All communities deserve deeply-reported, beautiful journalism

Narrative features have long been a beloved part of journalism. As the traditional model crumbles—particularly at the local level—journalists have been forced to consider what is worth saving and what is better left behind. This process can be reduced to basic triage, but some newsrooms are prioritizing narrative reporting as a service.

In 2018, Lyndsey Gilpin launched Southerly Magazine, an independent regional publication aimed at ecology, justice, and reframing the coverage of the American South. “Communities—whether they’re rural, or communities of color, or low-wealth—deserve both accurate information and beautiful storytelling that they can see themselves in,” Gilpin says. “The industry underestimates how much people understand and appreciate good storytelling. Loving stories is an inherent human trait.”

“Magazines are able to capture the gray areas, the fact that everything is perfectly imperfect,” Robert Sanchez says, a senior staff writer at 5280 Magazine in Denver. When the pandemic hit the US last March, he started a Twitter account called City Reads to highlight excellence in local magazine reporting across the country. “Good journalism is good journalism. You don’t have to work at Esquire; there’s great journalism being done in Charlotte.”

Still, the traditional magazine model is largely built upon exclusivity. It is limited by the same conundrum that wracks the industry as a whole: reporting requires resources. And it’s not always enough to just produce a good story. 

“No matter how much beautiful journalism I put on Southerly’s website, if it doesn’t reach people, what is the point?” Gilpin asks. “I have found myself backing up to consider what models we can use to actually get to the people we’re trying to reach. When we talk to people living in their news deserts, they just need basic information. How do I contact FEMA? What do I need to do for the next hurricane season? How do I test my water? Those are questions that—eventually—could lend themselves to a powerful story. The most immediate need is answering them, and that isn’t as sexy. But once that trust is built and you’re answering the basic questions, you can really dig into storytelling. Communities deserve really beautiful, informative, thorough stories.”

In some ways, nonprofit newsrooms are uniquely positioned to direct resources toward deeply-reported stories. For THE CITY, a New York City-based nonprofit local newsroom, Claudia Irizarry Aponte and Josefa Velasquez wrote 3,500 words in December on Los Deliveristas Unidos, a group of indigenous Guatemalan and Mexican food delivery workers organizing for better treatment. While reporting the story, Irizarry Aponte says, the reporters were mindful of both their framing and their audience, which she sees as a group beyond “the pundit class” that includes “all working New Yorkers.” 

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“We strive to do stories that really highlight people’s ingenuity,” Irizarry Aponte says. “The workers in this story aren’t helpless. They’re not voiceless. They’re very active politically. They’re incredibly aware of the forces that are shaping their lives. And they are acting against them.” 

The story took off. THE CITY’s metrics indicated that readers not only clicked on the story; people really read it, in significant numbers. “I think often in local reporting, people think that the audience has a really short attention span,” Irizarry Aponte says. “This shows that people are hungry for stories that are embedded in the community, that really flesh out all the angles of an issue. People do want to read three-thousand-word stories about delivery workers in New York City. Absolutely.” 

As local journalism considers what to preserve and what to leave behind, it’s worth considering how to build a sustainable model for stories that are deeply-reported, worthwhile––and, yes, beautiful. People are hungry for these stories. They should be available everywhere, and they should reflect everyone. Factual reporting matters; so does compelling narrative. It’s something that every community deserves.

 

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Below, more on recent media trends and changes in newsrooms across the world:

JOURNALISM JOBS AND OPPORTUNITIES: Publicmediajobs.org and the Knight Foundation are holding a virtual career fair on March 31. MediaGazer has been maintaining a list of media companies that are currently hiring. You can find it here. The Deez Links newsletter, in partnership with Study Hall, offers media classifieds for both job seekers and job providers. The Successful Pitches database offers resources for freelancers. The International Journalists Network lists international job opportunities alongside opportunities for funding and further education.

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Lauren Harris is a freelance journalist. She writes CJR's weekly newsletter for the Journalism Crisis Project. Follow her on Twitter @LHarrisWrites