News in your backyard: Sprouting connection via pop-up newsrooms

Intersections South LA Editor Marisa Zocco interviews South LA resident Maria Hernandez during the publication’s first pop-up newsroom in Oct. 2016.

The community of South Los Angeles is more than a neighbor to USC. In fact, it’s more like the campus’ roommate.

Chances are that those entering a shared housing arrangement would likely attempt to get to know one another, at least a little. Yet, even though one of the top journalism schools in the nation and the largest region of Los Angeles share a home, South LA remains under-reported.

During my time in the field as a reporter and editor for Intersections South LA, USC’s South LA-focused news publication, the community often voiced feeling either ignored or taken advantage of by its prominent roommate. According to our metaphorical housemates, USC had a savior complex. Obviously a perception like that doesn’t lend itself to an open, trusting dialogue between reporters and the public — a necessary component of quality journalism.

Enter the pop-up newsroom — a community engagement initiative intent on establishing genuine connections with South LA while learning its news and views.

Tuning into local narrative and needs

In October 2016, Intersections South LA set up a tent at the corner of Slauson and Vermont avenues in South LA — the first of a series of pop-up newsrooms. With a table and two chairs, a camera and audio recording
equipment rolling, we welcomed community members to stop and chat with us. Many walked past, but several stopped.

At these pop-ups, residents have invited presidential candidates to learn more about South LA, shared their experiences with policing in their neighborhoods and talked about the most important issues facing their community ahead of a local election.

Our aim for the pop-up is to connect with our audience and get a feel for its people, listening carefully for the issues they feel are over- or under-reported, the local causes they feel deserve a spotlight and strong voices with authentic, local stories. Most importantly, this means truly putting the community and its narrative first.

Here, we also we also survey participants to measure how they gather news and how informed they feel on general versus South LA-specific news. Our surveys revealed that despite 62 percent of participants responding that they check the news multiple times a day, the majority also felt relatively uninformed about South LA news.

This proved to us the need for solutions-based journalism and community reporting initiatives that go beyond reporting crime or other in-depth hard-hitting stories in a digital format, but also highlight a wide variety of topics such as food, arts and entertainment, and local politics in visual and interactive formats easily shared on social media.

Strengthening journalism skills to amplify local voices

USC is a powerful, wealthy institution and South LA is a middle-and low-income, almost entirely Latino and black community. When broken down to the student level, many of USCs students tend to be from more affluent backgrounds than common in neighborhoods near the university. There’s a clear power dynamic, and plenty of sensitive cultural boundary lines that can be unintentionally crossed.

For many student journalists, to step out of their comfort zones and into diverse communities is a first and can be a shock.

Pop-up newsrooms challenge intimidation by fully immersing a small team of journalists in South LA culture in a way that feels safe and supportive of growth. Having a group of peers present softens the impact of any push-back that might happen if a boundary is crossed when first learning to report in under-served communities.

In the same vein, pop-up newsrooms also help to fortify listening skills and increase the flexibility of reporters who might usually adhere to a list of predetermined questions, unavoidably exposing new or shy reporters to the work of more seasoned or less timid peers and mentors.

Getting physically out into the community demonstrates that we are present, interested, and willing to engage in a two-way relationship, but it also quickly teaches journalists the importance of listening for a story and giving helpful information, rather than setting out with a rigid idea and using the community as a mere source to get the information we want to support it.

Popping the bubble

A unique trait of our pop-ups is that they place the power of the media into the community’s hands and allow for the production of more accurate and authentic news. These events provide the space for those most in need of news to determine what the news is, and give us insight as to what information is lacking. It’s a two-way engagement tool that allows a community to dictate the issues which should be brought to balance in society and opens up our ethical responsibility to investigate such matters.

As a result, pop-up newsrooms provide journalists with exposure to something other than the traditional newsroom bubble, and allow news media the opportunity to think outside of the box and take a step away, if only temporarily, from the hype of an “if it bleeds it leads” news mentality that silences the communities most in need of anything but.