Making suburban news more inclusive

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Even as local newspapers close—nearly 1,800 have stopped publishing since 2004—they remain irreplaceable sources of reporting. But some local readers perceive reporting by the remaining outlets to be about, rather than for them, a distinction key to the problem of mistrust between communities and journalists. This discrepancy often troubles historically marginalized readers who are socially distant but geographically near to journalists who report on them.

As funders seek to intervene in the collapse of local news, we must explore whether and how these interventions center the marginalized people so often overlooked by legacy newsrooms. Since the 2016 elections, much has been made of “white working class” communities in rural areas and small towns, while communities of color in these same areas are rarely heard from. And while concern grows over suburban communities served by “ghost newspapers”—or no newspapers at all—we rarely hear about how growing suburban communities of color find news and information.

For this reason, and with support from the Tow Center, we are undertaking a new study of news and information needs in two communities: a majority-Republican community in central Pennsylvania where 30 percent of residents are Black or Latinx, and Proviso Township, Illinois—a series of Western suburbs of Chicago, several of which are the focus of this article.

The Pennsylvania community will be part of state-wide 2020 elections coverage supported by a grant from Facebook and led by WHYY’s state-wide Keystone Crossroads project. The coverage will work within four communities, exploring possible ongoing collaborations with local stakeholders, including communities of color.

In Proviso Township, community paper the Village Free Press has covered majority Black suburbs Maywood, Broadview, and Bellwood since 2013. The paper’s publisher and editor, Michael Romain, an African American native of Maywood, has sought to deepen community engagement—and to expand coverage to majority Latinx suburbs such as Melrose Park. Romain also bid for a Facebook Journalism Project community network grant, but was unsuccessful; he is now seeking support for a number of projects including coverage of the 2020 census. Our project will look at Romain’s attempts to deepen coverage both by and for communities of color, as his organization struggles to find funding.

Both case studies will ask whether funding limited to events like elections or censuses can lead to substantive and lasting community engagement.

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In Proviso Township, we conducted four focus groups with community members and community organization representatives (27 participants in total, one group with community organizations, two majority Black/African American groups, and one majority Latinx group). In each discussion, participants mapped local communication assets, described how they would like local news and information to be shared, and discussed how they wanted to connect with local journalists.  In each group, a co-moderator shared the racial or ethnic identity of the majority of participants in the respective group. In what follows, we summarize findings that will inform a workshop where we will invite community stakeholders and journalists to hear our findings and brainstorm next steps.


Circulating community information

Community newspapers, robocalls, churches, and soup kitchens: these were some of the resources and assets our focus group participants relied on for local news and information. Word of mouth featured prominently. People got information both face-to-face and remotely—even if this meant they had to fact-check the people talking to them. “I receive a lot of my information through friends, through phone calls, or I may be scrolling on Facebook and may see something which may or may not be accurate, but I’ll still follow up,” said one participant.

Most were familiar with newspapers such as the Village Free Press and magazine Positively Proviso. A number knew Romain, the editor of the Free Press, by name, and had seen him at events, or contacted him about events and activities they were involved with. Participants also mentioned publications of local government like The Rose, a newsletter distributed by the Village of Melrose Park, often in the same breath with independent news outlets. Participants did not note distinctions between the editorial models of independent papers and government-run outlets.

While a few mentioned metro outlets like the Chicago Tribune or Chicago’s television stations, these were generally not seen as sources of community-level news. Several residents involved in organizing community events expressed frustration with how these larger outlets approached coverage of their area. One community organization representative shared her experience organizing an event and inviting media. “Sometimes you think you had a major event, and they came out, and then when they publish it, it might have three lines,” she said. The news reporters covered a politician present at the event but “didn’t mention anything positive about actually being in our community,” she said. Reporters also took quotes out of context, she said.“There have been times when they interview you, and they take a little piece out of what you said, and it doesn’t really reflect what you were trying to say at the time,” the respondent told us.

