Connecting to Communities Through Conversation

When Clair Lorell of the American Society of News Editors reached out to our team at the Center for Cooperative Media in February to see if we’d participate in the National Community and News Literacy Roundtables Project, we knew that the only possible answer was yes. The idea, as Lorell explained it, was to get news, civic and academic institutions together to discuss a critical issue in a local community – with the community, and through a media lens.

We were already in the planning stages of our ENGAGE Local conference, and we’d decided to engage with the community of Newark, a community chronically underserved by local media in NJ. We had chosen engagement, an increasingly important theme in media today, to follow up on last year’s INNOVATE Local conference. So  – with ASNE’s offer in hand – we decided that we’d kick off the conference with a roundtable event the first night. After a few weeks of discussion, we chose the subject of gentrification in Newark, and then began to hold weekly planning meetings at the studios of WBGO-FM,  one of our longstanding media partners. Together with a WBGO team and two other local media partners, independently-owned hyperlocals Brick City Live and Glocally Newark, we dived into the nuances of the issue in Newark, began reviewing other urban redevelopment examples and began to work on a panelist list for the Monday night kickoff event.

The event, held Monday June 15 in the New Jersey Performing Arts Center – an important cultural venue and itself a symbol of Newark’s gentrification – drew a crowd of about 300. In addition to the panelists, we were able to hear from about a dozen members of the audience.

We had planned on a follow-up session during our main conference the next day, and the Center was fortunate to have Wally Dean, a consultant for ASNE and a widely recognized facilitator and media trainer, lead that session. It was much smaller and more informal, and Dean set out an agenda to cut down on grandstanding. Dean paced around the room, asking questions like “What does the character of a community mean to you?” And, employing a short leash, he kept the discussion crisp and tight.

We interviewed Dean afterwards about the whole experience, and he explained that both formats – the more formal Monday night panel event and the less formal Tuesday afternoon discussion – were both important and valid. “The first panel was made up of experts, who spoke from their organizational representational position,” Dean said. And that’s important to frame the debate. Conversation doesn’t really happen without that first step.

But the smaller panel eschewed the concept of experts altogether and asked people to speak as individuals. Dean explained: “We were interested in viewing these issues on a different level – on a more personal level.” The smaller group discussion is also useful for journalists covering the issue, because it allows them to “see where those touch points of relevancy might be.”

Watch the video below to get a flavor.

The Center for Cooperative Media plans to help our partners keep the discussion of Newark’s redevelopment alive in the months to come, and we’re looking forward to NJ Spotlight’s upcoming Spotlight on Cities on Friday Oct. 16, also at NJPAC, which will explore the successes, the challenges and the future of NJ’s cities. Confirmed speakers include Toni Griffin, Director of the J. Max Bond Center on Design for a Just City, the Dodge Foundation’s Chris Daggett and PSEG CEO Ralph Izzo.

The National Community and News Literacy Roundtables Project is a joint initiative of the American Society of News Editors, The Robert R. McCormick Foundation, the News Literacy Project and the American Press Institute.

The Center for Cooperative Media would also like to help many of our more than 130 media partners learn how to put on these events themselves. Reach out to the Center staff or Clair Lorell at ASNE if you’re interested. The Center is based in the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. For a deeper dive into the Monday night event, watch the other two videos we produced in the YouTube playlist below.

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