What we learned at The Lenfest Institute’s 2023 Reimagining Philadelphia Journalism Summit

Charles Gregory, Tracie Powell, and Letrell Deshan Crittenden speak on a panel.
Charles Gregory of We Talk Weekly, Tracie Powell of The Pivot Fund, and Letrell Crittenden of American Press Institute. Photo by Zamani Feelings

The animated video of 10-year-old Dezmond Floyd describing his fifth-grade class’s active shooter drills to his mother brought the 2023 Reimagining Philadelphia Journalism Summit to a standstill. Take two minutes and forty-six seconds to watch the video, and you’ll understand why.  

The story was shared at the Summit by StoryCorps CEO Sandra Clark. The nonprofit organization’s mission is to record Americans’ stories to help illustrate our shared humanity and common values.  

Clark’s talk was a reminder of the power of storytelling and that while journalistic conversations often focus on the nuances of the craft — it’s essential that we remember that our work is in service of our communities.  

“People aren’t talking about ‘narrative change’ and they’re not using this terminology that we have,” she said. “How do we take it to a human level when you’re creating a StoryCorps or a Listening Post in your own community? There’s something so powerful about people being able to come [and share their stories.]” 

Clark’s keynote address capped two days of conversation this week at the 2023 Reimagining Philadelphia Journalism Summit, an annual gathering hosted by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism to inspire and connect journalists and media professionals to build a more just, sustainable, and equitable Philadelphia News Ecosystem.  

We left the Summit energized and inspired by the work being done in Philadelphia and across the United States to take new approaches to journalism and to ensure that all communities have equitable access to information. 

Here are some of our highlights from the Reimagining Summit:  

It all begins with listening 

The Summit drew from the wealth of knowledge from leaders around the United States who shared insights into how they’re reimagining local journalism in their communities to help inform our work in Philadelphia.  

The national leaders reiterated a theme that came up throughout the two-day Summit: individuals — no matter if they were from urban or rural areas — want to see themselves represented in the media and want to be listened to.  

Listening Post Collective Business Strategist Silvia Rivera shared the LPC Playbook, which provides an overview of Listening Post’s community-led information ecosystem assessment to help identify and meet news and information needs.  

Rob Collins, the executive director of the Oklahoma Media Center, similarly shared the results of a recent poll of Oklahomans that found that 75% of people in the state would find news organizations more trustworthy if they were transparent about their processes.  

Capital B CEO and co-founder Lauren Williams said the local-national nonprofit news organization that centers Black voices conducted extensive listening sessions with community members while preparing to launch its second local site in Gary, Indiana.  

“There’s this incredible desire for someone to tell the truth about what’s happening in their communities — not just floating in to report about a crime that happened,” she said. Residents were hungry for coverage of topics that affect their daily lives, like education and business.  

Fiona Morgan, Silvia Rivera, Lauren Williams, and Rob Collins speak on a panel at the Summit.
Fiona Morgan, Silvia Rivera, Lauren Williams, and Rob Collins.

News organizations aren’t the only information sources 

Rivera said we aren’t just in a “news crisis,” but rather an “information crisis,” meaning that even in large media ecosystems, people are still struggling to find and trust quality information. An increasing number of people are getting news from social media — including 68% of Philadelphians — or other community-run, non-traditional sources. 

A study on Georgia’s news landscape found that people trusted, and turned to, social media pages like ATL Scoop, Pasa la Voz, or individuals like April Ross to learn about what is happening in their communities, according to Tracie Powell, founder of The Pivot Fund.  

WhatsApp and Facebook groups are also popular — one example is Conecta Arizona, which has daily civic information bulletins on WhatsApp and real-time question and answer sessions that often bring in public health experts, local officials, educators, or other leaders to talk directly to the community.   

In a city like Philadelphia where many residents speak languages other than English and where adults are facing a literacy crisis, these community media organizations often provide easy-to-understand information in multiple languages and in video or audio formats. 

Kristal Sotomayor, editor-in-chief of cinéSPEAK, said community media organizations are often dismissed as less credible than legacy media because they don’t have a long history and extensive accolades, but in reality, these reporters hold themselves to high standards because they are embedded in the communities they serve.  

As We Talk Weekly host Charles Gregory put it: “We advocate for our people, and we’re unapologetic about it.” 

Journalism as a tool for connection 

Philadelphia Citizen founder Larry Platt reminded us that local journalism is really about community.  

“What we’re really talking about is viewing journalism as connection, as community. That’s what all of us are in the business of,” he said. “If newspapers realized they’re in the community business, not solely the information business … there wouldn’t be the death spiral, I think, that the business is seeing now.” 

