Is there any better compliment to the work of journalists than to say it was a community service?
Not in my world.
I just learned that one of my last community outreach team’s big projects at the Columbia Missourian won a community service award in the Missouri Press Association’s annual Better Newspaper Contest. (Here’s the Missourian story about its 56 awards.)
During my last semester with the Missourian, the University of Missouri campus was going through a time of intense turmoil, and the issue of race was at the heart of it. A student’s hunger strike, the resignations of the top officials, regular protests, a free speech debate — and in the middle of it all was a newsroom staffed by Mizzou students and run by Mizzou journalism faculty, trying to figure out how we could best be of service and help draw connections.
The duties of my community outreach team had never been more needed. We used every tool in our toolbox to monitor the mood and needs of the community. We wanted to know what they wanted to know, but we also sought to discover what was making them feel mad, hopeful, scared or disconnected. We hosted and participated in conversations, and we did a lot of listening.
One theme that kept emerging in online conversations really jumped out at us: So many readers were saying they didn’t think racism was still a problem. I don’t see it, they would write, so it must not exist. It must be in “their” (meaning those other peoples’) imaginations. “They’re” just too sensitive and are making everything about race.
Our intense social listening had revealed a gaping hole in community experiences, and we decided to invite readers to help us close the gap.
The project’s aim was to demonstrate how racism manifested in the everyday lives of community members. We collected stories online but also in person.
- Outreach team members went to churches and other gathering places around town, meeting people where they were in the mood to talk. (Here’s a piece I wrote for Poynter about how to get more community voices into your stories.)
- Two stories on our website (one that focused on MU students and one that addressed the broader community) included both text responses and individual audio responses (embedded with Soundcloud). We didn’t try to edit them all together into a narrative; instead we let individual voices stand along, and readers could listen to whichever they were most intrigued by.
- A Facebook album included other voices and prompted some conversation (including when one of the contributors jumped in to answer questions posed about her perspective).
- Each piece invited readers to add their voice, and as we received more submissions through a Google form, the project grew.
- We also went back to some of the conversation threads that prompted the project in the first place, showing those commenters how we followed up and inviting their reactions.
In a time of intense community need, the everyday racism project was:
- born from a demonstrated information gap
- reported in ways that made participation easy for sources
- fueled by individual stories
- shared in a way that invited useful conversation
- expanded as more people added their voice
I’m proud of my team, and it was quite a semester with which to end my 12 years at the Missourian. I wish I could give credit to the people who were involved, but almost everyone on the team contributed in some way. So here they all are.