Tow Center

Reimagining Journalism: taking a community-centered approach

Community-Centered Journalism doesn’t hold all the solutions, but it can play a role in helping to tackle some of the biggest challenges facing the industry today.

November 6, 2023

The future of journalism cannot look like the past. If we fail to do things differently then we will not address some of the biggest issues facing our industry today. That includes rebuilding trust, tackling news avoidance, and addressing long-term inequities in terms of whose stories get told and who gets to tell them. 

These notions lie at the heart of a new report that makes the case for a more community-centered approach to journalism and the principles and processes that underpin it. 

Published by the Agora Journalism Center at the University of Oregon, Redefining News: A Manifesto for Community-Centered Journalism outlines why fresh methods of journalistic storytelling – and story gathering – are needed and how to go about it. 

Fundamental to this model is a belief that journalism should not involve reporting “on” a community, but “for” and “with” them. That means stepping away from traditional journalistic practices that have too often been seen as transactional and extractive. In their place, we need to see more journalism that is firmly rooted in partnership, collaboration, and the by-product of deep listening. 

As Jonathan Kealing, Chief Network Officer at the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN), told us, “You’re not approaching journalism or your community as sort of an anthropological exploration.” “You’re approaching it as someone who is of the community and trying to do this journalism for that community.”

Put another way, as Andrea Wenzel, a leading scholar in this arena explained to us, this is “journalism for communities, not just about them.”

Implementing this requires a more longitudinal and bottom-up model of journalism than most newsrooms typically deploy. It requires outlets to step away from the 24/7 news cycle and the (re)creation of commodity content, to take a slower, more considered – and inclusive – approach to some of the stories that they tell.

Community-Centered Journalism isn’t a method that will work for every beat or story. Nevertheless, it’s a model that can allow outlets to go deeper into the stories and issues that communities say matter to them. Moreover, it can do so in a way that still enables journalism to do what it has always sought to do: acting as a check on those in power and creating an informed citizenry, while at the same time also more actively fostering a sense of community and building communities.

All of this is in line with what audiences have long told us they want to see, especially at a local level. Research shows that audiences want local news outlets to be more than just watchdogs. They also want them to be a “good neighbor.” 

As journalism professors Don Heider, Maxwell McCombs and Paula Poindexter highlighted back in 2006, audiences want to see stories that demonstrate “caring about your community, highlighting interesting people and groups in the community, understanding the local community, and offering solutions to community problems.” This can be demonstrated not just in the types of stories that news outlets cover, but also in how they cover them. 

With that in mind, here are four key principles needed to make that happen.

It starts with listening

Historically, journalism has been a top-down business. Journalists have determined what constitutes “the news” as well as how – and when – it will be delivered. This gate-keeping role has enabled journalists, usually white college-educated men, to define the stories and narratives that are told at a national, regional and local level.

Yet, journalists often do not know what’s best. Far from it. As James G. Robinson of The New York Times reminds us: “A central irony of the newsroom is that while many journalists’ decisions are made with readers in mind, the audiences for their work often remain unfocused, imagined abstractions, built on long-held assumptions, newsroom folklore, and imperfect inference.”

Community-Centered Journalism places listening – and capturing the information needs of audiences – front and center. There are multiple mechanisms for doing this, from holding regular office hours and creating other opportunities for face-to-face and direct digital engagement, alongside more formal surveys and information needs assessments. 

Tools like this five-page survey template created by The Listening Post Collective, or Subtext, a platform that lets content creators and organizations text with their audience, can be used to gain insights into audience habits and needs. In the UK, Tortoise Media allows paying members to participate in regular ThinkIn discussions, where attendees can offer their thoughts on how Tortoise should be exploring a particular issue.  

These types of mechanisms can help to reduce the risk of a disconnect between what a journalist thinks the audience wants/needs to know and what the audience actually wants to know. 

This matters, says Antoine Haywood, because too often newsrooms have “some prescribed notion” of what a community wants, but on digging deeper they find that “what they thought was needed in a community did not align.”

