Inside WHYY N.I.C.E.’s approach to collaborative journalism

As the city of Philadelphia recently reinstated an indoor mask mandate to help combat the continued spread of the coronavirus delta variant, many of the city’s restaurants and event venues announced that they would require customers to be vaccinated to eat or drink indoors. 

The changing regulations are a major story in the city, and to help cover the news, Philadelphia public media outlet WHYY turned to Tamara Russell — also known as P.O.C. (Proof of Consciousness) — to interview Philadelphians about what local residents thought about the regulations.  

But Russell isn’t a WHYY employee, she is the founder and host of REVIVE RADIO, an internet radio platform, and she was collaborating with WHYY as part of the News and Information Community Exchange, a reporting collaborative organized around mutual-aid. 

“We recognize that communities have their own storytellers and we try to do away with the traditional mainstream idea of reporters and journalists coming from outside a community to report on the community to others who may not necessarily live in that community,” said WHYY Community Outreach Organizer Eric Marsh, Sr., who manages N.I.C.E. 

Through N.I.C.E, WHYY partners with local Philadelphia journalists and mediamakers to help elevate their community-centered reporting and connect them with one another. The partners meet weekly to share story ideas and for professional development trainings. Participants are compensated for their time, and the partners maintain ownership over their reporting. 

N.I.C.E. is supported by the Knight-Lenfest Local News Transformation Fund, and I spoke with Marsh and WHYY Managing Editor for Community & Engagement Chris Norris about the program, how they define mutual aid, and how N.I.C.E works with its partners. 

Our conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. 


Lichterman: One of the things I think is most interesting about N.I.C.E. is that it’s described as a form of mutual aid. I’d be curious to hear more about the thinking behind that and how you can approach journalism from this mutual-aid approach. 

Chris Norris: For us, in a very Philly sense, it means me looking out for you, and you looking out for me. N.I.C.E. started with this recognition that communities aren’t just consumers of news and information, but they’re producers of it, too. By closing the gap between grassroots content creators and more mainstream organizations, we as an organization, WHYY, would be better off as a public media institution. But so would these communities. Because at the end of the day, it’s about our communities getting informed.

Anyone who’s honest, would say that there are people in the communities who provide information that are closer to people, and closer to issues, and closer to neighborhoods than traditional journalists could ever be. Rather than trying to compete, how do you strengthen those people on the grassroots level so that the entire ecosystem benefits? That’s what’s at the heart of the project: transforming this local news ecosystem by organizing, developing, and supporting grassroots content creators who can add perspective, historical context, source diversity, and multiculturalism into the reporting that’s severely lacking. 

WHYY gets wisdom and insight and community connections from these creators, they get professional development opportunities to connect and co-report with our reporters and editors, mentorships, audience growth and audience exposure, brand alignment, and greater brand recognition. 

And I think that in the pandemic everywhere else in society is mostly going to a mutual-aid concept, so why not journalism? I think this is probably one of the bigger innovations in journalism that I’ve been a part of and that I’ve seen, because it’s about power. The one thing that people tend to not want to disrupt in the context of journalism is power, who has the power to tell the story, who has the power to shape the narrative, and who’s the gatekeeper. And now we are expanding the tent of who gets to be recognized for committing acts of journalism. That’s valuable.

Lichterman: I love that phrase, acts of journalism. What does this look like in practice? Can you share some examples of how you’re trying to redistribute that power and foster these collaborations?

Norris: One of the first partners we brought on was a gentleman named Conrad Benner, who had run a blog for 10 years called Streets Dept, and Tamara Russell in West Philly, who runs an internet radio station. In practice, for those two, it helps us with a pipeline into original content. This man on the street, woman on the street, interview that she does is something that we run on our website and on the [radio] twice a month. But Conrad is a once a month play on our PlanPhilly vertical. And so it’s original content, for one, it’s diverse voices for two, but for them they’re getting exposure and platforms. For us, for example, Conrad is a whiz at social media and TikTok, and he is consulting with us and will be forthcoming working with our social media department to help us evolve on to the TikTok platform to help us think about other ways of maximizing social media to engage his audience. That’s where the wisdom and the insight comes from.

