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Alicia Bell (left) and Fiona Morgan at a recent News Voice launch party in Charlotte. Photo by Mary Alice Crim.

Alicia Bell (left) and Fiona Morgan at a recent News Voice launch party in Charlotte. Photo by Mary Alice Crim.

New Project Aims to Connect Journalists With the Communities They Report On 

Building bridges

At a small get together at Hygge Coworking West on Remount Road in April, a diverse group of journalists and community organizers milled about, socializing while they took trips to the kitchen to partake in the great unifier that's always a sure way to lock-in attendance from both groups: free food.

The gathering was a launch party for News Voices North Carolina, a new project from Free Press, a national, nonpartisan organization that works on issues regarding technology and communication in media. The News Voices project, which existed in New Jersey for two years before launching last month in Charlotte and Durham, aims to connect journalists with residents of Charlotte's more marginalized communities and populations and help them build more in-depth relationships with the people they report on.

For Fiona Morgan, News Voices North Carolina director, the event was a perfect start for the type of relationship building she hopes to cultivate in Charlotte and throughout the state.

"One thing that's surprised me is seeing a lot of community folks, people involved in issues of inequality, and journalists who are sharing their voices," Morgan said. "It's that mix right there — when they start talking to each other — that's really fun. What I heard at both events [including the Durham launch party] is, 'Yeah, it was great. I knew some people and I met some people I didn't know and I had really great conversations with both.' That's what we're going for."

Following the party, Creative Loafing spoke with Morgan and Alicia Bell, News Voices North Carolina organizer, about why the new project is necessary, among other things.

click to enlarge Fiona Morgan [second from right] at a launch event in Durham.
  • Fiona Morgan [second from right] at a launch event in Durham.

Creative Loafing: How did the idea for News Voices come about?

Fiona Morgan: Free Press fights for people's rights to connect and communicate. It got started working on a lot of media consolidation issues, and has also worked on net neutrality, broadband access, privacy, so those are the kinds of issues we work on.

We continue to work on media consolidation, but I think more and more over the years we've started to look more at how you make local media better. And it was out of that effort that News Voices got started, which is to work at the local and state levels to think about how do we lift up the voices of people who often aren't heard in the media, and how can we make good local journalism more sustainable?

Why launch in North Carolina?

Morgan: I've been doing research for several years about the media ecosystem in North Carolina. We know that North Carolina is uniquely underserved, and also has uniquely strong infrastructure of people doing exciting work here. Free Press has 17,000 members in North Carolina, including members in all 100 counties. Our members are people who, they do all types of action, signing petitions, visit their Congressman's office, make phone calls. So we know that there's a lot of interest there.

We have a tradition of strong journalism in this state, but we also have institutions that are really struggling. There's so much opportunity to connect with the great reporters out there, some of whom aren't working as reporters anymore but are still active in the community.

And Charlotte will be a sort of hub?

Alicia Bell: Once we decided to launch this project in North Carolina, some of the things we thought about when we were thinking about where to launch in different cities, and where to work, was to think of what partnerships are there already. What are some of the resources and allies in thinking about community and thinking about media? Charlotte is one of the places that has strong media interest and support in the community and in uplifting the voices of community. Also, Charlotte is rooted and grounded in a lot of various kinds of activism and community building.

We launched Charlotte and Durham simultaneously; part of the reason is because of their geopolitical locations as hubs in the state. We know that a lot of people move through Charlotte and are connected to Charlotte in the same way that a lot of people move through Durham and are connected to Durham. We know that a lot of folks come into Charlotte from outside of Charlotte directly, so we wanted to uplift that as a sort of intersectional thing, and how it's a transient place in that way.

These metropolitan areas are where we launched but we do plan to expand to other places in the future. These are the places we're working now, but one of the long-term goals is to connect these cities that people look to as hubs to other people where people maybe aren't getting the same kind of visibility.

Morgan: I lived in Durham for 15 years, and it's always been strange to me how disconnected the Triangle is from Charlotte. They are the two biggest metro areas in the state and yet they really lack awareness of what's going on with one another. I think Charlotte is a place where, particularly, our media partners who are trying to do statewide work are really interested in trying to make inroads there. So part of our goal for this project is to facilitate a lot of those connections so that journalism can get done and people all over the state get included in the conversation.

So the launch party went well, but what now? How does this look in action?

