of news coverage, wasn’t to revert, again and again, to the same angles, and instead to be co-conspirators with those out of frame, to imagine a better future? What if our aim were not, actually, to answer questions, but to enable and inspire others to ask them — to place the camera somewhere new?”
Many organizations are working to do this right now — in public media, in nonprofit media and in commercial media. Our goal at America Amplified/WFYI is to expand this work, to help seed and support community engagement at stations across the country to inspire a sustained commitment by public media to the communities they serve.
Alisa Barba is a longtime public media editor with stints at NPR, Fronteras, Inside Energy and America Amplified.