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Hear More from the “Decline in Local Journalism” Panelists

Journalism experts shared their insights about why local journalism is disappearing and how that affects democracy during a public panel discussion the Hampton Roads Community Foundation held in February 2023 in partnership with WHRO.

Here, the discussion continues, with panelists answering more questions about the decline in local journalism and what can be done about it. More questions and answers will be coming soon.

Mechelle Hankerson, News Director, WHRO

Question: How do you ensure stories of marginalized peoples are told?

At WHRO, we ensure stories of marginalized people are told in two main ways: We hold ourselves accountable to the people reflected in our stories and we've made a strong, explicit commitment to diversity in our department and entire organization.

WHRO's newsroom uses a source diversity tracker. After each story, reporters record basic demographic data on their sources, including racial identity, gender identity, age, location, and a few other facts. This helps us make sure we're not relying on one type of person to tell stories. We also track the topic of our story, to make sure we provide a diversity of coverage, and the location of stories. We know Hampton Roads can feel segregated because of water crossings, so we want to ensure we're writing about cities fairly. We review this data once a quarter to reflect and come up with strategies to move closer to having our sources better reflect the identities of our region.

Organizationally, our newsroom uses a strategic plan to guide our decisions about coverage. One of the foundations of our plan is diversity. To us, that means our journalism considers diversity in the people we talk to and the stories we prioritize and makes sure we handle issues with sensitivity to the way different people may move through and experience life.

Our newsroom strategic plan is supported by WHRO's larger values, which include diversity and inclusion.

We know other newsroom use source trackers, which is a great tool for us to reflect on our own work and tendencies when picking out stories and sources.

WHRO is, to our knowledge, the only local newsroom led fully by women of color: I'm a biracial Latina and our managing editor, Dee Patel, is an Asian-American woman. We know that the more diverse our staff, the more naturally different perspective and stories will show up in our work. As we expand our newsroom, we're looking forward to including more journalists from different backgrounds.

Question: How do you combat/refute the perception of having a “liberal” only slant or bias?

At the core of journalism is the requirement to give everyone a chance to be part of a community conversation, which means we should be seeking out opinions that oppose each other or present new facts to the public. Naturally, that should mean that different political views find their way into our coverage if we’re upholding the basic tenets of good and fair journalism.

The other way to combat biases in the newsroom comes back to the diversity in the newsroom itself. Often, we think of that to mean people of different racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, but it also means being honest about the life experiences present in the newsroom. It’s not realistic – and it’s a detriment – to pretend journalists do not have their own belief systems that they have to put aside at work. But it does inform how we approach topics, what we deem newsworthy and even the questions we ask. It’s important that we create newsrooms where intellectual diversity is valued.

Question: What can we do to capture the “digital” generation of people in their 20s and 30s to engage meaningfully with local news sources?

Most newsrooms have platforms to reach younger audiences, but the way we think about news has to catch up to the way younger generations consume news and what is news to them.

Reaching young people is about adapting content to how they consume it -- often, social media. But we have to also consider what's important to these potential readers? That doesn't mean we abandon the fundamentals of local journalism; it just means we dig deeper and work harder to make it relate.

For example, when I was a reporter, I wrote a story about a land dispute at a local beach related to sand replenishment. It's a pretty dense topic and doesn't immediately seem to be relevant to people who don't live on the beach. But by framing the story as the legal question of who owns the beach, and therefore, who has a right to use it freely, I remember receiving a lot of feedback from younger people. They didn't latch on to that story because of the sand replenishment project (though they did learn about it), they were interested because they had a connection to the beach and used it. Not only were they reading the story, but they were truly engaging in the story, leaving comments and discussing it on social media.

Adam Chase, Vice President/General Manager, WTKR

Question: How do you ensure stories of marginalized peoples are told?

At WTKR, we employ a beat system where each reporter and anchor has a specific geographic area, they are committed to covering, making contacts in and pitching stories from. Our reporters and anchors are encouraged to find and tell stories that aren’t often told, especially among groups who otherwise might not have a strong voice.

“Community” is one of the pillars of our content strategy, which means that we strive to authentically and intentionally reflect all the communities we serve in the content we produce, the people who tell the stories and the people who make editorial decisions. We have been diligent in hiring people into our newsroom for on-air and behind the scenes positions that are of all different ages, races, religious beliefs, political beliefs, gender identities, and who come from a variety of socioeconomic and educational backgrounds. We encourage everyone, no matter their role at the station, to pitch stories that should be told.

We are also committed to revisiting “the way things have always been done” to ensure we are always challenging the status quo, even within our own newsroom. For example, our “Have You Seen Me” series focuses on bringing awareness to missing persons cases, particularly the cases of missing people of color who have historically received less mainstream media attention than their white counterparts. This series is a direct challenge to traditional newsroom policies not to cover stories of people who police departments classified as runaways.

Question: How do you build trust between media & the community when many entities, papers and TV, have constant turnover with journalists filtering through every couple of years? Or lack of newsroom identity?

Staying connected to what’s important to the community is imperative, regardless of how little time or how long a reporter has spent in a market. Geographical or topical beat systems help ensure even a new reporter has a specific focus to immerse themselves in. It’s also important to give reporters time to make contacts and have conversations with key stakeholders in those beat areas. Historical perspective about what matters in a community often comes from behind-the-scenes members of the newsroom if you can just remember to ask and listen.

Question: How do you combat/refute the perception of having a “liberal” only slant or bias?

WTKR has many guardrails in place to keep bias out of our newscasts. It's important to note that bias can exist in a variety of forms, including liberal bias, conservative bias, or any ideological beliefs.

