Using Conversation to Build Collaboration Between Newsrooms and Communities

Citizens of Dayton Ohio discuss the opioid epidemic in their community.

Last fall, we launched Your Voice Ohio, the second phase of an ongoing collaborative effort to help Ohio newsrooms better understand and respond to the needs of their communities. Our 38 Your Voice Ohio partner newsrooms are exploring new ways to connect with their communities and to communicate critical information more effectively.

We’re looking at a variety of methods of engagement — both in-person and online — to find the most effective and sustainable approaches for local newsrooms. We’ve started first with face-to-face conversations focused on Ohio’s opioid epidemic. We’re through two event cycles, beginning in Northeast Ohio last October and then in February in Southwest Ohio. Here’s what we’ve learned so far.

The Mission

Ohio has been hit hard by the ongoing opioid and addiction epidemic, and the crisis isn’t slowing down. For journalists, the largest public health crisis in a generation is a critical story. But stories about overdose totals and, on occasion, interventions by public officials were no longer resonating with audiences, leading to disengagement, apathy, or outright hostility on any opioid reporting.

Mark Sweetwood, Managing Editor of the Youngstown Vindicator, exemplifies the desire to try a new approach. “You can do story after story after story, but eventually you get to the point, what else can we do? There must be something we can do other than just report on the story. How can we take the words, and the pictures, and the stories we put together and get other people involved.”

Sitting down in conversation with a diverse selection of a community can help surface new ideas, uncover problems or solutions that aren’t being reported, offer productive critiques of existing reporting, illuminate information gaps and common myths, reach new communities and meet new sources, help assess priorities and shift coverage toward more critical areas, and authentically position reporters as “real people” in the community.

So we set out to create a simple, replicable model for community conversations that could be used across the state to illuminate the crisis. We settled on two-hour forums driven by small group discussion, modeled after the World Cafe dialogue method.

The Process

We aim to have 60–120 participants in each event. Our goal is to have a diverse representation of the community, rather than those most inclined to attend public events, who tend to be older, wealthier, and whiter than the community at large. In addition to call-outs from our news partners in print, on TV, on the radio, and online, we encourage journalists to make direct invites to sources and others interested in the issue. We supplement those efforts with Facebook ads and connections with Facebook groups invested in the topic, especially groups for people in recovery or affected family members.

At the events, participants sit at small tables in groups of 5–7. Larger groups make it harder for everyone to participate, while smaller groups lack diversity. In these events, reporters participate in the conversations as community members, putting away their notebooks and laptops to share their own knowledge and experiences and listen to their peers.

Introduction: 10 minutes

We start with a brief introduction, outlining the focus of the conversation, introducing the project team and reporters in the room, and outlining norms to help guide the conversation (like listening to understand, rather than to respond and being respectful and open to new ideas).

Question & Discussion: 20 minutes

We then move into the first of three discussion questions, which drive the conversation:

  1. What does the opioid epidemic look like in our community?
  2. What do you see as causes of the epidemic in our community?
  3. What steps might we take to combat the epidemic?

To start a question cycle, participants take a moment to write their response in silence. This allows everyone a moment to reflect and have something to share in the discussion. Without this opportunity for reflection, conversation tends to be driven by a smaller number of people who also tend not to be very representative. Each participant in the small group then shares their response with the table.

The discussion opens up to explore common themes, points of difference, and other ideas, while one participant (not a reporter) at each table volunteers to take notes to share with the large group, trying to settle on one or two points to share broadly.

Report back: 10 minutes

We then do a report back with the large group, capturing one or two thoughts from each table, or as many tables as possible in about 10–15 minutes. This process helps participants hear ideas that weren’t discussed at their table while identifying common ideas and priorities across tables. This process also allows journalists to sit back and actively listen to members of their community.

Repeat.

We repeat this same process for each of the three questions, though participants switch tables for each question to interact with a new group.

Wrap up: 20 minutes

To end, we discuss the next steps journalists will take to provide information in response to what they heard at the event and how participants can stay in touch. We also ask participants to write one question for reporters about the epidemic on the front of a notecard, and a statement they would like to share with the broader community on the back. The questions give reporters something to work on immediately after the event, while the statements help participants make their voices heard more broadly and help people who couldn’t attend relate to the conversation.

