The beta run of bringing our newsroom into Boston’s neighborhoods
By Chris Faraone
There are perks to being a burgeoning nonprofit news outfit that must use our donations wisely. In forgoing the expense of leasing traditional digs in this early phase, our nomadic habits often bring us to Roxbury, where Future Boston Alliance (FBA) has been kind enough to give us meeting space, and to Workbar, where we’ve met people ranging from young programmers to one new friend who tracks politics from ward to ward and square to remote square, West Roxbury to Eastie.
On the notion that our being thrust into community hands was a blessing, we thought to leverage the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism (BINJ) to facilitate even more engaged experiences. It only makes sense — people often think the media’s detached from what actually happens on the ground, and showing up in person seems like a good start to changing that perception. The concept is simple — take a desk, some chairs, a rug, and office supplies, and set up shop in public. From there, the idea is to converse with residents. If the process sounds familiar, that’s because it’s what reporters used to do before their publishers began demanding that they file two-dozen blog posts a day.
This first opportunity to introduce BINJ MOBILE, as we’re calling our engagement project, came thanks to Press Pass TV, a Boston youth media nonprofit that is helping BINJ get started. After meeting and debriefing Chris Krewson of the Philadelphia-based Billy Penn about a pop-up they did pegged to an election (which was inspired by a similar approach by Montclair State’s NJ News Commons), I asked Press Pass if my team could crash their August movie night in Dudley Square. They obliged, and the next thing we knew, we were scrounging up some scenery that might convince folks to sit down with us.
We’re happy to report that people were happy to talk; as we told person after person at the pop-up, none of this is lip service on our part. Along with many of the freelancers who are collaborating with us, I have personally built my career on listening to those who aren’t being heard by others. Jeff Jarvis recently noted that, with so many newsrooms shrinking, reporters need to stop recycling the next guy’s trash, and hit the pavement for original stories and sources. In doing that in Dudley, here are a few things we heard:
Checking out our vintage typewriters (kind of like our IRL version of click bait, they serve as awesome conversation starters), one mother of a boy and girl in grade school said that young people should write more, and specifically that they should write about their neighborhoods. As we explained, this is a big part of our mission, starting with workshops that we do with Press Pass TV, as well as with another project we have slated to begin in September.
These conversations came on the heels of an especially bloody couple of days in Greater Boston, and in speaking with people about violence, some brought up initiatives in community policing, with residents of Dorchester and Roxbury reporting to have seen more cops on the street this year — out of their cars, on foot and on bike — than in past summers.
Other than violence, the overwhelming concerns among those who sat with us were related to housing and employment. “They need to put businesses in the community,” one person scribbled on our giant note pad. They continued: “It seems like all they put around here is new housing.”
The comments and concerns go on, and on, and on, and our plan is to keep adding to the list and to use the info in developing and cultivating features. We also brought an old-fashioned Rolodex, and attached phone numbers to topics people know especially well. For example, a woman who lives close to an increasingly controversial complex soon to be under development is filed under the name of that construction project.
As for leads … among others, we look forward to speaking further with Allen Curry (pictured above in the red shirt), who served as one of the first African-American firefighters in Boston following a 1973 court decree that forced minority hiring. The hostility he faced back then was brutal, and his resulting struggle with the city still endures today, more than 40 years later, as do comparable employment nightmares for countless younger people of color who have come after him. It’s hard to find that kind of community memory online; had BINJ not popped up in Dudley, and approached Curry in person, we may have never heard about his story.