Marsh: To your question about power, I think one of the examples that comes up is one of our partners, Purple Blackwell, who’s been operating an internet radio station for many years, doing arts and culture, entertainment, background conversations, and interviews. She has a relationship with local elected officials, and more specifically, the mayor and recently broke a news story about a veteran who was on a hunger strike protesting the mayor’s lack of response to addressing gun violence. That’s turned into a really deep conversation across media outlets about this individual who many didn’t consider a journalist and how she was able to, one, break this story. But two, to continue to dig deep to bring both sides together and talk about all the players involved, including a council member who wrote the bill that the veteran was on hunger strike asking the mayor to address. Her connectedness to the community, I think speaks to something that’s been missing in journalism for a very long time. Something that many community members and residents respect and look for. I think that was a great example of how this is different in redistributing or rethinking this idea of power in journalism and news.

Norris: The other piece about that is the power dynamic comes from the validation. What I was talking about was gatekeepers: who gets to say who is a reporter and whose information is trustworthy, and who is a journalist versus who gets to commit acts of journalism. Where I think that the power dynamic plays in with N.I.C.E. is that people who are on the grassroots are kind of seen as “that” and people who have the J-School degrees are kind of seen as “this.” Journalists have talked themselves into this sweet spot of elitism, and only we can cover the neighborhoods, only we know the best practices for doing it, but at the same time journalists struggle with building trust in diverse communities, particularly communities of color. 

You have people in communities who provide relevant timely news and information, but because they’re not seen as mainstream, they’re not seen as necessary. This word mainstream is coded. Who gets to determine who’s mainstream and what’s mainstream to whom? In certain neighborhoods, mainstream means mistrust. The mainstream media means transactional. Mainstream media means homogenous. We glorify mainstream media as if it’s the creme de la creme where everyone needs to ascend to, but these creators are on the ground, doing what’s righteous, and they’ve gained the trust of their communities in ways that mainstream media wants. I was referring to the power dynamic as saying that by being attached to a collaborative body like N.I.C.E., something that I consider relatively groundbreaking, it is a validation to many of them who have been working on the ground, many of them who’ve been working in silos, saying, we recognize you, you’re important, you’re necessary to the ecosystem, and you don’t have to change who you are to fit in to our paradigm. What you do and how you do it is what attracted us in the first place. I think the power is allowing them to stay true to themselves, stay true to their values, stay true to their sound, and be authentic.

The power is in providing them a collaborative network of other people who are on the ground. One of the things that you hear from these people in N.I.C.E. is many of them say that they can kind of work in a bubble, they didn’t know anybody else was doing this in the city. And now they have support, and they have resources, and they have recognition. They have, honestly, a confidence boost. It’s a reinforcement that, “Hey, I’m doing the right thing. And now I have some people and a network behind me.” 

All that stuff is power.

Lichterman: Is it a challenge to have to build that trust with the creators since WHYY might be seen as one of those mainstream outlets given that it’s coming from the world of public media?

Marsh: It actually has not been a huge challenge. I think that has a lot to do with WHYY initiating the conversation with community content creators, reaching out and opening the doors. In my initial outreach to the first cohort of partners, within that group of 10 individuals that I contacted, we’ve had two individuals who have come back and where one was very specific about saying, “It sounds great, but get it up and running, and then let me know how it works out.” Because they were leery about the relationship as a small content creator, having experienced larger outlets, either taking their ideas, or taking their reporters, and encroaching on their work. They were interested, but hesitant. I took that as an opportunity to really take it back to WHYY and explain that as a real concern. As Chris said earlier, many people recognize and key into WHYY cache and history and acknowledgement of the connection to community. Overall, you know, the relationship has really been positive, in terms of how people interact, they see it more as a plus than a negative. So they’re willing to get on board, they’re willing to work and collaborate, even if they do have some reservation in terms of, I’m gonna see how this goes. From those that I’ve spoken to, who may have started off with that concern, those concerns have been alleviated in every single person I’ve talked to. 

