How local news can reflect the communities it serves

On Tuesday, October 25, we held our third talk in a series of conversations on the impact of local news. Irving Washington, CEO of the Online News Association and vice chair of the American Journalism Project moderated this virtual session with Ju-Don Marshall, chief content officer and executive vice president of WFAE and Andrea Wenzel, assistant professor in Temple University’s Department of Journalism.

Washington, Marshall and Wenzel focused on insights from Wenzel’s ongoing research on cultural competence in public media, and how nonprofit news organizations like WFAE are prioritizing this shift.

As we work to rebuild local news, we have a clear, urgent opportunity to create news organizations that are more diverse, equitable and inclusive. This shift must happen both inside the newsroom — with better policies for recruitment, hiring, training, retention and growth – and in the communities newsrooms serve, through intentional community listening and two-way communication. To be sustainable long-term, this change needs to permeate to the infrastructure of the newsroom, instead of being a temporary initiative. 

Andrea Wenzel’s research uncovered how cultural competence can be embedded into a nonprofit, community-serving news organizations infrastructure, and Ju-Don Marshall’s leadership at WFAE has brought these approaches to staffing pipeline, newsroom culture and community outreach settings.

Here are some of Wenzel and Marshall’s takeaways on what we can learn about cultural competency, inclusion and representation in local news.

  • Building cultural competence requires a long-term infrastructure for success
    To ensure news organizations are creating long-term, sustainable change in their staffing and coverage, approaches to building cultural competence need to be a part of the organization’s infrastructure — rather than relying on the work of individual team members, particularly those of color, to be drivers of staff equity efforts or experts on their communities’ issues. Marshall and Wenzel identified several ways organizations can build these types of infrastructure, including building committees to distribute the work across staff, establishing staff orientation protocols that include diversity, equity and inclusion training, and building a shared commitment to DEI from staff in the newsroom HR department through the leadership and board levels.
  • Community listening means trying new approaches
    WFAE is ensuring more diverse perspectives are reflected through community listening, reader surveys and partnerships with local libraries and organizations that work with Black and Latino communities in Charlotte to identify the issues most important to them. Marshall shared that she and her staff saw the impact of this approach firsthand after hosting a forum on Charlotte’s growing Latino population, and hearing from participants that they felt seen and heard in a new way. Wenzel shared that this work requires challenging white-centered narratives that have long dominated newsrooms.
  • Representation is important at every level
    Marshall and Wenzel emphasized the need to strengthen the talent pipeline and ensure staff feel valued once they’re in the door. This means offering training to individuals who may not come in with an extensive journalism background, spreading the word about job opportunities and keeping the listings open until applicants from diverse backgrounds are included in the candidate pool – and ensuring the newsroom is a safe environment that fosters growth (which connects back to creating this long-term infrastructure for belonging).
  • Make space for shared power and create accountability structures
    Organizational leadership can set the tone by ensuring staff have the time and space for DEI efforts, which Wenzel noted may mean shifting priorities. Leadership staff should take steps to ensure their organizations are well-equipped and welcoming for staff of color to take the lead and be set up for success. Leadership can also invite accountability by setting up community advisory boards that are more reflective of the readers they serve and ensure more everyday interests are considered.

We hope you’ll join our final session in this event series on the topic of government accountability. Learn more and register to join us here.

If you missed our kickoff conversation last week on the topic of polarization, we shared a recap and recording here, and you can catch the recap and recording of our session on civic engagement here.