Another organization representative who had been involved in local government found larger outlets too single-minded. “I didn’t give them negative stuff, so they didn’t want to bother with me,” he said. Many outlets seemed to care most about being the first to tell a story and making it sensational:

The interest in getting it right was not as strong as the interest in getting it out. That is a major problem when, you know, if you’ve ever read the book and saw a movie or whatever, if you’re at an event, like if somebody was covering this, we’re all here, we know how it went down. Then when you read the account of it, and it’s like, there’s no correlation to what reality is and what you’re reading about.

Some participants had had positive experiences with journalists. One participant said in his work as an activist he had encountered journalists who “make sure they get your story straight.” He noted that this had particularly been his experience with African American journalists: “They come out to make sure that the story or message is heard and being reported on fairly and correctly.”


Information gaps

Residents identified a number of weaknesses in how information was circulated in their community—both by media and through other channels. In several areas, such as property development, people said information was hard to find. One respondent said the information couldn’t be had for the asking:

Most of the time, they try to keep it undercover. Like, if you see something being built, like what is that going to be? Then if you ask, they’re like, well, they’re going to put a sign up later. Why can’t we know? It’s our neighborhood. Why is it a secret?

Participants also mentioned tax increases and school closings that had taken them by surprise. “There’s always something pops up like, oh, we’re closing this,” one respondent told us.“Boom. It’s like, that wasn’t spoken [about] at any town hall meeting, anything to that nature.”

Some residents who were active in local groups and activities said they often knew how to get information, but others expressed frustration. Access to this kind of information is not evenly distributed, they said. One participant in his twenties complained that locals who didn’t own a business, for example, were often excluded from circles of influence. “It’s hard for people to actually hear you or listen to you if they don’t feel like you have some sort of power,” he said.

Another participant said that internet access is a privilege not everyone has. “If you’re a busy mom trying to raise some children, and you’re working, and you get home at 5:30 or 6:00 in the evening, to then come to the library to find out what’s going on in your community probably won’t happen.”

Participants also said that information was not traveling across borders of language and culture. A few participants who identified as African American suggested that their majority Black community should have a greater awareness of the growing Latinx community in the area. One participant suggested that stronger connections with Latinx residents might create business opportunities. In another group, a participant said anyone sharing information should communicate more in Spanish, “because I think that’s where a lot of things get left out.” In the group where participants identified as Latinx, several said their communities needed more Spanish-language resources, even though they themselves were bilingual or English language-dominant. And one participant said  a friend who taught in schools had told her that many families were unaware of existing resources:

They just don’t know, and a lot of the parents are afraid for immigration reasons to ask for any kind of help. So, this school tends to be a real resource for these families. You know, my friend was really surprised when she came into this district how many parents were refusing to come to parent teacher conferences because they thought it was a set up. Like, they thought [Immigration and Custom Enforcement] was coming.

She explained how the school “[had] to be a center of resources and knowledge.” The school district once held information sessions about DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and what to do during an ICE raid. Now it sends information home with children to their parents, the participant said. Another resident said a local organization was preparing students for immigration officials to come to the school—and, again, relaying the information to parents through their children. Several participants said they wished the local newspaper was bilingual. “For a long time, Maywood and Bellwood has been all Black,” said one participant. “We need to let [Black residents] know, hey, we’re here, and we’re not going away. So, you need to diversify.”

A number of participants, in all groups, discussed underused resources. “Stuff goes on that we don’t even know,” one said—from mental health services, to educational opportunities, to events at the library. Organizations and institutions often promote only their own events and resources: “If this church doesn’t promote this church, that church don’t promote that church … then how will we know?” one participant asked. Many suggested that news outlets could raise awareness and alleviate confusion. “People don’t know where to go, and you know, our social media, or even in our village paper, they don’t always advertise those things,” one particpant said. Several mentioned they often read about events and opportunities after they had taken ended—but they hadn’t seen notices about them in advance.


Balancing negativity

Many participants raised concerns about tone. “If there’s a shooting in Maywood, and the person is injured, has a flesh wound, that’s going to get big reporting,” one participant said. “If we have a school and all of the graduates go to college…or something else positive happens in our community, it either won’t get reported or gets buried on the back page where nobody ever sees it.” A participant in another group went further:

Every time you pick up a newspaper you get police blotters and funeral arrangements and all that kind of stuff, and all that first and what not. I’m like man, you know what? We get a praise page first, you know. What’s really positive going on… Let’s talk about our community’s opportunities maybe or something like that.

