There is a lot of buzz lately in Baltimore around the Baltimore Sun purchasing the City Paper. It’s inspired me to share a story about what a community in East Baltimore, one that many have long since written off, is doing to leverage its own resources to reinvent the notion of a community newspaper. As a media geek like myself, it begins with pondering a simple question: What is the core purpose of a newspaper? Any old-school journalist will tell you it’s not about advertising revenue or circulation numbers. At the end of the day, it’s really about the distribution of information, free of bias to serve the greater good.
Unfortunately, that isn’t the same operating principle of the society in which we operate today. Look around you, and you’ll notice that the media landscape represents a vastly different ideology our utopian ideal. Page views, pings, re-tweets, ratings, share, and financial ROI drive innovation in the sphere of media. New technologies allowed corporate boardrooms to control the media we consume. Worst of all, those few who dare to reject the notion of corporate-controlled media are unable to find sustainability through bona fide journalism (like our beloved City Paper), or revert to feeds and lists that maximize likes on social media websites.
But myself and a team from the MICA Center for Social Design believe that all hope isn’t lost and there’s more we can do. We’ve worked with a group of community partners in the East Baltimore neighborhood of McElderry Park to co-found a neighborhood newspaper called the McElderry Park Star.
I know what you’re thinking: neighborhood newsletters aren’t an “innovative” idea. But so far, we’ve distributed two issues of the paper, and I wanted to discuss why the Star is radically different from both traditional neighborhood newsletters and newspapers, and why we think this is the future of news media.
A few months ago, a local organization called the Citizen’s Planning and Housing Administration hosted a two-day leadership training for residents of McElderry Park. One of the sessions talked about the importance of community newsletters: not just the utilitarian benefit of distributing information, but also in terms of the social impact and community building.
As a result, several residents formed a working group to create such a newsletter for their neighborhood. Because of our relationships through our work in the community, myself and Jonathan Erwin, currently a Social Design fellow from the Robert W Deutsch Foundation, got involved with the effort. We proffered our design knowledge and the weight of our respective institutions to help launch the paper. What happened since then is an overwhelming amount of support from community organizations and neighborhood residents to contribute, design, and distribute the Star.
Here’s how it works: Every two months, a working group for the newsletter meets and discusses content for the paper. Our editorial board is open for anyone to participate. A few core members of the team that regularly attend to make the effort grows, and many other community members have varying levels of commitment. Most importantly, all the content of the paper—text, photographs, maps—is generated by community residents.
We spotlight positive movements and hope in a community that has experienced and is overcoming decades of crime, drugs, gangs and socio-economic and racial discrimination. We believe that highlighting individual changemakers in the community is vital to achieve our goal. Each issue, we also feature a “Meet Your Neighbor” section, where we profile community members who are making a positive social impact in their neighborhood.
Once the paper is laid out and content assembled, we print and publish 3000 copies of the 16-page tabloid newspaper. On distribution Saturdays, 20 to 25 community residents come to a local church and for a quick breakfast and social time. Over coffee, participants divide up on a block-by-block basis and over the course of the following two to three hours distribute over 2000 copies of the paper—by hand, personally—to every home in the community.
We believe that the value of our approach is incredible. Since we’ve begun publishing, we’ve observed a marked increase in attendance of community meetings and functions. We’re getting residents of the community who otherwise didn’t know how to get involved participating with their neighbors. We’re connecting people to services they didn’t know existed—be it educational, workforce training, after school activities for youth, or healthcare.
Residents love our personal hand delivery process. People inspired by the fact that someone respect them enough to interact before delivering the paper. We encourage conversation and meeting neighbors. It’s a notable and sharp contrast to traditional delivery methods that operate on the principle of efficiency and end up with papers dropped on stoops or thrown at doors.
This is the future of media. It’s not the twitter-sphere, it’s not Facebook or Buzzfeed: it’s ultimately about people and the human experience. Pageviews and advertising revenue, while they might look wonderful on paper, don’t matter in the end when we’re concerned with how people live. What we hope the Star demonstrates how media platforms can provide a voice to the unheard. We believe in the power of communication and information as tools for empowerment.
By providing a democratic and supportive platform to be civically engaged, we are transforming the community from the inside out.
It’s unfortunate that we are losing another independent medium in the Baltimore media ecosystem. But it is also an opportunity to innovate and rethink how media works in our communities. By banding together as communities and citizens across Baltimore, we can cultivate a new ecosystem of innovative media platforms.
Now is a wonderful time to get out, meet your neighbor and gain a deeper understanding of the rich socio-economic, racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds that make this city so wonderful.
To find out more information about the McElderry Park Star, visit our website at http://mcelderryparkstar.com (still under construction so it’s messy), or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’d like to meet in person and get an issue first hand, email me at email@example.com and we’ll have coffee.