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How I Learned to Let Communities Guide Our Local Reporting Projects

As an engagement reporter on ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network, I gave people avenues to participate in our reporting and learned lessons about respect, building networks and getting journalism to the people affected by it.

ProPublica and WMFE hosted a panel where first responders and family members shared their experiences with PTSD after the Pulse nightclub shooting. (Cassi Alexandra, special to ProPublica)

The journalism event we’d planned for months in East St. Louis, Illinois, was hours away. And I couldn’t get rid of the nerves churning in my stomach.

So I did what I do when I’m anxious: overprepare. I made a Walmart run to stuff food and supplies in my car, not really sure how many people would attend. My ProPublica Illinois colleague Derrick Clifton and I stuck flyers in door handles at a federally subsidized housing complex. We chatted with people there, telling them why we were in town.

I was in Illinois to bring our findings on the crumbling state of federally subsidized housing to the residents actually impacted by it. Our partner, Molly Parker, of The Southern Illinoisan, had spent months investigating housing issues in East St. Louis. The Southern Illinoisan was part of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network — our initiative to support local investigative journalism.

I led engagement for the network, which means I connected with communities to fuel reporting. So far, I’d done a lot of research and calls from New York, but this was my first time being in East St. Louis.

The worries kept bubbling up. “What if no one showed up? What if we didn’t really understand the community? What if doing engagement work in a place we didn’t live in is a terrible idea?”

I tried to calm myself with facts. What we were doing is what we’d done all year: hear from community experts, ask for feedback and spread our findings to the people who need them.

It wasn’t until people pulled seats into a circle at our first session at the East St. Louis Public Library that the butterflies started to subside. For the next few days, I lost myself in stories from dozens of residents about living in rundown housing.

I spent last year localizing the idea of engagement reporting. We’d done stellar national engagement that led to impact. We’d brought our model of engagement reporting into Illinois with the launch of ProPublica Illinois, and we’ve done more powerful work there.

As we began our Local Reporting Network, we thought hard about how we can adapt that work into several smaller communities at once. How would we make sure communities had opportunities to engage with our work, even though some residents might not be on the internet or have consistent cell service? How would we build relationships to fuel stories, even though our reporting teams sometimes lived hours away?

Now, a year later, I’ve got some takeaways about what actually works and what doesn’t.

We always say our journalism isn’t a process that ends when stories get published. It’s a connection that builds before, during and after the reporting. Here’s what I think that means.

How To Be Respectful: Ask. Before Reporting Even Starts.

Case study: PTSD in first responders. Mental health is a tough thing to talk about, and we had to figure out how to get first responders and their families to trust us.

  • We published a questionnaire that asked first responders to share stories about mental health and how their departments reacted.
  • I made a list of Facebook groups where first responders and their families had already gathered. I asked to join as many as I could to get the word out about our project. I identified myself as a reporter. Many of my requests were rejected. I realized I didn’t know what the right way to build trust was. I needed to ask members of the community what respectful engagement would mean to them.
  • So we started a Facebook group filled with first responders and their families, and we asked them to help us. We once again said that we weren’t first responders and that we wanted to listen and use what people had to say to steer our reporting. We bounced reporting questions off group members.
  • We also created an advisory board of people including therapists and counselors over email who helped us when we had mental health questions — like, can you help me figure out best practices when interviewing family members of first responders who have died by suicide?
  • More than 400 people around the country ultimately shared stories about themselves or about people in their lives.

How to Build Local Source Networks

Case study: Natural gas boom in West Virginia. I can’t live in seven cities at once, and definitely not in every part of West Virginia where we were examining the impact of a natural gas boom. That’s an issue with local reporting. It meant I had to enlist the help of people who did live there.

  • After reporter Ken Ward Jr. at the Charleston Gazette-Mail published his first stories, I took a reporting trip to the Mountain State. But I didn’t go with a specific angle in mind. I turned to West Virginians, told them my itinerary was blank and asked them to help me plan my trip. We got about 150 different suggestions, sent to us in lots of ways, like Facebook, Twitter and email. The way I saw West Virginia was now in the hands of the community.

Beena Raghavendran and reporter Ken Ward Jr. on a reporting trip in West Virginia. (Beena Raghavendran/ProPublica)
  • This approach introduced me to more than 60 people throughout the state who became valuable sources that supported our reporting. When news broke in a couple of the counties we’d spent time in, we already had sources.
  • The network we built in West Virginia became our eyes and ears. One West Virginian we met on the trip, Bill Hughes, led us to meet Lee Martin and Larry Barr, whom we featured in the final story of our project.

Don’t Just Hit Publish. Make an Effort to Get the Word Out (Because Journalism Is Only as Impactful as the People Who Read It)

Case study: Public housing failures in small and midsize cities. We’d spent the year reporting on the ways federally subsidized housing was failing residents in Illinois and across the country.

  • We published an interactive on the horrific state of federally subsidized housing. People could punch in their ZIP codes and see a building’s inspection score history. But we realized public housing residents in East St. Louis and others in the neighborhood might not be seeing our work. They lived about two hours away from The Southern Illinoisan’s newsroom in Carbondale. So we took the information to them. That’s why we held three listening sessions in East St. Louis.
  • Journalism doesn’t really matter unless people read it. Our mission is impact. Public housing residents and community members attended our final event in East St. Louis, and we looked up building inspection history and combed through inspection reports together. When we bring our reporting back to the community, we give people the chance to respond — and they can give us even more fodder to continue digging.

Give the Public the Tools. Literally. Set Up Cameras. Microphones. Whatever.

We know putting information in the hands of communities has the power to make change.

One of the panels included Jessica Realin, wife of Gerry Realin, a first responder to the Pulse shooting. (Cassi Alexandra, special to ProPublica)

We used other tools to bring local readers into our investigations. During a June event at the Orlando Public Library with partner newsroom WMFE, we built an online audio-visual gallery of first responders sharing their experiences with PTSD after the Pulse nightclub shooting. In our final story from our West Virginia partnership, ProPublica reporters Al Shaw and Mayeta Clark worked with Ken Ward Jr. to use drone footage, video and mapping to bring to life the impact of natural gas across the state.

We’re embarking on year two of our local engagement reporting. But we’re not done learning. If you’re a local reporter using engagement in your community, we want to hear from you. What have you found that works, and what doesn’t?

I believe that engagement journalism can help sustain and strengthen local investigative reporting. I want to do whatever we can to keep our momentum going. As I said to people in communities all over the country last year: I’m listening.

Portrait of Beena Raghavendran

Beena Raghavendran

Beena Raghavendran is an engagement reporter focused on local reporting at ProPublica.

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