At the same time, participants agreed that wanting positive coverage did not mean that news outlets shouldn’t address the community’s problems:

Participant 1: There’s a problem that needs to be fixed.

Participant 6: We need a solution.

Participant 1: If it’s something, and we just promoted good, good, good, good. I mean, of course everybody in the neighborhood wants good, woo hoo. We also need some work going on bro. How can we get some of the help we need?

Several participants suggested that news outlets should try to balance negative coverage with positive coverage. “We are in a deficit model, if you will, it’s real important that for every one negative story that’s covered, there needs to be at least five positive stories that’s covered just to bring us up out of the hole,” one participant said. “There’s an African proverb that says, ‘When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.’”

Participants criticized disproportionately negative coverage from large, high-profile newsrooms. “Sun-Times, Tribune, whatever, just don’t send people out here to drive our community into the ground. You better be sending people equally to tell us about an opportunity… Don’t come here if you can’t have some kind of balance.”


A vision for the village newspaper

Most participants said the Village Free Press covered their  community well. “I think the reason people like [Village Free Press publisher] Michael Romain so much is because they trust him,” one participant said. “I think there’s a lot of distrust in media just in general.”  But, the groups said, “[Romain] doesn’t actually have the capacity to tell you of all the stuff that’s coming.” Several participants mentioned the Village Free Press’s limited resources. “It’s free. If it wasn’t… they could do more, you know,” one said.“So, that’s part of the reason why it’s not perfect, because it does take some funding to get them closer to being perfect.”

Residents said the Village Free Press needed more reporters and an editorial board so “it’s not one person, kind of making all the decisions.” Others suggested Spanish-language content, and outreach.“There’s people who don’t quite know that this paper exists,” one said.

Romain told us he hoped to hire additional reporters. He also said he would be interested in connecting more with the Latinx community, and even providing Spanish-language content, but that money was a barrier. Romain also wanted to train school-age children in journalism and information literacy in the hope that some trainees might work for his own community newsroom after college. “I think local community journalism can really prepare you for life,” he said. “It’s really a life skill, and it empowers you in a way that basically nothing else does.…You feel a sense of responsibility for a lot of stuff.” In the short term, Romain hopes to find funding for census coverage and outreach, possibly in collaboration with various local groups.

But, Romain said, first he has to achieve basic financial sustainability. “I’ve got to clear $30,000 or $40,000 [in revenue per year] just for the paper to be viable so I can put it into print and distribute it. That’s not even beginning to pay myself. That’s paying other people.” The Free Press earns money from paid legal announcements and advertising. Romain said he hoped to clear $100,000 per year with help from philanthropy— the company that he publishes the paper through recently obtained 501c(3) status.

But it has been hard to  attract funders to a small community paper that isn’t well-known at national journalism conferences. Over the course of this study he applied to multiple national journalism funders with no success. To make ends meet, Romain has in the past taken freelancing work that, he acknowledges, other journalists would likely consider unethical. At one point, he said, out of personal financial necessity, he helped a local elected official with speechwriting. “I’m broke … I’m a one-man show,” he said. “I’m going to make sure I adhere to a certain ethical standard, but you know, I have to eat.”

Romain says his role as a community journalist is bound by different norms. He is part of his community. In the past, he has even been a member of a number of community organizations, like the Rotary Club. He resigned from these groups after he realized he might need to cover them, but  he argues that the combination of his closeness to the community and his limited resources make some of the standards that restrict a larger outlet’s coverage seem unrealistic. “I know the nature of my position when it comes to the journalistic media landscape is radically different from the Chicago Tribune’s newsroom, you know. So, I cannot hold myself to the same type of standard, because I am, it is radically fundamentally different because of the radically different scale.”


Participating in the process

Community members offered journalists several ideas for improving information circulation, and how community members themselves could be involved. Many suggested ways to distribute  timely and accessible information about public resources more, and to write more positive stories.

