Our guide to developing a community ambassador program that can help local newsrooms better serve their communities

The American Journalism Project is helping to build a movement to grow and sustain local news. Our aim is not only to rebuild what has been lost by the contraction of commercial news but to reimagine local news in service of all communities. And that requires listening. We make a practice of making decisions with local communities about the information gaps they face. We ask about the kind of newsroom they would find valuable, and then we work on building it.

Community ambassador programs can be a powerful tool for doing this work. They help local newsrooms — and their philanthropic partners — to create two-way conversations with communities yet unreached by traditional engagement methods.

We’re excited to share what we’ve learned in developing our own community listening ambassador programs, bringing community members into the process of understanding local news and information needs and shaping a response. As part of our local philanthropy partnerships program, we’ve worked with more than 60 community ambassadors in six cities and regions to do more than 500 community listening interviews in the last year and a half to identify information gaps. In addition, several of the nonprofit news organizations the American Journalism Project supports have also been developing their own ambassador programs. We’ve assembled lessons learned into this guide to help news organizations, place-based foundations, and local leaders to develop their own community ambassador programs to help rebuild local news across the United States.

What is a community ambassador, exactly?

Community ambassadors, sometimes referred to as community connectors, help to make communities better by leading and supporting projects such as peer education campaigns, public health initiatives, community safety efforts and other social service programs. In whichever field they work, community ambassadors connect people with information and guide them to services, programs and other resources. Working alone or in teams, as volunteers or paid workers, community ambassadors can even become the public face of a cause or campaign, tapping into their interpersonal networks to spread a message and raise awareness.

In journalism, local news organizations are taking a similar approach and finding ways for people who may have no journalism background to take part in assessing and serving local information needs. This guide contains profiles of two such organizations — American Journalism Project grantees Documented and VTDigger — that are developing models to engage community members in community listening.

Community ambassador programs are now a key component of our local information needs assessments. Community listening ambassadors guide our team and our local foundation partners as we make decisions about how to fund and grow local news. The role of the community listening ambassador is to help us hear from people we otherwise might not, including people whose perspectives have historically been underrepresented in local news narratives. During the pandemic, it’s been how we reach people without physically being in the same space.

This guide is a resource for organizations to create opportunities for people who don’t work in the field of journalism to have an active role in its future. The guide explores:

  • How to determine the role of community listening in your organization’s efforts
  • Focusing on communities that are hardest to reach
  • What makes a good community ambassador
  • Ten steps to a community ambassador program: setting goals, budgeting, working with community partners, recruiting, hiring, training, ongoing check-ins, equipping ambassadors to do outreach, and sharing your findings

We’ve included resources to get you started, including a template for managing the community listening process, a sample recruitment flier, and a listening worksheet to guide ambassadors’ interviews.

Best of all, we also introduce you to four of the immensely talented community members with whom we’ve been fortunate to work. The most rewarding part of this work is seeing so many talented, inspiring, curious people from many different backgrounds develop their own community leadership by engaging in conversations about local news.

This guide can be used as a complement to other guides to doing community-based research on local news and civic information, including Democracy Fund’s Guide to Assessing Your Local News Ecosystem and The Listening Post Collective Playbook. We’d love to hear about other models and programs, both within and outside the journalism field. Please share your thoughts, ideas, and questions with us at fiona@theajp.org or tweet us @JournalismProj.