The Year of Living Social Journalism(ally)


On a windy Saturday morning in early December, 16 local reporters gathered at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism for a mobile filmmaking workshop. They represented a range of publications. A Chinese language daily paper, a Turkish web publisher, a Spanish journalist responsible for the social media account of a progressive monthly paper. The training promised to teach the basics of putting together news videos using smartphones. Reporters would shoot with the camera app on their phones and then use Kinemaster, a mobile editing app, to edit the videos. Lotus Chau, a reporter for Sing Tao Daily, explained that she was hoping to learn video because “newspapers are dying.” The other reporters laughed knowingly and a hearty discussion about the future of local news kicked off the day.

New York City has one of the richest media landscapes in the world. Immigrants from across the globe are served by radio stations, television stations, newspapers and websites published in more than 30 languages. Nearly a quarter of all New Yorkers are non-native English speakers who rely on local ethnic media for information critical to their daily lives and for opportunities to integrate into wider society. As larger weekly and daily papers have rolled back their outer borough reporting or vanished altogether, independent neighborhood blogs and networks of print and online papers continue to report and serve New Yorkers.

Reports about the journalism industry often neglect the struggles of the community and ethnic press. Once-daily newspapers switch to weekly publication schedules and others shut down completely leaving communities with widening information gaps. Local press counter rumors and unify communities. The survival of local press is vital for numerous New Yorkers

This year as a student in CUNY’s Social Journalism chose to focus on finding ways to serve independent hyperlocal newsmakers here in New York.

Local news is hugely important and wildly complex in a city the size of New York. The city is divided into 59 community districts, each with a population ranging from 50,000 people up to nearly 200,000 people. Each of those districts has local community boards, unique zoning concerns, and overlapping issues of development, access to information and representation. Add to this New York’s linguistic diversity and you end up with a monumental challenge of coordination and prioritization.

Jill Hubley’s Language Map of NYC based on ACS data

This year local news organizations struggled with issues of economic sustainability…

and other outlets were shuttered outright.

The community of local reporters is dispersed, based out of offices or homes across the city. As the numbers of local reporters have thinned, there are fewer and fewer opportunities for reporters to meet spontaneously at civic events. Luckily for me, CUNY’s Center for Community and Ethnic Media, formerly the New York Community Media Alliance, organizes monthly trainings and gatherings to bring reporters and publishers together to develop new skills and network. These programs are supported by a $1mil grant from the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment. I assisted with over a dozen trainings for more than 100 local reporters, covering mobile photography, broadcast reporting, virtual reality and more.

These trainings were fabulous opportunities to listen to the needs of this community. Classroom settings inspire questions. Reporters wanted to discuss everything from the ethics of photoshop to more technical questions relating to how software could work in their newsrooms. I learned pretty quickly that there’s an age and technical gap between many of the people running hyperlocal sites and papers and the digital skills that I augmented at CUNY . One common worry expressed during interviews and during trainings was the lack of younger reporters and editors able to take on the challenges of running a local news organization. Journalism schools can serve local reporters by pairing more tech-savvy students with reporters who have built relationships with the communities they serve.

For news organizations that are strictly text-based (several have websites that exist solely as PDFs of the print paper and many have no web presence at all) web tools are less helpful in the short term. Nevertheless, several reporters I spoke with who were less tech oriented found the in-person trainings valuable for clarifying confusing points in online training manuals they had read. Opportunities to learn in groups are especially valuable for busy local reporters.

The Mott Haven Herald Project

My plan for this last semester was to work with first-semester students in CUNY’s journalism program to run through the Listening Post Collective’s playbook for community listening projects and find a way to visualize, metrically, the different types of reporting produced or to highlight different models of impact based on these approaches to beat reporting. Students in the traditional MA program already do the first step of this process in the beat memos they produce early in their first semester. These memos act as reports on their neighborhood that highlight everything from gathering places to local news and information sources. Most CUNY students are assigned a neighborhood in New York to cover for their first semester. 15 students from the new group of students are assigned to work with the Mott Haven Herald, a hyperlocal monthly print paper and news website that covers the South Bronx.

The paper, serving as a news source and a journalism lab for students, is one of the only news sources covering that neighborhood exclusively. The paper is printed monthly and distributed to the local libraries and community hubs (non-profits, community centers for public housing projects and arts spaces). Coordinating the paper, the students, the website and the evolving information needs of a changing community is 3 or 4 full-time jobs by itself. Joe also is the editor of the Hunts Point Express, a paper run out of Hunter College.

I thought that, focused on a specific neighborhood, the listening post methods would be valuable for the students, the paper and the community. What I failed to realize was that the students were required to fulfill multiple requirements for their different classes. The time and focus needed to address the needs of the community is not something that you can run quickly, especially when your beat reporting is only a part of the several class projects due throughout the semester.

I pivoted again and brought my focus to Joe, and his needs as editor. I spent hours walking around the neighborhood with him, attending community board meetings and hand-delivering the paper to locations around the neighborhood. I learned his frustration at his inability to fully cover the neighborhood while shepherding students and dealing with the logistical nightmare of getting the paper printed and delivered, website maintenance and social media upkeep. In quieter places I can image that one person could feasibly run a local news organization. In a neighborhood like Mott Haven, at the center of development schemes and a raging opioid crisis, there is far too much information that people need.

During orientation, just 11 months ago, I, along with thousands of others, convened at JFK, on a windy night to cover the protests that had arisen after the announcement of the Muslim ban. I was inspired that night. I was new to Twitter and hadn’t expected that the photographs I was taking would be so meaningful for friends and strangers, in New York and around the world. Large newspapers were experiencing the Trump Bump, a surge in subscriptions and membership applications that contrasted with Pew reports on falling trust in news media amid accusations of fake news.

The optimism I felt has been challenged. The closure of DNAInfo/Gothamist and New America Media are tremendous challenges to the reporters who relied on those organizations for a place to hone their craft and for the communities that no longer have dedicated reporters covering their small businesses, local victories and challenges.

The growth of membership and community oriented news organizations and hyperlocal startups in 2017 leaves me optimistic for the future of local reporting. Necessity prompts innovation. I’m looking forward to continuing to work on projects with The Center for Community and Ethnic Media and the Mott Haven Herald in the new year. Organizing trainings and building out community advisory boards for neighborhood news organizations and building out the community support that is needed for reporters to truly serve their communities.

Social journalists stick it out for the long haul. My next steps are to continue working on the Mott Haven project and to use the templates we produce for that site and the revised social media strategy as models for other neighborhood papers. I’m going to build out a local political textbook as a basis for neighborhood by neighborhood trainings.

Publishers and local reporters often do not have the time to stay up to date on new trends or to read case studies or training manuals for new engagement models. I’m excited to continue building on the relationships that I have built out this year and to work with the professors in the urban reporting concentration, the publishers of the local news projects and the team at CCEM on new projects that can serve New Yorkers and the reporters who keep them informed and connected.

Max is a CUNY Social-J and Tow-Knight alum and former Media Team Lead for Cortico/Local Voices Network — find him @maxresnik