The Local Live(s) project humanizes reporters by putting them onstage

The Local Live(s) project launched amid the pandemic, partnering with newsrooms to host live online events in which journalists talk about their work. Last year, the group worked with six newsrooms to hold ten live events; this year, they’ll expand their scope to highlight the work of thirty local newsrooms across the country. (Disclosure: the project is funded, in part, by the Columbia Journalism School).

CJR spoke with co-founders McArdle Hankin and Lauren Peace—who is also a reporter at Mountain State Spotlight—about the benefits of live events, connecting community members to the journalistic process, and the importance of humanizing reporters. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What was the inspiration for this project, and how did it come to be?

McArdle Hankin: It started before the pandemic, actually. Ellison Libiran (co-founder of Back Pocket Media) and I have been throwing live storytelling events in San Francisco since 2015. They started growing, and just at the beginning of 2020, I’d say we were at our peak. Then, of course, the first things to go when the pandemic hit were live events. Our live in-person events were not journalism-focused necessarily, but we would often feature journalists telling stories. And they were some of our most successful and engaging performers. After the show, people that didn’t care at all about news were sticking around to buy the journalist beers. They were asking them questions about their reporting and talking about the stories that they had heard onstage. When the pandemic hit, I remembered that, and I wondered if there was a way that we could take the model that we had created and apply it directly to local newsrooms that were struggling to engage their audience, who wanted to build trust in their journalists, humanize them, and peel back the layer on the reporting process. The Brown Institute mostly sponsors engineering projects, so I knew it was a long shot. I met Lauren, and we made it a bi-coastal project. Our pitch was that we wanted to partner with six newsrooms around the country to test this idea out. These events would be just as much the newsroom’s events as they would be ours. And it’s a model of audience engagement that they can use for a lot longer. We got the grant.

What is “live storytelling”? 

Hankin: We work to find people in our community with stories that don’t typically get a spotlight. They’re all true stories, told casually in the first person, much like your aunt or uncle at a dinner party: taking that similar energy and putting it on stage. And we work with journalists to tell parts of the story that don’t make it to print: things that get taken out in the editing process, details that can be really evocative, that can make them feel a lot more relatable and a lot more human.

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People use the term “media literacy” to mean a lot of different things, but I think that there’s an element of media literacy that is understanding how journalism actually works and how people actually do it. This seems to me like a really interesting and meaningful bridge to enable that process. Have you seen that happening?

Lauren Peace: For us, one of the really interesting things is that these events have gotten people who weren’t news readers to engage with journalists. It provides another entry ramp to what we do. For the event that we did with Mountain State Spotlight, when we asked people about their familiarity with the publication, people said “Actually, I don’t really read this publication. I’m just a community member, and I saw the event posting, and I thought it looked interesting.” We were inspired somewhat by podcasts that are starting to take readers behind the scenes of journalism. The Washington Post has a series called “How to be a journalist.” And you can see with the rise of podcasts like The New York Times’s The Daily, there’s an appetite for a behind-the scenes look. But instead of doing it in a one-way communication tunnel, we’re opening the conversation.The theme can be about the ethical decisions we make when approaching a sensitive subject. Or “What is an angle?” Or “What is the role of a journalist in a political context?” Basic questions that, as journalists, we know the answer, but when we engage with the community, we find that they don’t.

What is that makes these events uniquely accessible, do you think?

Peace: It’s just another entrance point. At the core of our shows, there’s a promise of connection. You’re going to be connected with other people in your community. And they’re fun events. There are serious moments, and serious conversation takes place throughout, but they’re meant to be entertaining. It’s just a different way to get people to bite; once they get the opportunity to talk to a journalist, and they say, Wow, now I understand what you do more, I understand that there are people producing the news and in our community. I see you and I interacted with you, and I’ve engaged with you. And I also feel like I can reach out to you. Now we have a relationship.

So you’ve talked a little bit about storytelling and entertainment. Those two terms are taboo in most traditional newsrooms. Is that something you all talk about?

Peace: That is actually something that we really talked about a lot this year. It’s important that the stories have journalistic integrity. They’re factual. They’re true.

