With Stories of Atlantic City, local news organizations are inviting community leaders into the reporting process

We all know how the traditional journalism process works: Reporters think up story ideas or get a tip, they talk to sources, they produce their coverage, and then they hit publish.

Rinse and repeat.

But what would it look like if that paradigm was flipped on its head? In Atlantic City, a group of community leaders and local journalists experimented with a project where those community leaders would source stories — finding local personalities and narratives that weren’t being covered — that they would then pitch to local reporters to cover.

This was part of a project called Stories of Atlantic City, organized by Free Press and the Center for Cooperative Media, which brought together local outlets and community groups to report on Atlantic City.

This week in Solution Set, we’re going to dig into Stories of AC to learn more about its origin, how the groups worked together, and how they looked for the stories to cover.

Solution Set is a weekly report from The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Every Thursday, we take an in-depth look at one intriguing thing in journalism, share lessons, and point you toward other useful resources.

A quick disclosure: The Lenfest Institute has supported both Free Press and the Center for Cooperative Media, though we had nothing to do with this particular project.


Here’s the TLDR:


TLDR

• The Challenge: A group of community leaders in Atlantic City, N.J. wanted to change the narrative of media coverage in the city.  

• The Strategy: Local leaders, together with local media outlets, Free Press, and the Center for Cooperative Media, launched Stories of Atlantic City, a community-sourced journalism project.

• The Numbers: Five news orgs published nine stories together that were initially sourced from community leaders asking people what they wanted to see featured in the news.

• The Lessons: These types of relationships take time to build and both newsrooms and community members need to work hard to understand each other’s perspective.

• The Future: Stories of AC hopes to continue, and Free Press and the Center for Cooperative Media would like to expand the model to other cities.

• Want to know more?: Scroll down for additional coverage of the project and more on the idea of restorative narratives.


The Challenge

There’s a typical narrative about Atlantic City. Even if you live nowhere near the New Jersey coast I’m sure you’ve heard about the boom and bust cycles of the city’s casinos and boardwalk.

That storyline, as many are, is one-dimensional and not totally reflective of the city’s true nature. It’s a media narrative that Atlantic City residents find frustrating.

“There’s all this community action that actually happens. There are real people that live in Atlantic City and live and work in Atlantic City totally aside from the casinos, and that story almost never gets told,” said Allie Nunzi, the co-founder and executive director of The Leadership Studio, a non-profit yoga studio and community space in Atlantic City.

Groups in Atlantic City have been thinking for years about how they could create local journalism that is more representative of the community.

In 2015, the advocacy group Free Press held initial discussions with journalists and community members about how to create an improved local journalism ecosystem. The conversations stalled, but participants stayed in touch in subsequent years. (More on this in The Lessons.)

In spring 2018, coverage of local development projects left some in the community unsatisfied. They reached out to the reporter who wrote the story to say that they thought there was more to the story. The reporter and community members then reached out to Free Press.

“[We] landed on this idea of restorative narrative framework,” said Mike Rispoli, director of Free Press’ News Voices program, which focuses on connecting communities and journalists.


The Strategy

Free Press began working with other organizations, such as The Center for Cooperative Media, to bring together interested community leaders and journalists.

Their first step was to bring in Images & Voices of Hope to run a workshop on restorative narrative. Restorative narrative “highlights strengths, potential, healing and growth, instead of underscoring what is broken as conventional news does,” according to IVOH.

A small group of local journalists and community leaders participated in the session. This was a new concept for many, but it was one that made sense and the participants wanted to do more with the framework for storytelling.

“It was very clear to me that this restorative narrative was a way we could get people to break cycles,” Nunzi said. “What we know in yoga is that our belief systems, the way we self identify, and the words we choose about ourselves, is what we live into. A plague of the Atlantic City narrative is the single story about the opening, closing, opening, and closing of the casinos.”

The participants continued meeting as a way to build trust and discuss the next steps they could take together. The conversation was pushed along by Evan Sanchez, a local business owner and community advocate, who suggested working with The Leadership Studio to create restorative-focused stories on Atlantic City.

After rounds of meetings and conversations, the group decided on a project idea where Sanchez and Nunzi, The Leadership Studio executive director, would source stories from the community and then pitch them to local news outlets to cover.

