How Training Can Improve Local News, Make It More Inclusive

Journalism / Article

If local news outlets are to survive and thrive, publishers and journalists need training in everything from business to leadership to innovation

If you were to train the perfect local news journalist or publisher, you would make sure they had a good grasp of digital business, used innovative reporting techniques, listened to and engaged deeply with audiences, and understood the value that their community’s many cultural and intellectual differences bring. While many local news outlets are struggling with a difficult business environment, layoffs and trust issues with the public, there are a plethora of training programs to support their work and make sure they are keeping up with the quick pace of innovation and disruption.

These programs run the gamut from online webinars to in-person boot camps at conferences to fellowships and cohorts that learn together over a longer period of time. And the training programs aren’t just about keeping up with the latest tech tools; they also try to imbue a mindset of innovation, so journalists can be flexible and curious and open to constant change in the industry.

“We see our mission as investing in people,” said Meghan Murphy, senior manager, communities & local journalism initiatives at the Online News Association (ONA). “We can’t fulfill our mission to make the journalism field more innovative without lifting up the people in the industry.”

And those people find themselves in a challenging position: With more layoffs, there are less people to do the important work of covering local communities, so more is expected of each person. Not only must they take on more types of work, but they also have to cope with changing technology, shifting business models (lately from advertising to subscriptions or memberships) and a skeptical public that doesn’t always understand the importance of trusted information sources for democracy.

Luckily, help is on the way. Associations, institutes, universities – and even tech companies – are running training programs that can make a difference for local journalists and make sure they have the tools, the mode of thinking and the network of support necessary to succeed in turbulent times.

Business & Leadership Training
There was a time when the editorial side of local news was separated by the so-called “Chinese wall” from the business side. That is less visible each year as more business concepts bleed into the editorial side, with editors working on sponsored content and using analytics more deeply in their work. So how do people get the business and leadership training they need to move up the ladder and succeed long-term in the media world? 

The Online News Association (ONA) offers a variety of programs, and one in particular reaches into communities around the country and the world. The ONA Local affinity groups are in 50 cities and regions, and include groups of journalism students as well. You don’t have to be a member of ONA to join or attend their meetings and training sessions. Each group is volunteer-led, and lately ONA has been providing leadership training for those volunteers at ONA Local Summits, with the next one planned before the ONA20 conference in Atlanta next September.

ONA’s Meghan Murphy says that the training topics include how to build volunteer teams, how to recruit diverse teams and event planning – plus they are adding online training sessions throughout the year. “Those people take those trainings back to their newsrooms,” Murphy said. “We see people get more speaking opportunities in their community, and they say that as a leader, it’s a signal to people in the newsroom, ‘I’m a thought leader, I’m known as the ONA leader in the newsroom.’ We hear about people getting new jobs because of ONA Local. It gives people a lot of visibility.”

ONA also offers the Women’s Leadership Accelerator, a year-long program that includes a week of in-person intensive training (this year it was at UCLA), one-on-one coaching and a final workshop at the larger ONA conference. The 26 current fellows include a number of local news journalists, such as Cara Anthony at the Belleville News-Democrat and Joy Resmovitis at the Seattle Times. 

Another notable leadership training program is the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative, formerly known as Table Stakes. Run by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism and the Knight Foundation, the program has expanded over the years and has served 16 metro newsrooms, according to Jim Friedlich, executive director of the Lenfest Institute. Poynter Institute and the American Press Institute have also played roles in training for the program.

“This is a newsroom and news organization leadership training initiative that’s based upon a tenet of change management that grew out of the Sulzberger program that Knight also supported,” Friedlich said. “This is the fourth year of that program… We’ve provided additional funding and expertise to expand it sharply to help save local news. And Roxann Stafford has been doing a deep dive on the needs and opportunities of ALANA media [Asian, Latinx, African-American and Native American], and creating a leadership program for ethnic media. We were calling it Table Stakes, but now calling it leadership change.”

The Poynter Institute also offers a few leadership training options, including the in-person one-week Leadership Academy and the Essential Skills for Rising Newsroom Leaders. 

Diversity & Inclusion
And if you are a woman, person of color, or part of the LGBTQ community, getting ahead in the local news industry is even more of a heavy lift. Many newsrooms are not reflective of their diverse communities, nor do they cover underserved neighborhoods and groups. But as more foundations, institutes and places of higher learning start prioritizing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), that gives more people access to crucial fellowships, coaching, mentorship and support, and helps newsrooms better reflect their diverse communities.

The Maynard Institute is once such organization, and it recently received a power boost in the form of a $1.2 million grant from the Knight Foundation. The Maynard 200 is an initiative to train 200 journalists of color over five years (you can see the newest cohort of 23 here). They are given a curriculum in three tracks: storytelling, advanced leadership and media entrepreneurship – note the business and leadership emphasis.

But Maynard also will work with the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative and try to make deeper, more impactful change to local news.

“The real thing that needs to happen at news organizations is structural change – it can’t just be about diversity,” said Martin Reynolds, co-executive director at the Maynard Institute. “It needs to be about equity and inclusion in service of diversity. We say it’s EID, because it’s about power, seeking to change the power dynamic in news organizations. We want to embed ourselves in a news organization over a period of months to address structural impediments…We want to do more than an initial training; we want to dig in like a tick and put in place some procedures that can stay long after we have departed.”

