Business of News

Journalists are not the only storytellers

November 19, 2020

Since Tuesday, the Lenfest Institute has been hosting an online summit dedicated to reimagining journalism in Philadelphia (the event continues today). Yesterday morning, ¡Presente! Media—a Philadelphia-based bilingual media collective—presented a documentary about three Philly locals, highlighting the ways in which media can either limit or support the roles that people play in their communities. 

Alma Romero is a health promoter at Puentes de Salud, a nonprofit that works to meet the education, health, and social service needs in Philadelphia’s growing Latinx community. When the pandemic struck in the United States, Romero took on a journalistic role by necessity, communicating urgent public health information to clients day after day after day, in Spanish. 

My Le is a youth organizer working with the Youth Art and Self-Empowerment Project, a group that aims to keep young people out of adult prisons and to foster leadership opportunities for the city’s youth. Having been formerly incarcerated herself, My Le recognizes the fixed relationship between reporters and incarcerated people: a one-way transaction that too often reduces a person to a mugshot. 

Jaleel King is an artist and photographer who documents life in Philadelphia, often by taking pictures over his shoulder—on bus rides, on city streets. King was shot in the back as a child; now he navigates the world from a wheelchair. In the documentary, King talks about the importance of speaking to gun violence survivors, like himself, encouraging reporters to follow stories “to the end.” When I spoke to him later about what he values most in journalism, King told me that he applauds reporting that draws bright lines between an action or policy and the potential repercussions for people in the community. He also worries that the best information is off-limits for the people who need it most. “I would say more accessibility to the news is a good start,” King said. “There is a lot of news behind paywalls, understandably. However, there are a lot of people who can’t always afford it. But misinformation is always free, and spreads like a wildfire.”

All of the participants in the documentary have hopes and a vision for a journalism that serves them: they worry about distortion, about corporate ownership of local outlets, about narratives that only scratch the surface of the truth. ¡Presente! Media aims to offer Philadelphia residents chances to be heard.  “We have this Encuentro Virtual series: virtual meetups,” Melissa Beatriz, researcher and co-producer for the film, says. “It’s an opportunity to hear from community members. What are you interested in hearing that you’re not seeing reported? How would you like to see yourself reflected in stories? That’s really important to our approach.”

“I think mainstream media doesn’t always realize how active members of the community can be with the information that they receive,” Gabriella Watson-Burkett, the film’s director and producer, says. “Especially people that are very involved with the community—they understand they have a great role to contribute.” 

“The characters in the film, they are storytellers, in and of themselves,” Beatriz adds.

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The film’s three subjects are what many journalists think of as “readers,” and—like all readers—they’re also participants in their community. Romero, Le, and King are, like the rest of us, both information consumers and information producers. They share public health information, challenge oppressive narratives, or document the beauty of everyday life.  Journalists are not the only storytellers; our job is to partner with our communities and do the work together. 

The Journalism Crisis Project aims to train our focus on the present crisis, tallying lost jobs and outlets and fostering a conversation about what comes next. We hope you’ll join us (click to subscribe).


EXPLORE THE TOW CENTER’S COVID-19 CUTBACK TRACKER: Over the past nine months, researchers at the Tow Center have collected reports of a wide range of cutbacks amid the pandemic. Now there’s an interactive map and searchable database. You can find it here.

CONTRIBUTE TO OUR DATABASE: If you’re aware of a newsroom experiencing layoffs, cutbacks, furloughs, print reductions, or any fundamental change as a result of covid-19, let us know by submitting information here. (Personal information will be kept secure by the Tow Center and will not be shared.)

