Q&A: Sonam Vashi on why lasting trust requires collaboration
Toward a new type of participatory journalism
Sonam Vashi is a co-founder of Canopy Atlanta, a non-profit that works with community members across Atlanta to create and share journalism.
Canopy Atlanta spotlights different neighborhoods with digital magazine issues, where they listen, involve, and train community members to report and produce the stories alongside experienced journalists.
We caught up with Vashi to hear about Canopy Atlanta’s collaborative approach and its vision for a new type of participatory journalism that can build lasting trust.
WF: How did you get into journalism?
SV: I grew up in Norcross, a super diverse community and a suburb of Atlanta. I’m from a South Asian family and we don’t have a lot of journalists in our family. We had a community magazine about South Asians in Atlanta, but we never saw ourselves in the local newspaper. I didn’t know anyone who had ever been to a public meeting or anything like that — we seemed pretty isolated from democratic or civic processes.
But we still had this really strong community and I was drawn to journalism because of this. I worked at the college paper at Emory, but the bigger step was participating in the Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases project. We did investigations into killings of Black Georgians in the Civil Rights Era, who lost their lives from systems of white supremacy but were often never brought to justice.
Doing this restorative work was interesting to me because a lot of the papers were involved in these cover-ups. They just took police narratives at face value. I was interested in acknowledging the harm that journalism did and being a part of fixing that. That’s what made me excited about journalism and what its future could be.
WF: How does the Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases project work? Did it help start your journalism career?
SV: It’s a very collaborative project. It’s run by Hank Klibanoff, who has also turned it into a podcast and is winning tons of awards. In addition to Emory, the local public radio station WABE is where the podcast happens, and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta is involved, along with other community organizations.
After college, I worked for CNN, including during the run-up to the 2016 election. Part of my job was on the fact-checking desk. This became a huge spectacle for CNN, with the debate fact-check team. As you may remember, that was a very fact-free time.
I came out of that election being like, ‘What did we just spend our time doing? Was the amount of time and late nights we spent fact-checking worth it? Did anyone care? Was it enough to combat the air time we gave Trump?’ I came away with all these questions and frustrations and just feeling complicit in the whole thing.
To me, it seemed like this good editorial decision to fact-check and be rigorous did not beat out the business incentive to get ratings by airing it in the first place and making it into a spectacle. CNN was in no way alone in this — but that’s when I started to get really frustrated about the business incentives in our industry.
WF: What led you to get involved with Canopy Atlanta?
SV: In 2019, a local journalist named Max Blau piloted a project with the Center for Civic Innovation in Atlanta. He collaborated with residents in Atlanta’s Pittsburgh neighborhood. It’s a historically Black neighborhood facing a ton of changes, and he did this participatory journalism project where he asked community members what they thought the issues of the neighborhood were.
Max trained three residents to report on the story that the community chose and then they published it in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. That was a pilot example of what Canopy Atlanta does now.
Then, Max gathered about two dozen local journalists in a room to talk about how Atlanta media was declining and becoming disconnected from the people it served. We created working groups, did some exercises to identify the biggest problems, and out of that, six of us started Canopy Atlanta: Max, Mike Jordan, Floyd Hall, Mariann Martin, Kamille Whittaker, and myself.
WF: What is Canopy Atlanta currently working on?
SV: We report and share journalism with communities through neighborhood-based digital magazine issues, a series of stories we produce. First, we do deep community listening in a particular Atlanta neighborhood. We set out to find a diverse cross-section of 50 to 150 residents and listen to what they think the most important issues are in their community, as well as what they love about their neighborhood.
We then develop story ideas out of that and convene a paid editorial board to sift through the responses and identify some more narrow story topics. We also have community journalism fellows, who are residents in that neighborhood, that we pay and train over six weeks to report out those stories alongside experienced journalists.
Our first issue was in West End, a majority black neighborhood in Atlanta, and we had a range of fellows there, from a reproductive justice advocate, to someone who ran a door-to-door neighborhood newsletter, to a really talented Instagram fashion photographer who wanted to learn more field reporting skills.
That photographer was Aboubacar Kante, who teamed up with Gavin Godfrey, an experienced Atlanta journalist, to write an award-winning story about teams of boys selling water in Atlanta. Gavin helped Aboubacar with field reporting skills and tips to navigate interviews, while Aboubacar helped Gavin gain access and trust into these communities, since he’s a bit younger and grew up in that neighborhood.
This model has proven very successful for us in terms of producing better journalism and highlighting communities in ways they want to be represented. It also built capacity for Aboubacar to continue reporting in the community — he’s now done photography for places like The New York Times and Bloomberg, and has confidence to pursue his own reporting projects.
WF: What have you learned from this work? What’s next for Canopy Atlanta?
SV: People don’t feel like they can access the information they need to make decisions. We hear this all the time in our listening work, things like, ‘How do I get rental assistance? How do I get all these government services that are theoretically available but difficult to figure out? How do I get food this week? What events are going on in my community?’
We have such a rich journalism scene in Atlanta and there are also so many gaps that still exist. We focus on neighborhoods that have been historically overlooked by the media. People have a sense of pride in where they live, but they don’t like how they’ve been perceived or represented by local media.
You want to drive engagement, but you have to represent communities in ways that are accurate and that they have agency around. Feeling connected to your community is really important. This makes people trust the information more and participate in solutions around it. We’re not telling people what to do as the result of a story, but it actually mobilizes people to want to do something about it.
It’s more lasting trust. Traditionally, trust is saying, ‘I’m so smart and so thoughtful that you should trust me’ — whereas I think the more sustainable vision of trust is, ‘I trust this information because I know how it was produced, I had a part in producing it, or it reflects my experience.’ I think that trust in the system requires participation in it.
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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 email@example.com.
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, 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.