While Maynard’s fellows are mid-career professionals from newsrooms, the Emma Bowen Foundation Fellows are students of color who are placed in newsrooms for paid summer internships. The program has three tracks: business, content and innovation. Note again the strong emphasis on business and innovation vs. editorial.

The Institute for Nonprofit News (INN), an association of 200+ nonprofit news organizations, worked with Emma Bowen Foundation Fellows to place fellows in 20 newsrooms.

“We have a partnership with Emma Bowen Foundation that blew up big,” said Sue Cross, executive director and CEO of INN. “We decided to try eight internships, and put out a call to [our member newsrooms] and got more than 20 newsrooms interested…It was a real snowball effect. It indicates the momentum out there. We had 20 last year, and we’d like to double them next year. We think it’s very important not to limit diversity to the newsroom. Publishers decide revenue streams, businesses, what news you cover, so diversity in the publisher’s office and business side is critical.”

Another great way to find training programs and support are the various journalism associations dedicated to people of color and LGBTQ journalists. The Asian American Journalists Association has a mentorship program, an executive leadership program and a “Catalyst” program to support entrepreneurs. The National Association of Black Journalists offers a variety of programs at its national and regional conferences. The last national conference in August in Miami included workshops on the challenges of a media startup, covering the 2020 elections, and free apps to boost your social media game. The NLGJA: Association of LGBTQ Journalists includes an online resources hub and is planning a 2020 convention in Chicago. (You can find a comprehensive list of DEI support organizations here.)

“NABJ develops its programming by listening,” said Dorothy Tucker, president of the NABJ. “We offer our members and partners various opportunities to recommend sessions and workshops and even webinar topics. We collect data to keep our pulse on what is needed…It takes working together to ensure journalists have the resources they need and to ensure that the industry has the necessary training to support its newsroom staff and tell stories that properly reflect the communities they serve.”

One newer entrant to the field is the Ida B. Wells Society, named for the muckraking journalist who exposed widespread lynching happening in the South. The Society is dedicated to providing mentorship and training for people of color in investigative reporting. As the group explains in its Creation Story: “Investigative reporting is among the most critical journalism, as it exposes abuses of power, holds our government accountable and works in the interests of the most vulnerable in our society. It is also among the least diverse reporting positions in any newsroom.”

The Society partnered with ProPublica to produce a 12-day intensive Data Institute workshop at the New School from July 22 to August 2, 2019. There’s also a Fellowship Program in development that will include four to six week-long intensive training sessions in New York City for fellows who are based in existing newsrooms.

Innovation & Change Management
When it comes to training, it’s difficult to stay current on the latest technology and innovation in media. From the moment you take a training, the worry creeps in that this tool, this technique, this best practice will be obsolete in a month. Sometimes it pays to learn about innovation as a mindset, as a way of being flexible to change.

The ONA has been training journalists to keep them current on technology, and understands that it’s more than just the latest app or tool.

“When we got the Knight grant for the ONA Local program, we had regional trainings with local groups, with a research evaluation component from CIRCLE at Tufts University,” said ONA’s Murphy. “The researchers on civic engagement came out to the regional trainings, and said ‘I expected to be spending time with ONA’ers and they would be looking at their phones and saying ‘look at this cool new app!’ ” But more of the conversation was really centered around ‘I really admire what you did — can you tell me how you got buy-in on that, and what was the structure of your team?’ People really want to know the nuts and bolts of the processes of the work and not so much about the apps.”

There’s also the question of how people learn best: online, in-person, one-on-one or in peer groups. Google News Initiative, in partnership with the Society of Professional Journalists, has been focusing on taking its trainings to newsrooms and conferences around the U.S. and the world. Of course, the focus of these trainings are Google’s own tools such as Google Earth, Google Trends and Google Public Data Explorer. But for newsrooms, they get free in-person training programs funded by Google and taught by top educators and practitioners.

Meanwhile, the Facebook Journalism Project takes a mixed approach, with regional in-person trainings and a series of accelerator meetings on business challenges, alongside online webinars in partnership with Poynter, SPJ, the International Center for Journalists and the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University. Topics of the webinars include safety tips for journalists, the Facebook CrowdTangle analytics platform, and building your brand with video ads. 

And if you like to learn through an online community, you’ll want to join Gather, a group of journalists who are focused on community engagement. They have their own online platform with a series of eye-opening case studies, along with a weekly newsletter, Slack channels and “Lightning Chats” via 30-minute video sessions. The project is run through the Agora Journalism Center at the University of Oregon.

Learning Without Fear
The multiplying number of training programs for local journalists and publishers can be head-spinning, but if you find the right program for you, topic-wise and format-wise, you can super-charge your skills. And as ONA’s Meghan Murphy points out, there’s a sense of community among trainers and speakers who want to pay it forward to others. So before long, you’ll be sharing what you learned with others. The important point about training in the digital age is that you can’t sit still or stay static too long, as there’s always another challenge around the corner. Training programs offer a way to stay up on technology, become a leader in the industry and work together to make sure local news has a strong, thriving future.

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift.