Akilah Johnson
May 28 · 3 min read

How might understanding a community’s information needs, values, and sources grow audiences and expand reach in historically underserved communities?

Photo by Keith Bedford

What do we want as an industry? Really want? At the most base level: Survival. And for that to happen, we must grow audiences and expand reach — especially in historically underserved communities, which, in far too many newsrooms, have been left out of strategic plans for the future.

I arrived at Stanford thinking there was a mobile tech solution. About three miles from campus, I learned I was wrong. I’d assumed bridging the disconnect between local and legacy newsrooms and the communities they serve was a question of how to get news into people’s hands without fully considering the content of what would be delivered. Using a design-thinking, iterative process, this became clear: The sources of information trusted by community members are not who mainstream newsrooms typically rely on to tell a story.

A lack of trust and relevance, not just logistics, stymies growth and expansion in communities of color, low-income neighborhoods, rural areas — or any population of people historically-omitted from mainstream policy decisions and discussions. Lesson learned.

So how do you improve trust and relevance in neglected communities? Start by understanding the information needs, values, and sources on which people rely.

Getting a baseline of how these communities are reflected in news coverage can be automated. The skills required to repair the harm — on-the-ground human contact — cannot. This is about relationship-building and storytelling approaches that help people see, feel, and understand others.

So here are some things to keep in mind.

Find the influencers.

Don’t underestimate the art of small talk and man-on-the-street interviews to help journalists find community influencers. Start by talking to people at community hubs — libraries, schools, civic centers, churches, etc.

Influencers endorse a journalist’s and/or news organization’s credibility through introductions and word-of-mouth conversation, leading to improved access within a community mistrustful of media organizations.

No community is a monolith. Remember intersectionality and diversify sources, finding “usual” and “unusual” community influencers. (Think: Teachers, principals, advocates and activists, pastors, scholars, barbers, gardeners, and elected officials, etc.)

A shareable online survey that asks community members to nominate reliable sources for reporters in a variety of subject areas, including faith, local business and politics, and housing, can streamline and accelerate the process.

Uncover information needs and values.

Ask: Who and where do you go to for news and information about your community? What stories are journalists getting wrong about the community where you live, work, and play? What stories are journalists missing? What should we cover? Who else should I (interviewing reporter) talk to?

Exploring results for top online searches in a geographic area is a possible digital shortcut that can complement these in-real-life efforts to discover a community’s information needs and values.

Listen and observe.

Be mindful.

Be present.

Be humble.

Be transparent.

The recipe for journalism to survive and thrive is complicated, but a key ingredient is one that for too long has been overlooked — growing audiences and expanding reach in historically underserved communities. Sure, more training is required but just as important is leadership that is strategic — and intentional — about bringing more voices into the conversation.


Akilah Johnson can be reached at akjohn@stanford.edu. Follow her on Twitter @akjohnson1922

JSK Class of 2019

Insights and updates from members of the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships Class of 2019 at Stanford University

Akilah Johnson

Written by

Reporter who loves telling untold stories (read: under-reported issues & underserved communities). @JSKStanford Journalism Fellow ’19 | @BostonGlobe

JSK Class of 2019

Insights and updates from members of the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships Class of 2019 at Stanford University

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade