Eight lessons from BEYOND: Reimagining Philadelphia Journalism

In November 2020, we hosted BEYOND: Reimagining Philadelphia Journalism, a three-day virtual summit to enable frank conversations between journalists, community members, managers, and news media executives in the Philadelphia area on issues of equity in local news.

Our goal was to begin to build a collective vision of the future of journalism in our region.  More than 200 people attended and shared their thoughts on how we can build a better, more equitable future for Philadelphia journalism.

Below we outline the key themes and insights that emerged from our conversation. These insights are not about any individual newsroom but are lessons any organization can learn from.

In the coming weeks, we’ll share how these insights will shape our next steps, new programming, and new collaboration ideas as we seek to achieve our collective goals. Sign up here for updates.

Here are the key findings:

1. Journalism must reflect the community

BEYOND participants repeatedly mentioned the need for Philadelphia journalism to better reflect the community in staff, leadership and coverage. Several news executives at the summit affirmed that this is a central goal of their work. Other participants shared some characteristics of what it means to reflect the community:

“Include people’s voices in stories where the subject is about things that extend beyond that person’s cultural or gender identification.”

Denise James, Denise James Media

Despite good intentions, many noted that Philadelphia journalism has not collectively achieved this vision. And the consequence of the failure to reflect all communities could be dire for Philadelphia journalism by continuing to perpetuate a lack of representation, which could cause permanent distrust between journalism institutions and the communities they serve.

2. Power needs to be reimagined to truly reflect Philadelphia

There was a strong acknowledgement of the power of journalism in communities. However, within the walls of journalistic institutions the people who hold power are too often not reflective of the community, often excluding people of color and other marginalized individuals. This is not just within newsrooms but it includes owners and founders of media as well.

The systemic racism that has historically been part of journalism in Philadelphia and elsewhere, and presently keeps marginalized communities from having the same opportunity to advance in leadership, illustrates how journalism continues to be impacted by, and serves to perpetuate, systemic oppression.

As BEYOND participants reflected on what increased power for marginalized communities could look like, they noted attributes like having the ability to authentically reflect reality (in context), create the rules of engagement, and the authority to enforce those rules. News enterprises should advance people from marginalized communities into leadership positions and reconsider how they value expertise. We will know our power dynamics in journalism have shifted appropriately when we fully reflect the community in our coverage.

“There is a data way we can look back at this but there are so many other ways. How do we value skill? How do we assign prestige to people? How do we create hierarchy and how do we look at people in high places? A year from now I think we need to have a common language throughout our organization both on the business side and the newsroom side. We need to understand why we’re doing this work…So when Walter Wallace is killed in front of his mother having a mental health crisis I think it’s important for us not just to say we diversified our staff and we’re capturing community voices but to challenge our newsroom to report that story as everyone who reads or hears anything that we report should understand why this community is outraged. If that is kind of like a beacon for how to report that shows progress. Sometimes harder to quantify but that’s where it really has some meaning.” 

Sandra Clark, Vice President of News & Civic Dialogue, WHYY

3. Center and serve communities

There was a general consensus among BEYOND participants that there is a need to rethink journalism’s role in the community to ensure Philadelphia’s residents are being well served. As the conversations ensued, a recurring theme emerged: Journalism should be reimagined and its expanded role serve as a community bridge. This bridge role could manifest itself in several ways beyond merely connecting facts together to tell a story. Journalism should also consistently connect people to the information they need to make informed decisions in accessible ways, connect people to other community members that they may not have engaged with otherwise, and connect people back to engaging with the broader community. These actions have started in newsrooms but it is important that they continue and grow to become more of a part of the daily activities of news enterprises and that they are done in a way that the community can feel and appreciate.

I think a free press can, through accountability and through accurate storytelling and holding power to account can help heal America and just as importantly bring people of different communities together to the public square because we desperately need spaces both digital and physical where we can communicate with each other, where we have trusted facts and a diverse media is part of that.”

Sewell Chan, Editorial Page Editor, Los Angeles Times

Participants spoke to some of the strengths that Philadelphia journalism will need to lean into including curiosity, listening, welcoming, and the ability to suspend our ego to speak in the true community voice. It also requires media organizations to design their journalism in partnership with communities and ensure the work is approached with a solutions journalism angle that leaves community members with actionable insights they can use if they are facing a challenge and looking for information.

4. Listening is vital to advancing equity

Listening was a key theme and lesson to how journalism approaches building better relationships with the community. But it also came up as a key theme from journalists of color as to how we can empower community members within the newsroom as well to support the transformation needed in Philadelphia journalism. Listening and incorporating the input of journalists from underrepresented communities is the difference between “equity washing,” where diverse individuals are brought in to assimilate to existing practices versus bringing in marginalized individuals to help transform how we approach our work.

Organizations must be committed to building their capacity to promote a culture of listening in order to engage in authentic conversations about what divides our communities.

“Clearer and more frequent communication with staff about deeper issues. Commit to acting on recommendations from staff and third-party consultants. Just as communities feel trust when they feel invested in/buy into media outlets, so too do newsroom staff find it easier to trust if they/we feel part of a collaboration.

Anonymous Philadelphia Journalist of Color

5. If serving the community is our goal, our values must shift

Journalism currently values many things — audience sizes, exclusives, awards and objectivity. At BEYOND, conversation began to emerge around how to add nuance to, and in some cases change, what we value and what our goals are for our journalism.

Relationship building must be a goal of this work and part of how the journalism industry evaluates itself. News enterprises need to focus on building deeper relationships as opposed to our current more shallow relationship model.

In order to build sustainable and substantive relationships with communities there must be a clear understanding of the context that has brought journalism to its current dynamic of fractured relationships with community members. Establishing these authentic relationships will be essential in order to empathize with community members and to truly understand how to disrupt the current state. It also is important to understand the context of how the media has historically supported systems that oppress many communities in order to address power imbalances when we enter neighborhoods.

“What is the history of this relationship between newsrooms and communities?…There are folks…who have done a lot of research around what’s called newspaper redlining…where newsrooms would create maps similar to housing redlining and they would just not distribute to Black and Brown neighborhoods and they could make enough profit because it was ad-based and the advertisers were getting the audience they wanted which was wealthy White folks. They didn’t…feel like they needed to distribute to Black and Brown communities…a lot of those same newspapers who are today apologizing for harming Black and Brown communities [and] trying to rebuild trust with Black and Brown communities shouldn’t have been redlining in the first place.”

Alicia Bell, Organizing Manager, Free Press

“It is true that the people alive in the late 19th century are not alive today, but that’s not really the point. The point is that as institutions we have this continuity and the past has not really passed…Our communities and our audiences have long memories and they remember the stain of being underserved, neglected, stereotyped, dismissed and if we’re going to try to remove that stain we first have to own up to it, confront it and accept responsibility.”

Sewell Chan, Los Angeles Times Editorial Page Editor

6. Our investments have to align with our espoused values

There was a thread woven through the three-day BEYOND summit about the need to show how much the entire Philadelphia journalism ecosystem values diversity, equity, and inclusion by investing in people and organizations that are moving this work forward. This charge was not just for funders, but also for news organizations and community members. It is also important to note that this community had an expansive view of what it means to invest. Investment means more than just money, although that is a critical piece of it. It also includes investing time and vesting power to individuals and organizations such as community media, journalists of color, and community members sharing their time, money and expertise with us.

If my bosses had been serious about investing in me and my professional development, whether through promotions or just cultivating my abilities, I likely would have stayed. I would have felt like my input was valued. I think what really ripped my heart apart was the fact that I felt like I did just about everything right (paid my dues, networked, bolstered my resume, etc.) and it still wasn’t enough, in part because the game was rigged.”

A Person of Color who Left Journalism

7. We have to move from inclusion to true belonging

One of the emerging concepts that came from two of the speakers at BEYOND explicitly, and many others implicitly, is the need to create organizations that move from being inclusive of people of different backgrounds to being a place where marginalized journalists and community members can truly feel they belong. When organizations move to a belonging orientation, they move away from trying to have folks of different backgrounds assimilate into an existing culture that didn’t take them into consideration. They instead co-create with people of the different lived experiences they want to attract with their culture or news product to ensure their desires and needs are addressed in the culture.

“Belonging means more than just being seen. Belonging means being able to participate in the design of political, social and cultural structures. Belonging means the right to contribute and it also means that. we have the right to make demands upon society and its institutions.

Shakti Butler, World Trust

A critical requisite of an organization establishing a culture of belonging is the ability for people, especially those from marginalized backgrounds, to be able to hold other individuals and the organization accountable to its espoused beliefs and goals. A prerequisite of being able to be held accountable is to be transparent about what you’re doing and being clear about what your goal and mission is, what the deadline is, and what are the consequences for not completing that action. It also is critical that these three criteria are designed in partnership with the community and not just handed down from leadership.

Another characteristic of an organization of belonging is that they provide access to people from communities they want to serve. This access ranges from the qualifications the collective requires to call someone a journalist to how content is structured so that people can engage with it. Organizations of belonging prioritize access to all the communities they aim to serve.

8. We need a radical mindset shift

These are among the major challenges that we are facing. In order to equitably and effectively serve all of the residents of Philadelphia we have to shift our approaches and beliefs that have brought us to and kept us in this cycle. To disrupt the current model that doesn’t allow equal access we need to take on new ways of thinking.

“We need to make sure our newsrooms mirror our communities. We need to change the thinking as it relates to how we view and value communities of color. We need to train people.

Yvette Ousley, The Philadelphia Inquirer

We are building a strategy based upon these learnings, themes and observations. We look forward to sharing it next month. Sign up for the BEYOND newsletter here for updates.

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