Hankin: It’s using the same principles of journalism, but figuring out new ways to use the journalist’s voice to tell the stories. One huge pillar of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it is to humanize the journalist. There’s a statistic that only one in three people have ever met a local journalist. And that percentage goes down if you’re Black or brown. Most people haven’t met local journalists. A big part of what we’re doing is getting journalists out into the community. Because there are infinitely more data points for people to relate to, if they can see a face, hear a voice, see a journalist be vulnerable on stage or admit to a mistake, talk about their own character development. There’s a lot more that a community member who isn’t familiar with journalism can grasp onto if they’re seeing this person tell their story in a live setting where they are intrinsically vulnerable, just sort of by virtue of being on stage. There is more rigor in fact-checking a journalist’s story and making sure that what the journalists are saying is something that we want to stand behind. But typically, they’re stories that have already been published. So the partners that we are producing the event with, they’ve done most of that legwork. We’re just taking the story and transferring it to another medium, like a radio adaptation of a print story.

What does a newsroom need to know to be successful in implementing something like this?

Peace: For us, we have to have the buy-in of the newsroom. They’ve got to be willing to dedicate the resources to it.

Hankin: This year, we’re charging $1500 this year for newsrooms to sign up. The money will help cover our costs—and there’s an option for a scholarship—but we really want newsrooms that are interested in innovating and using their journalist’s voices in new ways, and that are committed.

Peace: You do have to put in the resources to host these events. But I think we’ve shown this year that no matter the size of your community, and no matter the size of your newsroom, hosting these events is possible.

Hankin: It’s a really intimate experience between the audience and the person on stage. Because they’re bringing you into the room with them. They’re telling you how they felt when this thing happened. They’re telling you where they were, what they saw, you know, why it matters. They’re typically larger themes that are some sort of commentary on the human experience, but told through a really specific event.

Peace: For our first Mountain State Spotlight show, we had only been publishing for two and a half months. We had 130 to 140 people on the call, who tuned in from across the Mountain State. We had discussions going after the show, where people were talking to us and telling each other about things that matter to them in their little corner of the state. Some of these people were located five and a half hours apart. That was the aha moment for me. This is really, really special. And it works.

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EXPLORE THE TOW CENTER’S COVID-19 CUTBACK TRACKER: Over the past year, 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.

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

 

  • J-SCHOOLS HELP COMBAT NEWS DESERTS: For Poynter, Kristen Hare explored how journalism schools have helped revive local coverage in their communities. A soon-to-be-published case study explores some of the lessons learned: integration with the existing ecosystem is key, simplicity serves audiences well, and continuity matters, Hare writes.
  • CHANGES TO MAIL RATES THREATEN LOCAL PUBLISHERS: The US Postal Service plans to raise mailing rates in August, which critics warn could over-burden newspapers publishers, many of whom are already struggling financially. “It is one of several nicks and slashes that can damage the bottom line,” researcher Penny Abernathy told the Associated Press. Paul Boyle, vice president of the News Media Alliance, said the postal rate change could be the tipping point for many small publishers.
  • BUILDING TRUST TO COMBAT MISINFO: El Tímpano, a Spanish-language reporting lab based in Oakland, California, explained its new approach to addressing misinformation in the Latinx and Mayan communities it serves. Their new project is called Comunidades Informadas (“informed communities”), and it will seek to understand the way local information spreads before designing workshops and trainings to disseminate through local community members and networks of trust. “When we recognize the role that each one of us plays in sharing information — not just journalists and news outlets, but parents, grandparents, shopkeepers and neighbors — then we can broaden solutions to combating misinformation to create more informed, resilient, and healthy communities,” director Madeleine Bair writes.
  • MORE ON REBUILDING TRUST: In a recent study, researchers Gina M. Masullo and Marley Duchovnay partnered with the Dallas Free Press to consider how to reconnect with disinvested audiences. They found that Dallas-area residents depended primarily on social media and television news for their information, that many had never communicated with a journalist, and that many people felt that local news coverage was either sensationalized or inaccurately portrayed their community.
  • COUNTERPOINT TO THE CRISIS: Chris Krewson, executive director of LION Publishers, argued that the rapid growth of digital newsrooms is the sign of a bright future, pointing to the diverse local news landscape that exists in Chicago despite the recent cutbacks at the Tribune. “No single news organization is trying to do everything the Chicago Tribune or the Sun-Times used to do,” Krewson writes. “It isn’t necessarily a best practice that one company must try to do all those things at the same time, every day, and bring in enough money to pay all the people required. The Internet is all about unbundling.”
  • UNC TRACKS BILLS TO HELP LOCAL NEWS: The University of North Carolina’s Center for Innovation and Sustainability has launched a tracker to keep tabs on congressional bills introduced to support local newsrooms. You can keep an eye on it here.

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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