From the New York Times to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to PRX, US news outlets have been grappling with the disconnect between their organizations and the Black, Indigenous, and people of color communities they serve. Considering these communities are among those hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic, a lack of access to information in these precarious times is literally a health risk.
Over the past year, we have been following two communities: Chambersburg, a small town in Pennsylvania, and Maywood, a suburb in Illinois. These cases, while very different, illustrate the need for journalism’s reckoning regarding racial justice to extend beyond major cities to issues faced by BIPOC communities in small towns and suburbs. In Chambersburg, local coverage is virtually non-existent. Meanwhile, in Maywood, coverage is provided by BIPOC-owned and -led media that have historically received little support or attention. After assessing the information needs and assets of each community through a series of focus groups, we collaborated with local partners to design and pilot possible interventions to strengthen local communication infrastructure. While what we have seen to date offers some promise, these efforts also illustrate the constraints of operating within larger journalistic structures that have historically been steeped in whiteness and are premised on unsustainable market-based business models.
In Chambersburg, a rapidly diversifying community in the middle of a largely white, heavily conservative county, the one consensus our study found across demographic divides was a frustration with a lack of substantive local news coverage. While all residents lamented the shrinking amount of coverage from the local Gannett paper, the Public Opinion, Black and Latinx residents underlined that they had never been well represented by this or other outlets. They shared a number of community issues that were not included in local news coverage, notably related to racial tensions within the school district, and a lack of focus on everyday issues impacting immigrant communities. Many also expressed concern around the lack of Spanish-language news coverage and Spanish-language information resources more broadly.
In Proviso Township, a series of Western suburbs of Chicago, residents participating in our Maywood focus groups expressed frustration with how they felt they were covered by metro news outlets (negatively, if at all). Residents of Maywood, Broadview, Bellwood, and Melrose Park, majority Black and Brown suburbs, expressed more confidence in their community newspaper, the Village Free Press. The paper is owned and edited by Michael Romain, an African American native of Maywood, who juggles his VFP work with his job reporting and editing for several community newspapers in the region. Romain affirms residents’ concerns that the free paper struggles to find adequate resources to cover the region.
Following our initial research, we gathered residents in both locations for workshops to brainstorm how to respond to the concerns they raised. In the Proviso Township workshop, residents shared ideas for a number of possible initiatives involving the Village Free Press. These included holding community editorial meetings where residents could share story ideas and offer critiques of VFP coverage, and a community news ambassadors program for residents to contribute content and help to facilitate community discussions. They also discussed more regularly tracking local taxing bodies in the region and partnering on initiatives to raise awareness of the census.
In Chambersburg, our follow-up discussions included a mixture of residents, community leaders and journalists—from the Public Opinion; La Voz, a Spanish-language outlet serving Central Pennsylvania; and the Franklin County Free Press, a hyperlocal online outlet. Responding to critiques of their coverage of BIPOC communities, the journalists expressed an interest in developing stronger relationships with these communities, and in potential collaborations. Following our discussions in May, Gannett and Public Opinion applied for a fellowship geared toward helping the paper produce more coverage of Chambersburg’s 3rd Ward, the area where many African American and Latinx residents reside, as part of a larger project covering Central Pennsylvania. As part of our Tow fellowship, we partnered directly with the Franklin County Free Press and trained five community members to cover issues impacting marginalized communities within the borough.
Just as we were working with stakeholders to follow up on our research study, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. This simultaneously amplified the need for reliable information, and exposed the disparities in access to it among BIPOC communities in small towns and suburbs.
The pandemic has taken a toll on communities in both of these locations, and has shaped the responses of the media outlets we have collaborated with. For the Village Free Press, this has meant adjusting the focus and methods of their intervention. They did some of their initially planned work on the census, a critical issue in this historically undercounted and under-resourced community. However, because of the pandemic, they had to shift their community ambassadors project to convening a series of online town-hall discussions on COVID, race, and schools. The pandemic has also affected their resources. VFP, which in the past struggled to access funding from philanthropic donors or groups such as Facebook, has received some emergency COVID response funding from area foundations. But at the same time, the non-profit publisher running the network of papers Romain writes and edits for has had to lay off staff, leaving Romain shouldering an even greater burden of coverage.
In Chambersburg, the pandemic highlighted the critical need for equitable access to information, and the overall lack of local media to cover significant local events. In May, the New York Times reported that the borough had the highest daily average growth rate of COVID in the nation. Despite this, access to local information, particularly in Spanish, remained scarce. Moreover, as protests related to Black Lives Matter came to Chambersburg—and garnered attention from regional and national news outlets including the New York Times—local media continued to struggle in efforts to highlight BIPOC communities. Vicky Taylor, who worked for more than a decade at the Public Opinion before founding the Free Press in 2019, said she simply lacks the capacity to cover many stories, especially since the pandemic hit. She suspects that the Public Opinion, which is down to just two local reporters, is facing the same struggle. “I think all these (local newspapers) do the best with what they have.” Taylor says. Taylor hopes the community reporters trained in this project will help to fill this void, but the number of pieces published to date has been minimal. As noted in a recent piece published in Journalism Practice, efforts to train community members to do journalism are time consuming and can be particularly challenging in their early stages. In the case of this project, these efforts were made more difficult by the pandemic.
The challenge both of these projects face is the structures they must operate in are not set up to prioritize the inclusion of BIPOC communities. As numerous scholars and observers have convincingly argued, US journalism on the whole has not yet reckoned with its complicity with white supremacy and how that continues to impact its norms and practices. In addition, many, including in the tech and philanthropy sectors, still cling to hopes of finding market-based solutions to journalism’s financial crisis when it would be more productive to reimagine what a genuinely public funded US media system might look like. Because of this, the interventions taking place in these communities can at best hope to help to reimagine models and to offer partial contributions to strengthening local communication infrastructure.
This is not to say these contributions are not meaningful. In both locations, small-scale projects facilitated connections between newsrooms and BIPOC community members that are likely to lead to mutually beneficial ongoing collaboration. In Chambersburg, Franklin County Free Press hopes to organize virtual community conversations, and area organizations have reported greater participation in virtual meetings following the social and racial justice uprisings. In Proviso Township, the Village Free Press plans to continue working with community ambassadors and local community groups to host discussions, and to publish resource guides in English and Spanish. The sustainability of these efforts is far from certain, but they illustrate the needs and opportunities that are missed when local journalism initiatives only focus on major cities and known news organizations.
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