Bell: In August ,we're planning to host a forum in Charlotte and the forum will be a space where there are folks from all across the community; that's journalists, media makers, editors, funders, activists, folks who clean the sidewalks in your neighborhood, mamas, all of those folks. We're looking to have that forum be really rooted and grounded in a conversation around economic stability and mobility.

What we know is the folks who have been most impacted by economic inequity and the lack of opportunity have known for quite a while that there hasn't been equity or opportunity, so it feels really important that we're connecting folks to have those conversations in hopes there can be relationships that can come out of those forums and then stories and reporting and connections that are long lasting. So that's one of the concrete ways that we plan to do that.

Morgan: When we do the forum, we don't do panel discussions. That's a standard easy way to do it, but what we do is we use dialogue, small group conversations, and we have reporters literally sitting at the table with this diverse group. We take people through what I think of as a cross-cultural communications project, where we get people who are journalists and people who are not to talk together and learn about stories that need to get told. We go from really broad topics to really concrete, reportable stories, so reporters leave with stuff they can immediately go and do, and they have the contacts and they have the sources to pull that off.

It's my understanding that a focal point of your work in New Jersey was around the immigrant community. Will that be the focus for this project?

Morgan: Anywhere we go our goal is to try to lift up the voices of people whose voices are typically not heard in the media. Maybe they're not in the reporters' contact lists or there is any long, historical set of reasons why they're not represented. When we held a forum in New Brunswick, [N.J.,] where Rutgers University is, our goal is always when we hold a public forum we always want the room to be representative of the community. Half of the people who work in New Brunswick are Latinos, a lot of them are undocumented workers. It wasn't half of the room, but we really made an effort to get them in the room, and it sparked a lot of reporting and a lot of interest in how do we report in this community, when there's not that many Spanish speakers that work in the newsrooms and all these things.

Then in Asbury Park, [N.J.,] it's been more about education. Whatever those communities feel like, "Hey, we want to get this on the news agenda," then we try to help make that happen.

Bell: Part of it is rooted contextually in the fact that Free Press is an organization that has a strong commitment to racial justice and racial equity. We've talked extensively about how racial justice is an intersectional thing, so in order to have racial justice you also have to have gender justice, you also have to have justice for immigrants and migrant folks, because all of those people are included when we talk about racial justice. So with an approach like that, that absolutely impacts any local work we're doing whether it be in New Jersey or Durham or Charlotte.

Why is News Voices necessary at this point in time?

Bell: The piece that became kind of key early on in these conversations, a lot of the times that relationship [between journalists and community members] wasn't cultivated because there was no reason in a lot of instances for the community to trust journalists. Occasionally, there were journalists and media makers coming out of some of our most marginalized communities, and occasionally folks were forging relationships against the odds and pushing for that connection and relationship to happen, but we know that historically and still today the voices of immigrant communities, the voices of black and brown people, the voices of queer and trans folks, those are not the voices that are uplifted most in the media.

What have you learned from the launch parties?

Bell: We asked questions about where people get their information and where people get their news, and a lot of that is happening on a one-on-one basis. That's something that we knew anecdotally, so to add depth and conversation around that, around what it means to be getting your news from the people that you know, and who are the folks in the community who are the vectors, the initial folks who are receiving that information, and how is that information being disseminated and where was something that came up a lot.

A majority of folks are getting a lot of their news from social media, email, word of mouth, those kinds of things. So we're really thinking about how that connects back to this relationship theme we talk about so much. When news and information sharing is based on relationships and is based on a one-on-one relationship sometimes and we know that there isn't always relationships and one-on-one interaction between journalists, news rooms, editors, those types of folks, with other community members, then what does that mean for what type of information is being shared and what type of news is being shared on both sides?

Are you optimistic that this will result in a lasting change in how journalism is done here?

Bell: I think that one of the things that has come out of all this is that folks are really aware and knowledgeable of the fact that we have to do something different in order to build more responsive communities. I think that people are excited and able to put energy behind things that seems like maybe we haven't tried this before.

I think that ranges from organizers bailing out black mamas from jail, which is something different that people haven't tried before, to us bringing together journalists and community members in a room and talking about some of these issues that we've known forever have been affecting our communities.

Morgan: If only journalists care about the future of journalism, we're in really big trouble. And I think journalists know that and people who care about having a fact-based conversation about what's happening in the world, they get that too. So I've really been surprised by the openness of journalists who are saying, "Ok, I'm not sure what this is but I'll try it."

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