The Importance of Collaboration Between Newsrooms and Their Communities

Photo by Alice Donovan Rouse on Unsplash
What role should communities play in the journalistic process?

In an era where anyone with a smartphone standing in the right place at the right time can practice journalism, whether they consider themselves journalists or not, the question is especially pertinent. The decline of traditional newsrooms as the solitary gatekeepers of “the news” (courtesy of mass layoffs, shrinking budgets, and the aforementioned prevalence of self-publishing tools) cements its importance. It’s not a matter of if communities will play a role in producing the news, but how.

But before that question can be answered, others must be asked. For example, do we actually know that communities want to have a say in how their news is produced? If so, how much of a say do they want, and why? Do they simply want to have some input in what topics are covered (and how), or do they want to be active participants and partners in the process of reporting the news?

This avenue of inquiry formed a core part of my graduate research at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication. The research, which was a requirement for receiving my M.S. in strategic communication, took the better part of a year and concluded in June. The resulting study — “Welcome to Bridgetown: Bridging the Gaps Between the Worlds of Professional and Citizen Journalism” — attempted to shed some light on these questions. I conducted phone interviews with 11 newsrooms and used the Qualtrics software platform to survey a representative sample of 362 members of the adult public in Oregon, California, and Washington.

While not all of my findings are directly relevant to Gather’s engagement focus, many of them are. In particular, the answers newsrooms and survey respondents gave regarding how they see the potential strengths and weaknesses of collaboration were illuminating. Before we get too far into the answers, however, let’s establish a baseline by answering a fundamental question: From the perspective of the public, how well is the news media doing its job?

According to this study’s sample, the answer is a mixed bag. Overall, the journalism industry enjoys modest support from the general public, with 52% of respondents agreeing with the statement “I trust the news to generally be accurate and fair in its coverage of issues that are important to me.” More local or specific news seems to be better regarded, with 76% of respondents agreeing with a similar statement that “the news sources I use most often do a good job covering issues that are important to me.” When respondents are broken down into discrete population segments, however, the picture begins to look a bit different:

As seen above, respondents who identified as conservative, young, or lacking a college education were less trusting of the news than the average — significantly less so, in the case of conservative and non-college educated respondents. Support for local or specific news in all three segments (along with non-Caucasian respondents), though remaining in the 70% range, dropped below the overall average. While not necessarily a groundbreaking new discovery, these findings nevertheless reinforce the notion that journalists have some work to do if they want to build up trust with the communities they serve.

So, we’ve established there’s a bit of a trust issue. Or at the very least, we’ve established there’s room for improvement. Great. So where do we go from here? Well, we can start with the study’s definitive answer to one of the questions posed earlier:

Communities want to have a say in how their news is produced.

More specifically, 80% of survey respondents supported a local news model where they had some say in how their news is produced. What shape that involvement should take varied from respondent to respondent. Here are some of the more popular ways:

  • 71% of respondents supported a neighborhood news hub (website, smartphone app, etc.) hosted and maintained by professional journalists but produced by members of their neighborhood.
  • 63% of respondents felt that the quality and coverage of their local news would benefit if they helped newsrooms identify newsworthy topics.
  • 61% of respondents were willing to provide newsrooms with information on local issues they knew about.
  • 60% of respondents would be willing to report on important issues on behalf of newsrooms if they were compensated for their time.

It appears that communities are on board with the idea of being a part of the journalistic process. More than that, they appear to be interested in being active collaborators with newsrooms, rather than merely passive audiences. At a time when trust in the media is at a historic low, this seeming willingness to work with professional journalists rather than at odds with them is encouraging.

Newsrooms, too, saw advantages to collaboration. Of the newsrooms that participated in the study, all 11 felt that their reporting could be improved if they involved their communities in the reporting process in some way. However, only three newsrooms out of 11 had formal policies for utilizing content produced by members of the community, and no participating newsroom reported having a comprehensive newsroom-wide policy or procedure for working with community members.

Clearly, there remains quite a bit of ground to cover before the journalism industry finds a consistently good collaborative fit with the public. More rigorous academic research needs to be done on the topic, for one. While I’m confident of the quality of my data, my study barely scratches the surface of a so far largely neglected avenue of academic study (though the full version does contain more relevant information than is included in this post). Additionally, as suggested above, many newsrooms may have a fair amount of groundwork to do before they can effectively take advantage of the public’s willingness to partner with them.

Despite the present lack of definitive answers to our initial question (“What role should communities play in the journalistic process?”), I do believe that one thing is clear: It’s important that newsrooms collaborate with their communities. Along with other reports and case studies found on Gather and elsewhere, this study’s findings suggest that people want their newsrooms to engage with them. Perhaps more importantly, it also suggests that they want to engage with their newsrooms.

In brief, we may not know the specifics of the role that communities should play in the journalistic process yet, but seems likely that, as is often the case, engaged journalism will form the core of the answer.

Onward!


Keegan Clements-Housser is the Projects & Events Producer at the University of Oregon School of Journalism & Communication’s Agora Journalism Center, the gathering place for innovation in communication and civic engagement. Clements-Housser is also the Project Manager for Gather.