Norris: As we talk about the cache and the gravitas of the brand, equally important is the people that you put in place to do this. And because Eric and I have street cred and have been in the grassroots for years, I think that people are giving WHYY the benefit of the doubt because they know us, or they know of us, they know our networks. So it’s easier to have that conversation and to build trust when they know where you’re coming from and they know how much you care. They know that your past mirrors their present. I spent 10 years as a grassroots content creator before I came into WHYY. I can speak about the challenges, the need, how I grew it, and how I integrate it into the news ecosystem. Eric is deeply integrated and involved in a number of affinity groups and neighborhood causes, My Brother’s Keeper, 100 Black Men, and everything in between. That history is easily searchable, and recognizable, so I think that people have, not that they have put their guard down, because they should always have some relative skepticism about anything, but they are willing to give the benefit of the doubt to an institution that hasn’t always done right by their community, that hasn’t always been welcoming, that hasn’t always been open. In our conversations with the partners, we acknowledge that this hasn’t always been a place of radical diverse voices. 

Three years ago, the newsroom was 80%, white, the sources were 80% white and 80% male. That is just a stone cold fact that you can’t run from. But, three years later, the numbers are changing, they’re becoming more diverse. There’s more Black men, for example, working at WHYY in the last three years than in the last 20. It’s about recognizing and amplifying, the macro and the micro wins, so that people can identify that change is happening, and they want to be part of that change. Eric and I always talk about this in terms of the competitive landscape and unique value propositions. This is the fourth largest media market in the country, and this is a very big city. There is simply no news organization that is taking the community engagement approach that we’re taking. I think it’s radical, I think it’s transformative, and I think it is, in a way, a concept of journalism reform.

Lichterman: I can imagine very traditional journalists hearing you talk about having affiliations with various grassroots groups and having that experience say “Oh, that’s a conflict of interest. We can’t can’t cover it that way.” But it sounds like you’re saying it makes the journalism stronger and better reflects the community and better reflects their stories.

Norris: The traditional concept of media, or news, would try to portray that proximity would limit objectivity. There’s literally no science that was suggested. Again, at the same time, the mainstream is trying to increase their proximity. Why not partner with those who are already the closest to the communities, build trust in relationships with them? Trade community connections and sources of professional development, create new programming, and develop talent together. I think that the way that we — when I say we I’m talking about Sandy Clark, the VP of news, that includes Joy Soto, who’s our community voices MVP, that includes, of course, Eric and myself — but we don’t talk about community as if it’s “them.” When people say let’s go to the communities, or we need to hear from the community. It’s our community. Eric lives in the same neighborhood as some of our partners. I live two blocks from Conrad. It’s not like it’s his community and then my community is over here. We live in the same city. We live blocks from each other, and by using intentional language and the way we talk about it, we create collective ownership. 

Marsh: Something else that we do with the partners is we have very engaging conversations about what it is to be a journalist or what it is to commit acts of journalism, what is it that they do? And what are some of the practices that can strengthen their authenticity, their reputation, and their reporting skills? So, for instance, this idea that that proximity somehow impacts a person’s reliability or a judgment or objectivity. There are still some practices that you have to do, like fact checking. There’s some foundational work that you do when you’re reporting the news. We make sure that there’s an understanding that none of that is compromised simply because you’re interviewing somebody that you may have had dinner with a week ago, where maybe you live down the street from them. I think that’s the other thing that we really have to focus on. It’s this elitism of journalism because you’ve gone through school, you have a degree behind your name, or a few letters, that somehow you are incapable of, biased reporting. We really examine the definition of professional and really look at who’s closest to the sources? Who’s close to the root of news and information? How are we making sure sure that the voice that’s heard is the voice of the people that’s most impacted, and not this kind of anthropological external examination, where you’re looking at communities under a microscope, or through through some type of looking at glass

Norris: I think that what Eric just said, is so profound, because, using the word bias in the context of proximity, saying, oh, if you’re too close to a community, you can’t be objective, or you’d be biased. I’d argue that if you’re disconnected from a community, you’re even more biased and even more likely to get the story wrong, because you don’t know the people there. You don’t know the culture there. You don’t know the language. You write through this lens trying to pathologize the people you’re writing about, and analyze the people you’re writing about, and making guesses about their situations and their cultures and their historical context, rather than trying to build transformative radical relationships. That’s the thing that we spent a lot of time talking about N.I.C.E. is how do we make sure that we’re not being transactional? Even in a mutual aid, it’s not quid pro quo. Hey, I did this for you, so you need to do this for me. It’s about what are all of our goals? Who has the skills to help you here? How do we really grow all of ourselves at the same time and at the same time offering collaborations?

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