Finally, we do an informal survey of three questions:

  1. Did you learn something new during the discussion?
  2. Did you interact with someone you wouldn’t typically meet in your day-to-day life?
  3. Would you attend an event like this again?

For each question, more than 95% of participants say ‘Yes’.

These conversations are not only shaping more nuanced reporting agendas for our partners, they’re reshaping the roles of both reporters and community members in the creation of local journalism.

Our Impact So Far

To date, we’ve hosted conversations in 8 communities, with more than 300 people participating. Newsrooms in each cohort (4 in Northeast Ohio, 11 in Southwest Ohio), often competitors within their own markets, participate together in the community conversations and in the follow-up reporting.

In response to questions from community members and themes uncovered in the conversations, Your Voice Ohio partners have developed stories about effective education initiatives, Naloxone distribution, syringe exchanges, alternative pain treatment, prescription regulations, drug courts, medically-assisted treatment, safe disposal of opioids, long-term recovery options, and the role of the medical community in the crisis.

Journalists in competing organizations work together to research and draft stories to reduce duplication and provide better information to their community. These stories are then shared among each newsroom in the collaborative to distribute to their respective audiences and communities.

To amplify these stories and make our research more accessible, we’ve put together a database of “solutions” to the epidemic that are used in Ohio and around the world, with links to articles, scientific reports, case studies, and more. The database serves as an entry point for both journalists and community members to learn more about the crisis without having to duplicate others’ research.

Got a solution we’re missing? Send us a note at solutions@yourvoiceohio.org

More fundamentally, reporters and editors often walk away with a sense that their current reporting may not be serving the whole of their community. Jordyn Grzelewski, a reporter at the Youngstown Vindicator, puts it this way: “Sometimes there is a disconnect between the stories people want and need from us and the stories we are telling.”

We heard repeatedly that many people need one place they can go to access information about available treatment and support resources, with data on wait times, insurance requirements, and program effectiveness. Information like this may not fit neatly into a single story, but it is a critical resource for community members. Further, it reveals the quality of response to the crisis from both the public and private sectors (Is treatment really accessible, despite what politicians say? Are certain programs effective at all, despite what the providers say?), a watchdog focus that both community members and journalists can get behind.

Similarly, participants often ask, “Why do you use images of needles and drugs in your stories? Don’t you know those are triggers for drug use?” Journalists, unfortunately, don’t think about their images as triggers or that they’re either turning away readers/viewers or making someone’s recovery that much more difficult. It may seem simple, but it’s a revelation that wouldn’t happen if reporters weren’t in conversation with their community.

Doug Oplinger serves as the Your Voice Ohio Project Manager, supporting participating news outlets, highlighted these impacts: “On a higher level of journalistic mission, there appears to be a shift in thinking among journalists regarding their relationship with the community. They heard people in their communities begging for actionable items, for solutions. With this information, journalists began discussing their responsibility for providing solutions — and the empowerment they felt to do so. Story conversations shifted from “what’s the cause” and “who is at fault” to “how do we provide these people with solutions that will make their lives better?”

Next Steps

As our collaborative expands, we hope these conversations will help guide reporting across the state and offer a new opportunity for reporters to reach, understand, and support their communities. Our news partners are continuing to dig into the issues and solutions identified by their communities and answer questions. You can explore their work online and review the notes from each conversation. See here for the Northeast Ohio cohort, and here for the Southwest Ohio cohort.

We’re headed next to Central Ohio to host conversations in Columbus, Newark, and Marion, where fatal overdoses from non-opioids are growing rapidly. We’ll also be rolling out Hearken as an engagement tool in Southwest Ohio, before expanding statewide. Finally, we’re set to launch a statewide focus on economic vibrancy, exploring the challenges and solutions Ohio communities face as the economy continues to shift.

If you’re interested in learning more or sharing what you know, we’d love to hear from you! If you have a story or solution about opioids we’re missing, would like to connect with other reporters covering opioids, or are eager to explore face-to-face engagement in your newsroom, please be in touch at andrew@yourvoiceohio.org. You can also follow our work on Facebook, Twitter, and our weekly newsletter.