Guest Columns
4 mins read

Redefining news: A manifesto for Community-Centered Journalism

Many news organizations are building a new approach to journalism – an approach with a focus on serving local communities in real partnership. In short, “Community-Centered Journalism”. In this new report for the Agora Journalism Center, Professor Damian Radcliffe offers a resource for journalists new to the community-centered approach and those already practising it – as well as as a manifesto to a profession whose work is more desperately needed than ever.

Journalism is at a crossroads. Trust in the news media is at, or near, record lows; and news avoidance is a growing cause for concern. Many news media outlets are sitting on shaky financial foundations. Unless we do some things differently, the trajectory for the industry is clear.

Alongside these challenges, there’s a growing recognition that for too long journalism has also failed to effectively serve large parts of the population. Newsrooms are seldom representative of the communities they are serving. Subsequently, is it any surprise that stories often fail to speak to communities, resonate with their experiences, or meet their information needs? We must do better. We can do better.

Community-Centered Journalism is not a panacea for these issues, but it can be part of the solution, particularly at a local level. It proposes taking a different approach to journalistic practice, rooting it in demonstrable community needs and delivering news and information in formats that prioritize impact for communities over more conventional newsroom practices, metrics and routines.

Community-Centered Journalism thus takes a bottom-up approach, with beats, stories and products ascertained as a result of deep listening and engagement. This work is often done with communities that don’t consume your product and who may have been overlooked, stereotyped or underserved by the mainstream media. It’s time to address these historic imbalances.

Research shows that audiences don’t just want local news outlets to be watchdogs. They want them to be a “good neighbor” too. This principle can be reflected in both the types of stories that are covered and how they are produced. As Andrea Wenzel, a leading scholar in this space told us, this is about “journalism produced with – and for – communities.” Put another way, this is “journalism for communities, not just about them.”

One way to help deliver on these promises involves journalists ceding elements of their traditional gatekeeping, agenda-setting role. Jennifer Brandel and Mónica Guzmán have suggested this means “what we cover will be shaped directly by our communities.” Editorial meetings “won’t start with our ideas,” they add, “we’ll start with the information gaps the public demonstrates they have, and focus our efforts squarely on filling those gaps.”

This fresh approach needs to be complemented with a suite of new skills including those related to listening, facilitation, partnership working, building trust and measuring impact. In her new book, How journalists engage: a theory of trust building, identities, & care, Dr. Susan Robinson argues that embracing these types of values and practices represents a significant shift in the fundamental principles that have historically underpinned journalistic work over much of the past century. As Jonathan Kealing, Chief Network Officer at the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN), told us, “You’re not approaching journalism or your community as sort of an anthropological exploration. You’re approaching it as someone who is of the community and trying to do this journalism for that community.”

Working in concert with communities and trusted local players (such as NGOs, libraries, faith groups and other community influencers) will often mean stepping away from the 24/7 news cycle. A more longitudinal, consultative and collaborative process is required if journalists are to tackle the issues that matter most to specific communities. It’s worth noting that these topics may not be the ones that you would choose to cover, but a more service-oriented model of journalism actively embraces this power-sharing reality.

Community-Centered Journalism is an approach that won’t work for every beat or story, but it’s a model that can allow outlets to go deeper on stories that communities have told us matter to them – and that can have a measurable impact on the longer-term sustainability of newsrooms. As Emily Goligoski the former research director for the Membership Puzzle Project found through her own work, “Over and over, loyalists to publications including De Correspondent and The Texas Tribune say they seek out organizations that are inclusive, participatory, transparent and human.” Incorporating these principles into Community-Centered Journalism requires journalists and newsrooms to be more visible, embracing opportunities for in-person engagement and consciously diversifying the range of people they interview.

We’ve known for some time that this more inclusive and holistic approach is one that communities want journalism to embrace. A 2006 study by journalism professors Don Heider, Maxwell McCombs and Paula Poindexter highlighted that alongside traditional investigative and watchdog reporting, audiences want to see stories that demonstrate “caring about your community, highlighting interesting people and groups in the community, understanding the local community, and offering solutions to community problems.” As we outline in this report, both the processes journalists use, as well as the content they produce, are integral to fulfilling these aspirations.

We believe that Community-Centered Journalism in both method and approach can help address many of the biggest philosophical and structural challenges facing journalism today. It can contribute to making journalism more inclusive, equitable, impactful and relevant. And it can do so in a way that still enables journalism to do what it has always sought to do: acting as a check on those in power and creating an informed citizenry, while at the same time also more actively fostering a sense of community and building communities.

As Candice Fortman, the Executive Director of Outlier Media reminded us, “the future of journalism is now.” We hope that this report – the first of a three part series on this topic – will be a valuable resource for those working to embrace this future, and the role that the emerging practice of Community-Centered Journalism can play within it.

You can download your full copy of the report by clicking here

Damian Radcliffe
Oregon, September 2023