Organizations like WURD Radio, Philadelphia’s only Black-owned progressive talk radio station, hold regular events throughout the city to meet and engage with community members where they’re already spending time. WURD hosts its own events, but it’s also sure to have a presence at established events like the Odunde Festival and Roots Picnic.  

By showing up and being of the community, WURD — which just celebrated its 20th anniversary — has earned the trust of its audience and uses its talk radio format to engage in regular dialogue with them.  

“Out of necessity, you have to stay on your toes because we pride ourselves on being open and accessible, and it holds us accountable to our listeners,” said General Manger Ashanti Martin.  

But that kind of trust and connection does not happen overnight. CinéSPEAK’s Sotomayor reminded us that it takes time and intentional work to earn that community buy-in — even before you try to get someone on the record.  

“Talk to people before you even bring a mic and camera,” they said.  

Ashanti Martin of WURD Radio speaking on a panel at the Summit. She is joined by Matt Dennis of NBC, Irv Randolph of The Philadelphia Tribune, and Kristal Sotomayor of cineSPEAK.
Ashanti Martin of WURD Radio. Photo by Zamani Feelings

Change starts from within  

If your organization truly wants to improve the lives of the community it is serving, it needs to ensure that the journalists doing this work have the support and tools they need.  

American Press Institute’s Director of Inclusion and Audience Engagement Letrell Crittenden said community engagement, as well as diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging initiatives, often fall on the backs of a few employees — many of whom are people of color — who ultimately burn out. These initiatives need buy in and participation from everyone, top to bottom and across departments.   

“If your newsroom is toxic, you probably have toxic relationships with your community,” Crittenden said. “If your newsroom is disorganized, you probably have disorganized relationships with your community. If your newsroom is flaky, you probably have flaky relationships with the community.”  

Hiring local talent can improve relationships with the community, but it is also important to make efforts to retain these employees and provide opportunities for them to excel. Philadelphia is one of the many cities facing the issue of the “brain drain,” where promising young talent is leaving the community to find better opportunities.   

Creating an internal culture where employees feel valued is work that can never truly be finished. Jos Duncan Asé, founder and publisher of Love Now Media, said in her organization, where empathy and belonging are core values, staff will disagree from time to time. But in the face of these challenges, a shared commitment to the company’s mission keeps conversations productive and employees grounded.   

“Always coming back to love creates a different dynamic,” she said. 

Jos Duncan Asé of Love Now Media speaking on a panel at the Summit.
Jos Duncan Asé of Love Now Media. Photo by Zamani Feelings

Collaborate — news organizations don’t need to be all things to all people 

Philadelphia has one of the most vibrant and extensive media ecosystems in the country. And while many organizations are already collaborating, there’s opportunity for outlets to deepen their relationships to ensure residents have access to all the information they need. 

It’s impossible for one organization to cover every angle of every single issue. By working together to cover each issue through a variety of lenses and sharing coverage across platforms, news organizations expose audiences to new perspectives and give them the full scope of information they need to make their own decisions.  

The benefits of collaboration were evident in the Every Voice, Every Vote initiative, which was organized by The Lenfest Institute and brought together media and community organizations from across the city for collaborative coverage of the 2023 Philadelphia mayoral election. Media partners engaged in a total of 169 partnerships during the primary season, and many expressed interest in collaboration beyond the election.  

But in order for organizations to work together successfully, equity needs to be at the forefront. Sotomayor said smaller organizations often feel that bigger ones only engage in collaborations when there is a benefit to them rather than view it as an opportunity to uplift one another and provide the best coverage possible for their audiences. They encouraged larger organizations to avoid asking “what can this do for us,” and instead ask themselves, “how can I share my privilege?” 

Journalism is already being reimagined – funders need to catch up 

The Summit was focused on building a more robust future for local news, but for many the future is already here — and Powell, the Pivot Fund founder, provided a timely reminder that the rest of us, especially funders, need to catch up.  

She highlighted how well-intentioned funders believe they are reimagining journalism, but it is not actually happening. Many small, hyperlocal BIPOC media sites have already reimagined what journalism means for their audience and how to engage with them.  

Citing a new study she co-authored with Northeastern University Professor Meredith D. Clark, Powell said that institutional philanthropy is failing news organizations that serve communities of color.  

Funders, she said, are willing to take chances on white founders, but “when it comes to entrepreneurs of color, they want you to come with a proven project already packaged neatly and tied up in a bow.”  

You can find the full 2023 Reimagining Philadelphia Journalism schedule here. We’ll share recordings and highlights from the Summit in the coming weeks. Sign up for The Lenfest Institute newsletter to get updated on when they publish.  

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