Following through matters – show the fruits of your listening

Having identified community information needs, it is important for this to flow through the work that a newsroom actually does. Without that, communities will quickly become disheartened and feel (often rightly) that engagement efforts have been disingenuous. 

We won’t begin to rebuild relationships and trust in journalism without demonstrably showing how listening has shaped the content that news outlets have produced. 

Jennifer Brandel and Mónica Guzmán suggest this means “what we cover will be shaped directly by our communities.”  Editorial meetings “won’t start with our ideas,” they advocate. “We’ll start with the information gaps the public demonstrates they have, and focus our efforts squarely on filling those gaps.”

This is part of what Sarah Stonbely at Northwestern University describes as the antithesis of “journalist-centered journalism.” It requires newsrooms to cede an element of control – in terms of story choices and the format it is delivered in – to the communities they are working with. 

One project that embodies these ideals is The Trace’s Up the Block,.  a bi-lingual information hub for Philadelphians that emerged from conversations with local communities about the resources they needed to navigate issues with gun violence in their communities. 

Instead of producing typical coverage of this topic, The Trace created a free, searchable, repository in English and Spanish that links out to organizations at a neighborhood level. This included producing resources for survivors of gun violence, alongside materials related to safety and mental health.

Traditional ways of tackling this subject matter continue to be important and are an integral part of the work that The Trace produces. However, discussions with residents revealed specific community needs that  the team directly responded to. 

Such efforts not only lead to more useful and impactful end products, but they can also potentially help the bottom line.

Valuing and committing to collaboration 

Partnership work can be hard. But a distinguishing feature of numerous successful – and impactful – Community-Centered Journalism initiatives lies in their collaborative approach. 

Often forging bonds with a diverse array of community groups and associations, including governmental bodies and grassroots organizations, these alliances can help to serve as both gateways to communities and essential conduits for effective content delivery. 

It takes “time to invest in relationships of trust with other trusted institutions,” Madeleine Bair, the Founding Director of El Tímpano in Oakland, CA, advises. However, cultivating connections with communities and collaborating with local stakeholders – such as non-profits, government entities, businesses, and libraries – can help with determining information needs, forging long-term relationships, and with the distribution of news products. 

It is vital to integrate collaboration into every stage of the process, rather than limiting it to the initial and final phases of any initiative.

Newsrooms must also think of the people formerly known as the audience as a partner too. 

One organization that frequently exemplifies this principle is ProPublica, which is “consistent in reporting back to its audience how it put the information to use and what came of it,” per Impact Architects.

It also does this with non-audience members too, many of whom have actively contributed to its crowdsourced investigative work. Even though they “aren’t necessarily ProPublica’s audience (or target audience)” reporters still take deliberate steps to create meaningful connections with these communities.

The best Community-Centered Journalism is part of a genuine two-way dynamic between news producers and different communities. Reciprocal, non-extractive, relationships are key to establishing trust as well as meeting community information needs.

Investing for the long-term 

Through relationship-building and feedback loops, community-centered journalists identify pressing issues and identifiable information gaps. Having done this, they then collaborate with communities to create relevant news and information that provides value and impact.

This can represent a shift from parachute journalism and more extractive hit-and-run reporting practices, offering greater reciprocity, transparency and accountability with communities. 

Doing this takes time. It also requires new skills and thinking beyond short-term metrics. But, as outlets like Louisville Public Media (KY) and the Montgomery Advertiser (AL) have acknowledged, long-term growth and sustainability will only come by adding new audiences. 

That means diversifying output to reach communities that have long been overlooked, misrepresented, or marginalized by the mainstream media. It requires investing in communities to understand what matters to them, and how they want key issues to be addressed and communicated. 

Results won’t be seen overnight, but evidence suggests a more community-centered approach might do more than just improve your news product: it may also help to contribute to a more financially viable future. 

