A key takeaway from the Alliance for Community Media’s recent conference in Boston: Community media can and must help fill the gaps in local news coverage that are growing across the country thanks to rampant consolidation and newsroom cutbacks.
Community media is an umbrella term that refers to non-commercial media that isn’t part of NPR or PBS. ACM is an organization composed primarily of public access, education and government (PEG) TV channels available on cable television, along with the digital media centers and training programs such stations offer. There are more than 3,000 community media outlets in the U.S., and they’re diverse in terms of the resources they have, the programming they produce, the way they’re organized, and the scale at which they operate.
What they have in common is that we need them more than ever.
As I opened my ACM conference presentation on the News Voices project, I asked the 100 people in the room, “How many of you live in communities where the local newspaper has recently shut down, or where the newspaper no longer has a reporter to cover your community?” About a third raised their hands.
Yet there was reason for hope. “How many of you have a background in professional journalism?” I asked. Several people raised their hands. “How many have a background in community organizing, or activism?” Another set of people raised their hands.
I’m used to speaking with journalists about the need to use organizing skills to engage the public, or to advocates and activists about the special role journalism plays in strengthening communities.
Our News Voices project, which brings together reporters and residents in cities throughout New Jersey, is about connecting those two worlds. We invite journalists to sit down at the same table — literally — with people who dedicate their time to improving their communities, so that they can work together to tell important stories.
But people in community media already have a foot in both worlds, which puts them ahead when it comes to authentic community engagement.
The session I led at ACM with Northampton TV’s Al Williams was a scaled-down version of a News Voices event. I asked people to form small discussion groups and identify issues that matter to their communities. Familiar themes emerged: housing, education, the opioid epidemic, race and policing. Then I asked them to form different groups and consider questions they had about those topics. From there, the groups brainstormed about stories that need to be told to address those issues.
This exercise draws on and connects the knowledge and expertise in the room. In the communities where News Voices works, we use the exercise to harness the collective knowledge of residents, showing journalists how to draw on this powerful force.
At the ACM conference, we were with people from all over the country who are engaged in the same mission: to serve the public through media. During the session I led, they considered how these issues play out in their communities, and how their outlets could use this exercise and tell the stories that emerge.
Not all PEG stations are equipped to do what we typically think of as journalism. But engagement is ingrained in their mission — more so, in fact, than it is for other kinds of media outlets. And with the right partnerships — with local journalists or civic organizations — that engagement can foster the kinds of conversations we need as conventional news outlets reduce their coverage of local issues.
While in Boston, I had a chance to tour the Boston Neighborhood Network, a nonprofit community center broadcasting in the Roxbury neighborhood.
BNN provides one channel for public access: Volunteer TV producers who complete a training course have the chance to make and air their own shows, working either in front of or behind the camera. BNN’s news channel includes a daily professionally produced program, Boston Neighborhood Network News, and a weekly public affairs show. BNN also recently partnered with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism on coverage of the city’s suburban communities, which commercial media outlets have increasingly neglected.
Montgomery County, Maryland, home to more than 1 million people, is a news desert even though it lies inside the Washington, D.C. media market. In 2015, the Washington Post Company shut down its community newspaper that served the county, and commercial broadcasters pay little attention to it.
Fortunately, Montgomery Community Media is producing local news and information, both on its cable channels and on multiple digital platforms, including its online hub, MyMCMedia.org. MCM is an independent nonprofit whose professional staff produce news and public affairs shows about the county, its city government, its schools, its local elections and its multiethnic culture.
In an ACM conference panel, MCM content director Nannette Hobson talked about how she saw a decline in substance and relevance in commercially produced programming during her career as a local TV news producer as corporate directives steered reporters away from important local stories.
That void creates an opportunity, she said. “We can be responsive to community needs on any given day because we are the community.”
Hobson showed a clip from an MCM reporter who had attended a county budget hearing and decided to follow up with a speaker who requested bus service in the African American neighborhood of Tobytown. The reporter interviewed residents, walked with them along the busy stretch of road, examined government documents and asked public officials for a response. Her multiple follow-up reports covered public forums, and weeks later, county officials approved bus service to connect the community with surrounding areas so residents could travel to work safely. It was a perfect demonstration of the impact solid local journalism can have on people’s lives.
In a sense, community media — PEG stations and their related projects — are part of the larger category of public media, broadly defined. But unlike PBS stations, they don’t broadcast over the air, and they don’t receive money from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Instead, much of the funding PEG stations receive is a product of franchise agreements between local or state governments and the cable companies providing service. Those arrangements create challenges for stations seeking to produce news.
To understand these challenges, it helps to understand a little policy.
Under federal law, local or state governments can negotiate with cable companies that want to do business with their residents, requesting channel space and/or setting aside a percentage of the total revenue from cable subscriptions in their area. Negotiations and the resources they generate vary from place to place. In some areas, they result in multiple channels and other types of support. In others local leaders may choose to have only a government channel to broadcast city council meetings and the like — and in some the government takes the money without requesting any channels.
How the money gets distributed varies too. In some places, money goes directly to an independent nonprofit that operates a station — that arrangement provides the maximum level of independence from elected officials and bureaucrats. But it’s more often the case that local governments control how the money gets spent. They may house the station within the government itself, or issue contracts with organizations that run public access channels, a process that can easily become politicized.
ACM members shared a few off-record war stories of political pressure from mayors and city councilors to do certain kinds of programming. Producers and station managers in those communities feel apprehensive about how far they can go.
As policies differ, so does the strength of a state’s community media ecosystem. Massachusetts encourages setting up independent nonprofits to run stations, which is why it’s home to more than 200 stations. Minnesota and Oregon also have strong community media.
That’s not the case in New Jersey. Although there are more than 100 PEG stations in the state, most are government or education stations, and nonprofit organizations run only five. This presents a challenge when it comes to producing independent programming, because government stations operate without a political firewall.
But government stations can still do good work. Asbury Park TV is a government-run channel with a community mindset. Its producers have been in discussion with our News Voices team and the hyperlocal Asbury Park Sun on a potential collaboration with local youth. Princeton Community Television and Digital Media Center is an independent nonprofit that serves 20 townships in three different counties. Based at a public library, East Brunswick TV also does community-centered programing.
Partnerships with independent entities are a good option for stations seeking to do local news, and community media stations have a lot to offer potential partners: studios with high-quality video equipment, including cameras and editing suites; mobile production equipment, sometimes including vans or trucks on par with those used by local TV news crews; expertise in all aspects of media production, including digital editing and online distribution; training programs and technical support aimed at turning novices of all ages into competent producers.
Besides their technical assets, community media organizations have another edge: their relationships with local residents and organizations. The concept of access — of opening the doors to community members and showing them how to tell their own stories — is their very reason for being.
There’s no magic bullet for saving local news, nor is there a one-size-fits-all institution that can fill the information gaps that have resulted from the erosion of our commercial media ecosystem.
But the kinds of resources and institutions people want to see in communities look a lot like the community media centers in Boston and Saint Paul and Montgomery County, Maryland. Not every station or center will be equipped or properly insulated to do investigative journalism, but they have a lot to offer. It’s time to include community media in our thinking about the future of local news.
Fiona Morgan is Free Press’ Journalism Director and a regular contributor to the Dodge Blog. She works with Mike Rispoli to oversee News Voices: New Jersey, a Dodge-funded Free Press initiative designed to create conversation and respond to the needs of both journalists and residents.