  • Adhering to the highest of journalism standards: Our content must always be objective, accurate, and tell all sides of the story. We do not rush to get news to our platforms, instead we take the time needed to verify the facts and ensure we are giving our viewers the most accurate information. We are also the first to admit if we have made an error and issue corrections publicly.
  • Editorial dialogue: News organizations must have newsrooms and news leader that encourage opening conversations regarding stories that might feel like they lean one way or another. These open conversations allow newsrooms to eliminate the sway in any coverage or content decision.
  • Eliminating opinion: Political opinions from our newsrooms should not influence the coverage of the content. It is not our place to lean to the left or the right, but instead to just give the facts and let people make their own informed decisions.

Question: What can we do to capture the “digital” generation of people in their 20s and 30s to engage meaningfully with local news sources?

We talk a lot in the digital circles of our industry about “meeting audiences where we are.” That was the focus on our recent digital marketing campaign. But it needs to be deeper than that because, as most of us know, Instagram and TikTok are not profitable enterprises for news outlets; they are pure content marketing. The key to truly meeting audiences where they are goes back to data-informed decision-making. On TV, we don’t always have the benefit of knowing what aspect of our show keeps people coming back for more. Is it the familiarity with the anchors? Is it the quality of the reporting? We hope it’s a bit of both. But on our digital platforms, we are gifted with that insight. We know exactly what people are interested in and exactly how they come to us — whether it’s from a Google search, social media referral or a direct visit to your site. Going forward, we would like to see the industry use this valuable information to build on what they know people want.

Denise Watson, Features Editor, The Virginian-Pilot and Daily Press

Question: How do you ensure stories of marginalized peoples are told?

It's important to have a staff that is diverse across the board -- ethnicity, race, religion, gender, age, and even geography (having reporters living in different neighborhoods/cities). You need a staff that is open-minded as well. If you have reporters who aren't willing to go places, they haven't gone before or talk to certain groups, you need to counsel them out of this business.

And it's imperative that your staff, particularly if they aren't native to the area, immerse themselves into their surroundings. As a manager, give them permission and time to go to a PTA meeting even if they aren't parents; encourage them to walk into a laundromat/coffee shop/ community center and check out the bulletin boards for community news; pick a barbershop on the opposite side of town to get a haircut and meet new people.

In that vein, it's also important to grow local talent. The Virginian-Pilot had a successful summer journalism workshop for high school students, and we encouraged them to apply for internships once they got to college. Many of those students later worked for The Pilot/Daily Press. Having people with a region's institutional knowledge is invaluable.

Question: How do you build trust between media & the community when many entities, papers and TV, have constant turnover with journalists filtering through every couple of years? Or lack of newsroom identity?

Readers and community leaders can reach out and establish a rapport with writers. That relationship is key because reporters will communicate when and if they leave and can pass along that person to someone else on staff who can keep the torch going, so to speak. This is why we include contact information for the writers on each story. We also have a staff page with biographical and contact information for staffers on pilotonline.com.

These are relationships journalists crave. Trust me.

It also helps the community create partnerships not only with a single reporter but with the news organization as a whole. These relationships help build the media company's local identity and create a better understanding between the community and media group.

Question: How do you combat/refute the perception of having a “liberal” only slant or bias?

I can't speak for the newspaper at large because readers sometimes forget that the editorial page is separate from the news department, etc. I can speak to my features section, the Daily Break, and how I've handled that accusation as a journalist for more than 30 years.

When people use words such as "liberal" or (nowadays being "woke" or "politically correct") I ask them to define what they mean. I also ask them to point out the coverage that prompted the email or call.

I'm not exaggerating when I say that 95% of the time that people will tell me about or share a link to a story from a website that we, as a news outlet, don't consider credible. I will then explain why. Sometimes the person understands, often they don't, and they don't want to. But I can't control what they believe. Or the person will accuse us of purposely not covering an issue and I have to point out that the story/issue doesn't apply to our readership. The person is following a national outlet and I remind them that we are a local paper.

I most often see comments about being "woke" or "liberal" on social media such as a reply to a story we've published. I recently received an email about being "too woke" after running a story about a book dealing with Indigenous history.

Of course, that's not being too "woke."

That's covering our communities.

Question: What can we do to capture the “digital” generation of people in their 20s and 30s to engage meaningfully with local news sources?

This is one of those “it-takes-a-village” answers.

Younger people need to see how the news relates to them. When I read or see young people speaking out at a school board meeting about LGBTQ policies or holding an environmental rally, I see young people who realize that there are entities making important decisions that impact their lives.

So, the engagement starts with families and schools. Are young people growing up in households and communities where they see their parents, teachers, religious leaders, influential people reading news and discussing it? I remember weekly current event activities in school. They not only reminded us of the world outside of our own but made me realize that there are people – journalists – who go out, research, ask questions and present information so that my family could make better decisions. Are teachers, parents using local news as a teaching tool?

As a media outlet, we recognize that younger readers want their news delivered differently, primarily with visuals and easy-to-view on their phones. We use Instagram, Tik Tok, X (formerly known as Twitter) and now Threads to provide news. We can also take a more casual tone on social media to sound less “stuffy” to younger consumers. Our sports brand, 757Teamz, has been around for years and has a phenomenal social media following; I’ve spoken to students who didn’t know what The Virginian-Pilot or Daily Press was but they know 757Teamz as their go-to for local sports news.

View the full conversation and learn more about the panel of journalism experts at the Declining Local Journalism & the Risk to Democracy event on Feb. 8, 2023.

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