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

  • REIMAGINING JOURNALISM: For CJR’s newest magazine issue on reimagining the press in a time of crisis, Clio Chang reported on newsletter company Substack, asking whether the platform offers a more equitable system or simply reproduces the flaws of traditional media institutions. Abe Streep explored “what happened when a local publisher sought public funding” in Colorado. Leah Sottile wrote about journalistic first responders, and Shinhee Kang lined up examples of a number of initiatives toward public funding for journalism. Darryl Holliday considered “what journalism can learn from mutual aid.” “Our industry, one of critical public importance, needs to be rebuilt and reconceived. What do we want to keep, and what should we let go of?” Kyle Pope writes in his editor’s note. The full issue will continue to roll out in the coming week.
  • LOCAL REPORTER’S WORK GAINS NATIONAL APPLAUSE: Last week, the Washington Post reported the story of Robin Kemp, a reporter in Georgia who began her own news site after being laid off in April, drew national attention when the vote tally in her county became central to the presidential election. Kemp was the only reporter to watch the vote counting in Clayton County Georgia from start to finish—a process that took twenty-one hours. After carefully reporting on the local electoral process, Kemp’s Twitter following grew by thousands, and her GoFundMe account surpassed $10,000 in donations. For MotherJones, Laura Thompson spoke to Kemp about the election and the role of local journalism in society.
  • ATTENTION WANES FOR COVID COVERAGE: covid cases are spiking across the country, but reader attention has waned to news coverage on the novel coronavirus, Neal Rothschild and Sara Fischer reported for Axios. For CJR’s Media Today newsletter, Jon Allsop wrote, “the covid story is so huge and all-encompassing that it can be told from near-infinite angles. Each death, each livelihood destroyed, tells a story. Yet the proposition that less, sometimes, can be more also contains merit, and needn’t contradict the prior point.”

  • STARTUPS LOOK TO PROFIT FROM LOCAL NEWS: For Digiday, Steven Perlberg reported on the media companies investing in local news, hoping to turn a profit. Axios has launched local newsletters in four cities. The CityCast podcast company is introducing a national network of local podcasts, planning to group them for advertising sales. Perlberg writes that Axios plans “to be entirely advertising dependent and sell to Axios’ roster of national advertisers who want to better reach local audiences.”
  • APPLE TAKES A SMALLER SLICE OF THE PIE: Apple has announced a reduction to its tax on news publishers’ subscriptions—from thirty percent to fifteen percent—Josh Benton reported for NiemanLab. Benton lines up the possible implication for publishers and expresses skepticism about the possibility of collective bargaining between news publishers and tech giants. Though he calls the change “good news,” for publishers, he says the new deal “should also remind them that the power relationship between the tech giants and newspapers is awfully one-sided.”
  • PAPERS IN ZIMBABWE BENEFIT FROM DIGITAL SHIFT: In Zimbabwe, many newspapers have made a necessary shift to digital in response to the covid-19 pandemic, the International Journalists’ Network reported this month. This expands local papers’ reach, particularly to the Zimbabwean diaspora, journalism professor Henri-Count Evans told IJNet.
  • JOURNALISM IS PUBLIC SERVICE: For the American Press Institute, Stephanie Castellano interviewed Megan Griffith-Greene, the service features editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer, about how this year has highlighted the importance of service journalism and how the Inquirer approaches “news you can use.” Griffith-Greene explains that her team aims to create journalism that is actionable and accessible. “How can we center the reader’s needs? How can we make something that will be useful in weeks or months?” she asks. “In a way, modern journalism is about service.”
  • MAKING THE INTERNET WORK FOR US: For Common Cause, former FCC commissioner Michael Copps proposed a number of measures to reconfigure the American communications ecosystem: from passing legislation to provide broadband access to everyone, to restoring Net Neutrality, to placing more limits on industry consolidation. “There are no silver bullets or magic cures or partisan solutions,” Copps writes. “There is only the history-making challenge of making the internet work for us.”
  • MORE BUYOUTS, CUTBACKS, CLOSURES: About 500 staffers have taken buyouts at Gannett-owned papers, Poynter reported last week. The Kansas City Star announced that it would vacate its downtown building by the end of 2021 and move its printing operations to the Des Moines Register. ESPN reported that it would shut down its esports division. In the UK, regional publisher Archant put editors and reporters on rotating furlough for one day a week, starting after the new November lockdown, the PressGazette reported.
  • IF YOU WANT TO OWN A NEWSPAPER: The NewStart Local News Ownership Initiative at West Virginia University is accepting new fellowship applications until December 11, 2020. The NewStart program aims to prepare and connect fellows to ownership opportunities at profitable newspapers. (ICYMI, in October I talked to program director Jim Iovino about the fellowship and its goals.) 

MORE JOURNALISM JOBS AND OPPORTUNITIES: 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. And an organization of fifty writers called Periplus Collective recently announced a mentorship program to serve early-career writers who are Black, indigenous, and people of color.

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