“This was a collaboration that was, from the jump, really led by a group of active community members who knew that in order to change narratives of the community it was necessary to build different types of relationships with journalists and to advocate for better coverage,” Rispoli said. “And to the newsroom’s credit…they came to the project with an open mind.”

Still, it took some work and explaining to bring the news organizations on board. Outlets aren’t used to giving up editorial control in this type of way.

“That was not entirely comfortable for the media organizations involved. They agreed, but we had to come and discuss it collaboratively and set some parameters for how it would work so everyone was comfortable,” Center for Cooperative Media director Stefanie Murray told me.

“News organizations aren’t used to letting the community direct them and their coverage,” she continued. “Newsrooms are used to taking in story tips, leads, and suggestions, but they’re not used to someone else being in the driver’s seat for what they are going to cover, and that was what we were trying to set up here.”

In fact, at least one news organization that joined the discussions after the initial restorative narrative gathering decided not to participate.

While Murray and the Center for Cooperative Media corralled and assuaged the newsrooms, Rispoli and Free Press organized the community members. The partners all had biweekly calls to discuss the project and more occasional in-person meetings to go over the work.

This spring, they held a mixer at the Leadership Studio that invited community members into the space to share ideas for people they thought deserved to be profiled and stories they felt should be told.

Nunzi and Sanchez invited participants by reaching out to their contacts and also canvassing to local gathering places where community already exists.

With those raw ideas, Nunzi and Sanchez went out and did more reporting to firm up the story ideas that they were planning on pitching to the outlets.

“From there, it gave us information of where to look for those deeper cut stories,” Nunzi said. “So non-journalists will nominate people in a really generalized way. It gave us a roadmap for where to look. If they nominate a person, we called them and got the deeper story.”

Rispoli worked with Sanchez and Nunzi to ensure that the stories would be relevant to the news orgs and in a format that they would accept, but there was no guarantee that the participating outlets would be interested in the stories.

“I prepped the media organizations ahead of time,” Murray said. “I said, ‘Please keep an open mind: Even though you’ve covered some of these stories possibly before, I’d encourage you to think about different ways to cover them.’”

The publishers and community leaders then gathered this spring for a pitch session where Nunzi and Sanchez brought their story ideas to the editors and journalists involved.

Heading into the event, Rispoli and Murray were nervous about whether the newsrooms would ultimately want to publish the stories.

But the publishers were interested in all the stories. In fact, none of them had heard of, let alone covered, any of the stories that were pitched.

“They had no idea that any of these things were happening in the community, which goes to show the value that the community can bring to the collaboration, which is their deep connections and networks that sometimes journalists don’t have,” Rispoli said.

All the participating outlets then set out to report the stories. They all agreed to publish simultaneously last month. Each story was published both by the individual outlets and on a collective Stories of Atlantic City website.

One week after the stories were published, Stories of Atlantic City held an event that brought together the story subjects, residents and journalists to discuss the project.

“That community event, for me, was the most meaningful work that I had ever done on this project in the four years that we have been doing it,” Rispoli said. “To see how well received it was from people because it wasn’t just people coming together and saying news coverage of our city is bad and doesn’t tell the whole story. There were stories here that no one knows about and this store helped lift those up. People were feeling that they were better represented.”


The Numbers

There were five media partners that ultimately participated in the project. They included The Press of Atlantic City, the city’s daily newspaper; digital startups Route40 and BreakingAC; SNJtv; and Stockton University, a local college that included its student journalists.

Together, they published nine stories that were pitched by the community partners. The stories focused on topics such as African American participation in local baseball teams, a barber who is a pillar of his community, how the city is working to destigmatize mental health, and more.

“It was important for us to share who the people were and why we felt that it was an important story. And then we shared that there was a layered [narrative] with each topic,” Nunzi said.

The project was funded by an $18,500 grant from the NJ Community News and Information Fund at the Community Foundation of New Jersey. The fund is jointly supported by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The Center for Cooperative Media secured another $8,000 in funding to support the project’s video production.

The grant was administered by Stockton University. Half went to the Leadership Studio, which managed the community partners, and half was distributed among the media partners.

