A project of Democracy Fund

October 19, 2016

Creating a Cookbook of Community Experiences for Local Newsrooms


cooking on a stove

Throughout the history of our country, news has been a centerpiece of democracy. Since the dawn of the printing press, news organizations have been the watchdogs of power. Yet this medium has been limited by the one-directional mode of communication. While modern journalism continues to remain a watchdog, the disruption of technology and social media to the industry has shifted this one-directional reporting into a complex chorus of communication and contributions; thus changing the methods of reporting and accountability.

Adapting to these new functions means developing strategies that understand the steady streams of information available through a variety of sources and seeks to establish a relationship of trust with the communities newsrooms are serving. This is particularly crucial for local newsrooms who have the unique opportunity to develop deep relationships and understand the needs of those to whom they report. Community engagement and participatory experiences offer local newsrooms the opportunity to build these relationships and explore new ways of fortifying the way information permeates our cultures and holds power accountable.

Designing community experiences can be a lot like cooking. To wind up with something nourishing and tasty on your plate, you have to consider the whole meal from end to end: from the tools you have available, to the quality of the ingredients you source, to where you plan to be eating — and who you want to be feeding. Different processes offer varying results, and the setting of the meal and the people invited to the table have a huge impact on the overall experience.

When we think about the health of our communities and their ability to interact with and understand the news, what’s the nourishment that’s feeding them? It matters where your “ingredients” come from — are they organic ideas that stem from the place you’re serving or are they manufactured and processed with the ideas your newsroom thinks people want? Are you hosting a block party, a community meal or leading a ritual, or is it a meal standing up in your kitchen or eaten at a drive-thru?

What you put in your body impacts how you feel and grow. The news that nourishes our mind influences how we connect, change and build the foundations of our society. Using community strategies at the core of a local news experience offers an opportunity to create a meaningful bond between reader and reporter. We can connect, heal and build trust with the community and strengthen a relationship between community and journalism.

In this new era of news we’re experiencing, enhanced through technology; community engagement and participatory experiences have become an important part of the news ecosystem. And as with anyone who has tried to make a dish without a recipe, it can be risky venturing into unknown new territory and helpful to have instructions to guide the way.

A Recipe Book for Community Experiences

This is why I’ve partnered with The Local News Lab to create a collection of recipes for creative community engagement. Modeled on the farm-to-table movement and rooted in locally sourced goods, this collection is a resource for local newsrooms. While the goal is for newsrooms to benefit from these “recipes,” we hope that anyone interested in crafting an enriched community experience will find it useful.

Over the last few months, we’ve been collecting case studies such as, The New Tropic’s #solveMIATransit project, and the Funk Parade in DC — vital examples of creative engagement and participatory environments that have formed community bonds, unlikely relationships and collaboration. (You can catch a sneak peek of some of these here in this inspirational list). While we continue to gather case studies, going forward our next steps will be dissecting and sharing them as recipes for newsrooms to follow or simply inspire. We’re exploring experiences and learnings from sources both inside and outside of journalism.

A woman and crowd dancing at the DC Funk parade

DC Funk Parade 2015 ?: S Pahkrin (via creative commons)

Now it’s time we hear from you! Got a secret (newsroom) family recipe for turning pop vox interviews into dance parties? Brewed up an event so good your whole town turned out? We want to learn from you!

If you have a “recipe” you’d like to share or an experience that inspired community connection, shoot me a note at jeannesbrooks@gmail.com or hit me up on Twitter @jmfbrooks and your story might be added to our collection.

Below are a few different questions to help you marinate (? ) depending on the role you play in the news ecosystem within your community.

  • You work in a local newsroom: If you work in a local newsroom — of any kind and in any position — I’m curious to learn more from you. What has community engagement meant to you or your newsroom? Where have you failed and where have you succeeded? Is there a community recipe you’re dying to try?
  • You produce a participatory community experience: Have you ever been part of creating a participatory community experience? (That’s any kind of creative community experience and honestly, the more out there the better!) Tell us all about it. Share your recipe! What made it special? How did it come together? Let’s schedule an interview!
  • You are a community member who cares about the news: Are you a person who cares about news and information in your community? Let’s chat about what a nourishing community news experience would mean to you.

Excited? Hungry for more? Us, too! Look for more about this project throughout the fall. Contact me at jeannesbrooks@gmail.com or find me on Twitter @jmfbrooks and let’s set up a time to chat.

Feature photo by Damian Siwiaszczyk/Creative Commons

Jeanne Brooks is a senior advisor to the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation where she researches and produces an interactive library and resource for local newsrooms on creative participatory experiences and community engagement.