What can the Ensley Asks project teach us about the sustainability problem in engaged journalism?

Jake Lynch
Jun 28, 2018 · 6 min read
Ensley locals asking Ensley questions at Ensley Asks

Ensley Asks provides a platform for locals to ask any questions they have about events impacting their community, and for local reporters to hear those questions.

In 2016, reporter and producer Mary Quintas spent nine months in Ensley, Alabama, a city neighborhood of Birmingham that has struggled in recent decades with the closure of major industries, and now suffers high rates of unemployment and crime.

The reporting project that resulted, The Junction, was one of 15 community-based journalism placements that made up Localore’s Finding America series.

The stories Quintas produced, in partnership with local NPR station WHBM, demonstrated what the people of Ensley already knew; that there was much more to their neighborhood than the stories of crime, drugs and abandonment that typically dominated news coverage about Ensley.

They were remarkable, beautiful stories about the people and places of Ensley, stories of change, of hope, and the efforts of local residents to adjust as the fortunes of their neighborhood waned over decades of decline.

Just as Localore intended, The Junction shed new light on a community that had for years been typecast in local media, and was suffering the effects of a negative stereotype.

As powerful as it was, The Junction also highlighted the biggest challenge for many well-intentioned engaged journalism projects — sustainability.

Funding for the Finding America placements ran for just nine months, and so less than a year after meeting and forming real relationships with the people of Ensley, Quintas was gone. WBHM could not afford to refill the reporting capacity, and almost immediately Ensley returned to the scant, crime-dominated coverage it suffered before The Junction.

A bridge had been built that could not be maintained.

For 100 Days in Appalachia’s engaged journalism series I wanted to explore solutions to this sustainability problem, engagement strategies that didn’t rely on finding the funding for additional reporting capacity, or asking a reporter to just work more hours.

Having worked in small newsrooms before, I knew that if for an outlet to do better community engagement they had to spend money or additional time, then it probably wasn’t going to stick.

I knew whatever I did in Ensley had to make it easier for reporters to access and cover stories that were pertinent and timely to that community. It had to be a shortcut, a hack.

Ensley seemed like the perfect place to experiment with a new way to address that problem, for a few key reasons.

One: they had the civic infrastructure. Ensley Alive is a grassroots community organization run by local residents that seeks to make improvements to the neighborhood. With their help, and the involvements of several neighborhood groups in the city, I’d be able to reach people and organize gatherings.

Two: there’s a range of media outlets in and around Birmingham with a vested interest in better reporting in Ensley, most of them aware that lack of newsroom capacity is limiting their coverage.

Importantly, a few of those outlets are small, independent newsrooms, such as Birmingham Watch. Planning and hosting engaged journalism initiatives across Appalachia this year, I’ve seen that outlets like these have proven themselves more receptive to creative engaged journalism initiatives than large legacy newsrooms.

I knew whatever I did in Ensley had to make it easier for reporters to access and cover stories that were pertinent and timely to that community. It had to be a shortcut, a hack.

Ensley Asks is a simple vehicle for residents to ask reporters to find them answers to questions they have about issues impacting the community.

And it needed to rebuild the bridge of faith, trust and interaction between the people of Ensley and local media that had been eroded.

So after talking with the leaders of Ensley Alive and as many local reporters and editors as would give me the time, I created the Ensley Asks project, a simple vehicle for residents to ask reporters to find them answers to questions they have about issues impacting the community.

Ensley residents had told me that probably the most debilitating consequence of poor media coverage in their community was misinformation. Rumor and speculation about local goings on took the place of fact and informed discussion.

Ensley was in many ways a media desert, except when it came to arrests, overdoses and court reports. And locals had questions about many other things that were happening, or not happening, in their community.

I saw an opportunity. Those unanswered questions, about development proposals, business closings, what their local councilor was up to, for example, were story ideas for any reporter who wanted a shortcut to content that would matter to the people of Ensley.

The idea came to me after hearing local residents swap rumors about the proposed redevelopment of the abandoned Ramsay-McCormack building. It had been said that the previous city administration was going to move their police headquarters into the space, which would be a huge boost to the community.

I’m convinced that demonstrating their value to the community is a necessary first step for media outlets if they are to rebuild relationships with local people.

But with a new council and mayor in place after a recent election, no one knew whether the proposal would go ahead, or what other plans were in place, if any, for the iconic local building.

It struck me that if a reporter could track down some answers and write a story that clarified the new administration’s plans for the building, and other relevant development proposals in the works, it be a hugely useful, and well-read, story in Ensley.

Ensley Asks provides a platform for locals to ask any questions they have about events impacting their community, and for local reporters to hear those questions.

Residents submit their questions by uploading a short video to Instagram or Twitter using the hashtag #EnsleyAsks. Their video will then appear on the Ensley Asks website.

My hope is that by answering some of those questions in the form of reporting about Ensley, local media can demonstrate their value and worth to local residents, as critical information providers.

I’m convinced that demonstrating their value to the community is a necessary first step for media outlets if they are to rebuild relationships with local people, and eventually turn those local people into new audience members, and supporters.

Poor media coverage is a disengagement problem that runs both ways. People that live in a community also have a responsibility to engage with the newsroom, to ask questions, to demand information, to call or write or walk through the door.

I also wanted Ensley residents to see that they can be directors of local news coverage, and that they are active participants in the media landscape. And that reporters have faces and phone numbers, and that the good ones want to listen to people and are interested in what concerns people in Ensley have.

As I’ve seen in communities throughout West Virginia, poor media coverage is a disengagement problem that runs both ways. As much as a news outlet has a responsibility to listen and pay attention, so too do the people that live in a community have a responsibility to engage with the newsroom, to ask questions, to demand information, to call or write or walk through the door.

Ensley Asks creates that space for reporter and resident to meet. In the interests of making the reporter’s job as easy as possible, the website includes contact information for knowledgeable local people and community representatives that can serve as a useful first port of call for reporters looking for local info.

The sustainability concern dictated every part of the process.

If it’s going to work it has to last beyond me, which is why the Ensley Asks website is free, requires no ongoing subscription, and requires almost no web savvy to maintain. It uses social media platforms many residents already use and are comfortable with.

The only requirements are: one, that people in Ensley have questions about things going on in their neighborhood and, two, that local reporters care about covering Ensley.

I’m hoping both these assumptions stand. The success of the project depends on them.

Jake Lynch

Written by

Hybrid Australian/West Virginian, friend of dogs, enemy of cats. These posts are about work I'm doing as Community Engagement Editor at 100 Days in Appalachia.

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