“It was really important to us that as we were setting this project up that this project was really equitable… Decision making around the project, agenda setting, priority setting — all of those things [were] done in collaboration between the newsrooms and Allie and Evan,” Rispoli said. “We wanted to make sure that it wasn’t just the newsrooms calling the shots and the community members doing the hard work.”

About 50 people attended the initial mixer where they pitched stories. The event was mostly community members, and journalists actually weren’t invited, though a few saw ads for the event and showed up.

At the meeting, 18 people suggested a story about a local artist who makes jewelry from sea glass, Nunzi said. Her story ended up featured as part of the project.

“I never even thought that it would be a thing,” Nunzi said. “The overwhelming response is that the people who live here want the world to know that there are really amazing positive people.”


The Lessons

• Be patient: Stories of Atlantic City didn’t just pop up overnight. The collaboration took years to develop as the partners developed trust and relationships.

It really started in 2015 with an initial Free Press News Voices event. Though those initial efforts fizzled, Rispoli kept in touch with Sanchez. They would trade emails every few months and Rispoli would be sure to include Sanchez if there was an event or something happening in Atlantic City.

“It’s literally just like a relationship. We didn’t ask each other for anything or expect anything,” Rispoli said. “It wasn’t a very transactional relationship,” he continued.

By fostering those relationships — even when the payoff isn’t immediate right away — journalists can build trust with the community and lay the groundwork for future work.

“What’s important for journalists to understand is that this work is a process and it can’t just be a project. It’s a process that requires time, being intentional about how it’s done, and patience,” Rispoili said.

• You need translators: One of the key roles that Free Press and the Center for Cooperative Media played in Stories of AC was helping the community leaders and journalists understand each other’s point of view.

With his background in journalism, Rispoli helped translate the journalese that reporters tend to use, and Murray and the Center for Cooperative Media worked to help the newsrooms understand the community perspective.

Initially, some of the outlets were a bit distrustful for the community partners because they didn’t just want to promote projects or advance business interests.

“I had to explain…why they are distrustful and why it’s an ethical concern,” Murray said, adding that they, obviously, were able to overcome those hang-ups.

Through these roles, the facilitators helped ensure that everyone was on the same page and not talking past one another.

• Focus on the grasstops: I learned a new term while reporting this issue: Grasstop leaders.

Grasstop leaders are influencers in their community, and grasstop advocacy focuses on using leaders’ connections and relationships to mobilize their networks.

This is how Stories of AC approached the project. By utilizing their relationships with the community, Nunzi and Sanchez were able to get stories that journalists hadn’t (and likely wouldn’t have) gotten.

“People were really willing because there was already a trusted and established relationship,” she said. “If the journalist went out to do that, I’d assume they wouldn’t have the same level of response.”


The Future

The groups in Atlantic City are thinking about what another version of Stories of AC might look like, but Free Press and the Center for Cooperative Media have received requests from individuals and outlets in Newark, Camden, Patterson, Asbury Park, and other cities in New Jersey.

“What’s exciting for this project is that it shows what’s possible and helps newsrooms rethink about who they can collaborate with,” Rispoli said.

A graduate student at Stockton University has been working on an evaluation of the project. That report, which interviewed stakeholders, will be released later this month. (I will share it once it’s published.)

The participating groups have also scheduled a call to discuss what worked and what could be improved with the project. They’re thinking about additional ways to fund the work, how to grow the audience, and how to involve more ethnic and community publishers.

In Atlantic City though, there is interest in continuing the project and reaching communities they didn’t have time to cover this go around.

“We can go back and cultivate those relationships,” Nunzi said.


Want to know more?

• Nunzi, Sanchez, and Rispoli all spoke about the Stories of Atlantic City project at the recent Collaborative Journalism Summit. You can watch a video of their talk and check out their slides.

• The Center for Cooperative Media’s Joe Amditis and Rispoli wrote about their approach to restorative narrative frameworks on Medium.

• As I was doing research for this story, I found this useful worksheet for how to identify and work with grasstops in your community.


Anything to add?

How’s your newsroom working with grasstop leaders in your community? What else are you doing to include community voices in your coverage? Let me know! I need something to write about next week. 😬

See you next Thursday!


Photo by Christian Correa via The Center for Cooperative Media

A previous version of this issue misstated the project budget for Stories of AC.