Moving Forward

By reimagining journalism from the ground up, we posit that journalism needs more than just a makeover. It requires a complete transformation. 

Without this, the trajectory for the industry is clear: trust will continue to erode. News output will continue to overlook the realities – and information needs – of many people’s lives. Communities and viewpoints that have too often been ignored or stereotyped will still find that media coverage is all too frequently tone-deaf and irrelevant. 

To arrest this downward spiral, we have to accept that business as usual is not good enough.

Community-Centered Journalism doesn’t hold all the solutions, but it can play a role in helping to tackle some of the biggest challenges facing the industry today. 

Although not applicable to every story and every beat, embracing Community-Centered Journalism will encourage newsrooms to step away from the production “hamster wheel” and the daily news cycle to consider where the most impact and value can be delivered. That’s essential for reasserting relevance and rebuilding trust.

Meeting demonstrable community needs by broadening the scope of news coverage, and how it is delivered, will help make journalism more inclusive and more focused on delivering civic and information benefits. That means reorienting journalism away from clicks and awards towards a more service-oriented approach. As a result, newsrooms may also have to rethink what success looks like and how they measure ROI.

In moving away from journalism’s historic role as a detached gatekeeper, Community-Centered Journalism further envisages the media as a truly collaborative partner and community builder. That means refreshing the journalist’s toolbox and ceding parts of journalism’s traditional agenda-setting function. 

As Sue Robinson notes, this will require journalists to embrace roles such as Relationship Builder, Community Collaborator, Community Conversation Facilitator, and Professional Network Builder. 

All of this will represent a shift in mindset and skill set for many newsrooms and journalists. However, these shifts are essential if the journalism industry wants to reassert its relevance and build bridges with demographics that are disenfranchised from – if not downright hostile to – the work that we do. 

There are no easy fixes for journalism’s current travails. But Community-Centered Journalism offers one path forward. If journalism is to be more inclusive, valuable and impactful it must be produced and distributed in fresh ways. That means putting community and civic information needs front and center of everything that we do. 


10 steps to practicing Community-Centered Journalism

If you’re interested in implementing a community-centered approach to your work, this process can help guide you through the main components.

1.Listen to the community: Start by listening to the concerns and perspectives of the local community. Attend community meetings, talk to local leaders and residents, and get a sense of the issues that matter to them.

2. Identify information needs: Undertake more formal exercises, such as an information ecosystem assessment, to capture the needs and interests of a local community.

3. Understand information flows: Ascertain how news and information are shared and the community assets (people/organizations) that are essential to how news and information travel in your community. These resources should become your allies and partners.

4. Build genuine relationships: Avoid being extractive by taking the time to meet people, attend events, and engage with your community. Work hard to create trust and credibility with the community.

5. Collaborate: Involve the community in the reporting process by asking for their input, feedback and ideas – not just about story topics, but about how your stories will be told and shared. Harness this input to produce relevant news and information that is useful to their lives.

6. Be inclusive: Reflect the diversity of voices and perspectives within a community in your reporting. Actively seek out underrepresented voices and experiences to make sure that the stories you tell are inclusive and representative.

7. Be constructive and solutions-oriented: Go beyond traditional journalistic tropes and narratives that emphasize conflict and focus only on problems. While maintaining journalistic rigor, highlight solutions and opportunities for change, as well as people and organizations who are making a difference. 

8. Use a variety of media: Community-Centered Journalism can take many forms, including print, digital, audio, and video, as well as events and other real-world activities. Use a range of methods to tell stories and share information in ways that are engaging and accessible.

9. Stay connected: Factor in feedback loops to better serve the community. Be responsive to feedback and incorporate this in your reporting.

10. Don’t just show up on deadline: Building trust and understanding community information needs requires an on-going commitment outside of the daily news cycle.

About the Tow Center

The Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, a partner of CJR, is a research center exploring the ways in which technology is changing journalism, its practice and its consumption — as we seek new ways to judge the reliability, standards, and credibility of information online.

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