How the Local Voices Network uses conversation and collaboration to inspire responsive journalism
The Local Voices Network works with libraries, schools, nonprofits, city agencies, citizens and journalists
It was a rainy October evening on New York’s Lower East Side and I was sitting at a table inside Seward Park Library discussing gentrification with seven people I had never met before.
The conversation was led by the Local Voices Network, an organization that gathers small groups of people to share personal experiences around a certain topic or issue. I left the library that night feeling better informed about city processes, more closely connected to my neighbors, and with a clearer idea of how it feels for longtime residents to experience rapid neighborhood change.
Establishing this understanding is central to LVN’s mission, although it is just a starting point. By partnering with public libraries and community organizations, LVN aims to surface unheard voices, or those that aren’t usually represented in media or government. As we spoke, a round wooden device in the middle of the table — called the “digital hearth” — recorded our conversation.
When these recordings are made available to local media partners, LVN hopes it inspires a reflective and responsive style of journalism, which could lead to better outcomes in marginalized communities. But first, LVN just wants to get neighbors talking.
A healthier public sphere
In four months, LVN has hosted 65 conversations with more than 300 participants at nine New York Public Library branches in Manhattan, Staten Island, and the Bronx. This progress builds on a successful pilot year in Wisconsin, which started in Madison last January and has since expanded north to Appleton and Waupaca.
Cortico, a nonprofit founded out of the Lab for Social Machines at MIT, launched LVN to host public conversations around Madison’s mayoral race in 2019. Cortico’s co-founder and chairman Deb Roy was Twitter’s chief media scientist from 2014 to 2017 — a poor time for healthy discourse — and wanted to promote better conversations among citizens, journalists, and officials.
Cortico worked with UW-Madison political science professor Katherine Cramer, an expert in public opinion and political participation, to build the project. Cramer looped in the Capital Times, Madison Public Library, and a facilitation expert to host conversations and train others.
That expert was Colleen Butler, the former race and gender equity director at YWCA Madison. According to Butler, many public listening projects don’t accurately reflect the communities they’re serving. But LVN focused on these underrepresented voices, and it has become a core tenet of its work in Wisconsin and New York.
“This process of having small group conversations — where you can be more deliberate in making sure they are in places with people who are most impacted by a particular issue or decision — it gives us those voices that aren’t usually heard,” Butler says.
The digital hearth is what preserves those voices. The fireside-chat-invoking device can seem a bit gimmicky, and when Cortico COO David van Dokkum first saw it, he asked the same question I did: what’s wrong with using an iPhone?
With eight built-in microphones, the hearth is a far more sophisticated recording device. It also has a speaker, so hosts can bring in voices from previous conversations with audio playback. The device certainly inspired curiosity at my conversation, adding a high-tech legitimacy that may have felt less important if someone’s iPhone was sitting in the middle of the table.
It was still obvious that our conversation was being recorded, and many of us wondered what would happen to our words after. Currently, LVN relies on human transcription, though van Dokkum says Cortico is hoping to fully automate this process soon (diarization, or automatically attributing names to voices, is tricky).
Once the conversations are transcribed, they are uploaded to an online platform. About a week after my conversation, I received a follow-up email to create an account. I was then able to access the audio from my conversation, which was sorted by name and topic, with a full transcript below it.
On the platform, participants are encouraged to highlight passages they resonate with — similar to the green highlighting tool on Medium — and make comments to flag quotes or provide additional context. Only hosts, participants, librarians, and news partners have access to the conversations. The hosts are currently the most active users, and often highlight or comment to link common themes together.
Users can also search the entire conversation archive for keywords, or explore passages categorized under broad topics like poverty, housing, transportation, education, and environment. On the homepage, there’s an interactive map that sorts every conversation by neighborhood and recency.
Van Dokkum says many of these functionalities are designed to help journalists discover new voices on a topic, or quickly understand what real people think about a given issue. They’re even able to embed parts of a conversation into a story.
But this requires journalists to incorporate a new, unfamiliar tool in their reporting process. It’s also a leap of faith for many participants — can they trust journalists to use open dialogue in a responsible and accurate way?
Collaborative journalism is built on trust
In Madison, the Capital Times has produced multiple articles and a podcast episode out of LVN. The articles usefully collect quotes from conversations on race or education, and it’s just the beginning of how LVN hopes to permeate reporting.