One group’s suggestions were very specific: “We need contacts,” a participant said. “People need information like how to contact the alderman or how to contact the mayor. So, we need telephone numbers. Okay, a lot of people don’t have that. They [should be]on the front page.”  Another group suggested a resources section that lists everything from library hours to mental health facilities. Another suggested a community activities calendar. One group wanted a section called, “What’s Good in the Woods?” As they explained, “We’re a pretty big area, and we honestly don’t know what’s going on from block to block.”

The groups mapped out their own  direct involvement in these processes. One group suggested that local journalism should “have an open-door policy” and make it easy for people to contact the reporters or editors to share information and ideas. In another group a participant said, “I like the idea of knowing that a journalist can be reached by email and that I’ll get a response, if only the response is, thank you. You know, just that they’re approachable enough that I feel like I can send an email and it will at least be given the attention of a click.” Another group said reporters could connect with people by setting up a table at community events like the local food festival, Taste of Bellwood, and inviting residents to come up and ask questions and discuss issues. Another member suggested closer attention to“events that maybe some people who are a little bit more disenfranchised go to. …the elderly, you know, teens, people that maybe aren’t going to be the ones who are accessing those resources, as opposed to if you go to a Village meeting, those people are already seeking you out.”

A few participants said small group discussions on topics of local interest as a way to gather residents to talk about community issues and an opportunity to network. Participants suggested this could be a way to hear from residents who cared about the community but who didn’t necessarily “get a chance to speak up in the trustee meetings.”  Several were willing to gather information to help local journalists like Romain. One participant, who had never met Romain, said, “I may want to drop a line and say, ‘hey Mike, you know, what you need done on the hill on the south end of Maywood? …Is there anything you need to know down here?’”  He wondered if it might be possible to organize a group of residents from different areas to report back on local happenings weekly or bimonthly.

One group  proposed youth outreach, just as Romain had. “We want some youth reporters, and we’d like the newspaper to take responsibility and do some training with maybe our high school kids or kids coming right out of college,” a participant said. Another group suggested that while there might be drawbacks to letting “just anybody be a reporter,” community members could get involved by writing opinion pieces or letters to the editor—giving them an opportunity to express their perspective.


Summary of findings and next steps

At our community workshop in Maywood on November 16th, we will be reviewing some key take-aways from our discussions with residents and synthesizing them to brainstorm possible next steps. Some of these key findings include:

  • Residents identified several community issues that they would like to see more accountability reporting on—including local developments, taxes, and schools.
  • Participants wanted easier access to and contacts for local resources for services and opportunities, as well as listings of community events.
  • Community members identified a need for more bilingual resources and outreach to Spanish speaking residents. This outreach was positioned as a potential pathway to bridge between African American and Latinx residents in Proviso Township.
  • Residents suggested media outlets, particularly city-wide outlets, work to balance negative coverage with more solutions-oriented coverage.
  • The positive experiences residents noted they had with journalists were almost always with journalists of color and/or outlets that were led by people of color.
  • Participants expressed an appreciation for hyperlocal outlets like the Village Free Press and others, but they recognized that resource constraints limited what these outlets were able to achieve at present.
  • Participants had ideas for ways to make local news coverage more inclusive and participatory—including discussion groups with community members, citizen information ambassadors from different neighborhoods, and youth journalism trainings.

These findings paint a picture of a region poised to use local journalism to strengthen communication networks, and potentially to bridge the gap between Black and Latinx suburban communities. But these communities have not historically drawn funders and other supporters of local journalism. It will take money and time to engage with these communities and make the local journalism environment more inclusive and participatory.

In our forthcoming research, we will explore how local journalists from Proviso Township, as well as those from other regional outlets, respond to the ideas shared by community members. At our workshop, we will connect these community stakeholders and journalists and invite them to consider ideas and projects they may seek to collaborate on. We hope through this process to better understand next steps in Proviso Townships and potential opportunities for other communities with similar needs and assets.

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Andrea Wenzel and Letrell Deshan Crittenden are fellows for the Tow Center and co-facilitate the Germantown Info Hub project. Wenzel is an assistant professor at Temple University where her research focuses on initiatives to create more connected and inclusive communities through engaged journalism and solutions journalism. Crittenden is program director and assistant professor of communication at Thomas Jefferson University where his research focuses on issues related to diversity and inclusion in media, and community and engaged journalism.