Knight Blog

The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Non-traditional providers bring quality and dimension to community news

June 21, 2012, 10:53 a.m., Posted by Michele McLellan

Above: A video documentary on turaround efforts at a Chicago school 

As more and more non-traditional actors take the stage in providing news and information in local communities, it’s valuable to get past the either-or journalist-vs-citizen journalist argument and look at who actually creates value. A new report for The Chicago Community Trust offers significant evidence that information providers outside mainstream media have much to offer.

The Chicago Community Trust’s Local Reporting Awards project provided 31 small grants last year to “produce a burst of impactful, relevant coverage of, by and for” low income communities on the south and west sides of the city. Award winners included a mix of traditional and non-traditional information providers, journalists and non-journalists. Topic ranged from race and class to tax and health care policy to cyberbullying and other youth issues.

The evaluation by Janet Coats of Coats2Coats, found that journalistic quality was high across the board.

“We were blown away by the quality of the work,” Coats said in her report. “Across the board, the sourcing in this work is strong. There is an appropriate blend of the institutional and the grassroots in the sources the award winners used. We saw very little 'he said/she said’' structure in the coverage; sources are used to speak from their areas of experience and expertise, without a false confrontational construct. We also were pleased by the number of sources the award recipients used in their work. Even in professional reporting, it is all too common to see single- or two-source stories.”

Some credit goes to The Chicago Reporter and the Community Media Workshop in Chicago, which greatly improved editorial quality and distribution of the work, the report said. Still, it’s interesting that the efforts of the non-traditional sources were so highly rated.

Significantly, Coats found, the stories also were highly relevant and featured diverse voices and nuanced perspectives. “The magic of having deep knowledge of the communities do so much of the work is that they showed a great range of issues, people and concerns that make up daily life in these neighborhoods,” the report said. “These stories touched on poverty, yes, but also on environmental issues, cyberbullying among young people of color, class divides within the African-American community. These are not subjects traditionally covered within these neighborhoods by mainstream news organizations.”

The Chicago effort suggests that partnerships of professionals and non-traditional information providers hold promise for local community news. Traditional news organizations have long failed to consistently bring diverse voices and perspectives onto their pages or websites. Now, new tools and best practices enable more people to tell their stories. As Vivian Vahlberg, who manages the Trust’s Community News Matters initiative said: “If we want to stimulate a rich tapestry of work that reflects the diversity of the community we need to look beyond people with journalism experience and seek out other kinds of people with other kinds of relevant experience - and then help them with the journalism part and with distribution.”

The Chicago Community Trust is a two-time winner of the Knight Community Information Challenge. The Trust has focused its work on studying and strengthening the city’s emerging local news ecosystem.

(Double disclosure: I am on the advisory committee of The Chicago Community Trust’s Chicago News Matters initiative and I reviewed and rated applications for Local Reporting Awards. Janet Coats is a colleague of mine at Block by Block and has been on the faculty of Knight Digital Media Center’s leadership program.)

From the report, here are summaries of some of the stories produced:

  • The Windy City Media Group produced AIDS @ 30, a 10-month series that provided an “exhaustive examination of the history of AIDS in Chicago, how attitudes, treatment and programs have evolved and what is happening now. The stories included a wide range of voices and topics—young and old, scientific, historical perspective and impact on family and relationships.”
  • Amandil Cuzan produced a video documentary on turnaround efforts at a Chicago High School. The documentary “successfully tracks the issues facing not just the school but the community it serves. The documentary tracks the history of the school and it evolution, as its demographics and those of the community changed over time. This is no puff piece, and Cuzan faced some pressure from the school when it became clear that he would take on the tough questions about whether this school can be turned around.”
  • Austin Talks, a website operated by Columbia College’s journalism program, produced investigative reports on tax-increment financing in the Austin neighborhood. “Tax-increment financing is one of those topics that can cause the eyes to glaze - important, but not accessible. The AustinTalks work focuses on smart use of data to help bridge that gap, revealing how this program had done virtually nothing to assist the Austin community.”
  • Working with young people, the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, documented neighborhood education challenges. “The power of this work is that it was done by young people and done very well. The stories and photos capture the frustrations and fears of undocumented youth, teens who are living and attending school here but face an uncertain future because of their immigration status.”

By Michele McLellan, Knight Community Information Challenge Circuit Rider