That’s the challenge for Max Resnik, Cortico’s lead for media and journalism. In two cities, LVN now produces a trove of direct community concerns. Journalism is the next step, and this type of audience collaboration has to work both ways. If LVN can become part of how journalism gets created, Resnik says, then people may also start to see their role in the news-making process.
It’ll have to start with trust. Butler says people have two main reactions to being recorded. Some are excited that their thoughts might be used and feel empowered when hearing their voice in the local press. But others are guarded and feel nervous about sharing their experiences without controlling what gets amplified by the media (though participants can request redactions of their audio from the conversation).
The gaps in media representation are real. Journalism is rarely reflective of everyone’s reality, much less responsive to the needs of marginalized populations. Yet these unheard voices are precisely who LVN hopes to represent, and these gaps are where it aims to have an impact.
Last February, Cortico received a $2 million grant from the Knight Foundation “to help journalists build trust by better understanding the communities they serve and the issues they care about.” The funds will help LVN improve its Wisconsin and New York efforts, while also expanding to Massachusetts and Alabama.
In Birmingham, LVN will collaborate with veteran community organizer T. Marie King, the Center for Public Integrity, and AL.com, where it plans to hire a local journalism fellow to build stronger relationships with participants and develop creative ways to bring their voices into reporting.
Resnik believes partnering with hyperlocal outlets can establish trust and is looking to work with Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism (BINJ) in Massachusetts. He’s also calling on CUNY’s social journalism program — his alma mater and an early testing ground for LVN — to provide key resources in New York, along with the nonprofit newsroom The City, who runs a similar Open Newsroom project with Brooklyn Public Library.
Ideally, Resnik says these collaborations can fuel journalism based on three principles:
- Reflective. “People should be able to see voices from their community in journalism. At minimum, friends or family showed up to conversations, spoke about concerns, and were quoted or found their way into reporting.”
- Responsive. “In the South Bronx, there’s a huge congressional election that’s coming up. Traditionally, journalism has been super top-down, but we can set the agenda through conversations that are people-powered. If people are raising questions or need more clarity, a news organization should get an idea of how to produce something that is more useful for folks.”
- Transformative. “That’s the holy grail. People come together to have conversations and whatever is produced — a new community group that pops up, or reporting that causes a law to be changed — that actually transforms the way people live for the better.”
One year in, Resnik says the Capital Times has been more reflective. And while it’s a promising start, there is lots more work to be done.
The power of conversation
Achieving these outcomes takes time and can be difficult to measure. But LVN’s efforts in Wisconsin have already drawn major attention.
In 2020, Madison’s Police and Fire Commission is partnering with LVN to inform how it picks the next police chief. Butler says the PFC approached LVN about hosting intentional small group conversations with underrepresented communities, and officers will also receive its facilitation training.
Imagine Fox Cities and United Way, two nonprofits hosting public listening projects around Wisconsin, are also partnering with LVN to identify important themes across hundreds of conversations this year.
Resnik says too often, public engagement ends with tons of sticky notes, and little action. That’s where LVN comes in: every word is documented, insights are analyzed, and it’s easy to see how voices translate to an outcome.
According to Butler and Resnik, participants frequently return to conversations and connect them with community organizations, whether it’s supporting seniors in Staten Island or talking with Madison men at a homeless shelter to design better facilities.
More often, participants will learn something at a conversation that is personally helpful — a young parent navigating school choice gets advice from an experienced teacher, or a frustrated cyclist meets other frustrated cyclists and they band together to demand more bike lanes.
At my conversation on gentrification in the Lower East Side, many of us were upset about real estate development and unsure of what to do. The librarian had an answer: the library would soon be hosting an informational event about proposed towers in the neighborhood, where we could give input through a dedicated public process.
We all talked more afterwards, exchanged contacts, and made plans to follow up on what we discussed. At its core, this is what LVN does best. Local conversations connect the dots between concerned and informed neighbors who never knew each other existed.
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The production of this case study was supported by a grant from Rita Allen Foundation.
Will Fischer is a journalist covering the intersection of technology and media. He’s worked for Business Insider and New York magazine, and conducted local news research for City Bureau. Follow Will on Twitter @willfisch15 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Center for Cooperative Media: The Center is a grant-funded program of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. Its mission is to grow and strengthen local journalism, and in doing so serve New Jersey residents. The Center is supported with funding from Montclair State University, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Democracy Fund, the New Jersey Local News Lab (a partnership of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Democracy Fund, and Community Foundation of New Jersey), and the Abrams Foundation. For more information, visit CenterforCooperativeMedia.org.