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June 7, 2021

How to listen during a pandemic and other lessons from recent local news ecosystem research

Photo by Joel Muniz, September 2020

Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from a new case study about how newsrooms and funders completed local news ecosystem research over the past year. Read the full case study here.

By Fiona Morgan

In late March 2020, I reached out to someone from a neighborhood organization in Houston to ask if we could set up a time to talk. I had just begun a community listening effort with the American Journalism Project and, having shelved my plans to spend time in Houston and talk to people where they live, I was pressing on with a more digital approach to understand the local news and information needs of this massively diverse city. The community leader wrote back with a polite but firm message: I can’t talk right now, I’m busy sewing masks around the clock. 

It was a completely understandable response. The intensity of worry, the uncharted territory of stay-at-home orders and quarantine procedures, and the burden of what we didn’t know overshadowed everything else. Making masks could save lives, and saving lives was (is) clearly the most important thing. I felt humbled. What sense did it make to take up people’s time to talk about something that seemed so abstract as local news, at a moment like this?

Yet in that moment, reliable local information had never been more critical to people’s survival. Local news sites began seeing a massive increase in traffic, as people began to search for information to meet their concrete needs. Journalism became a necessity, not a luxury, and community and place-based foundations and other kinds of community-based organizations found themselves in a unique position to respond to those needs. 

As the pandemic progressed and life became a little more manageable, I was able to connect with community leaders in Houston and several other cities. I came away with three big lessons from them and some practical tips about learning to listen from a distance from other leaders in the field like Sarah Alvarez of Outlier Media, Jesse Hardman of Listening Post Collective, and Max Resnik, who led the media team for Cortico’s Local Voices Network. These lessons aren’t entirely new, but the circumstances of the pandemic have driven them home; and as we think about life after the pandemic, they’re more important than ever. 

Central to all of these lessons is the understanding that research itself can be an investment in a community. The smartest investment is the one that offers material support to grow local capacity — which we’ve seen across the country as organizations use engaged journalism practices and delve into local news ecosystem assessments.

For more, including the three big lessons that can be used by anyone — from funders to news organizations — interested in assessing their local news ecosystem, read “Lessons Learned From Community Listening During a Pandemic.

Learn more about Fiona Morgan’s community listening work at the Online News Association’s conference with the Community ambassadors make a big difference session on June 23 at 1pm ET. See more about her work here.