Local newsrooms in the U.S. reimagine their beats to build engagement

by Sherry Ricchiardi
Jul 26, 2021 in Audience Engagement
Writers at computers

“It’s time to launch creative solutions to increase staff size and resources without sacrificing quality — and do it with an eye to the uncertain future,” reads a quote from an American Press Institute report on how local news outlets can rebound and prosper in 2021. Good examples of that work are not hard to find in the U.S.

One local newsroom meeting that challenge is The Seattle Times. When the outlet decided to form a new reporting team, editors turned to community leaders for advice on what topic they wanted to receive deeper coverage. The response, overwhelmingly, was homelessness. Data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development also supported that feedback: Between 2019 and 2020, Seattle/King County had the third highest increase in urban homeless population in the country.

This feedback led to the creation of Project Homeless, a beat that combines watchdog journalism, powerful storytelling and solutions-oriented articles. Grants from Starbucks, the University of Washington and other local donors have helped support the reporting.

This was the Seattle Times’ third community-funded reporting team. The first two focused on education and traffic. “These also came about by finding out what topics people wanted to know more about.  We look to our readers for advice and support,” said Anna Patrick, the engagement editor for Project Homeless.

On jump-starting innovative beats, she offered these tips: 

  • Be sure you have resources and reporters to make it work — that is number one.
  • Try to find support through community funding. 
  • Talk to people.  Find out what they want and need to know. Ask them what they care most about.
  • Create a reporting plan to deliver the information.

“I highly recommend engaging the community right away.  You will be off to a much better start,” said Patrick.

[Read more: How to use data to understand readers' needs]

 

The Pulitzer-prize winning newspaper has become a leader in developing community funding for public service journalism, a viable way to expand newsroom resources. In June, the Times announced a $1.1 million grant from the Ballmer Group, a national philanthropy, to develop a new behavioral and mental health journalism reporting team. The grant will support more than 20 newsroom positions.

To get started in securing funding to expand a local news team, the American Press Institute offers this advice:

  • Apply now for grant-funded interns, fellowships and reporters to augment your staff later this year or next summer. These programs typically work far in advance.
  • Consider a community-funded position or team like The Sacramento Bee’s Equity Lab.
  • Practice creative efficiency. For example, if editing needs are more acute on days at specific times, consider hiring part-time experienced editors or exploring four-day work weeks.

Reimagining traditional beats

According to media experts, innovation is vital to the future of local news. In a Poynter Institute article, Kristen Hare cited a “reimagining” of traditional beats, with a shift toward reader interest and coverage that “captures a sense of place.”

“The key is thinking about who is impacted, who this matters to, and what they care about most, then building the work around what they need to know,” said Hare, who tracked the closure of more than 70 newsrooms during the pandemic. Many were small weeklies with strong community ties. 

Along those same lines, Pablo Boczkowski, a professor at the Northwestern University School of Communications, advised journalists to “listen and be led” in a Nieman Lab article. “To flourish in the third decade of the 21st century, journalism has to stop conceiving of audiences in its own image. It has to meet audiences where they are rather than where it would like them to be,” he wrote.

[Read more: “Politics for everyone”: How the Dominican Republic's El Mitin is changing political reporting in the Caribbean]

 

Here is the good news: There are plenty of innovative beats to serve as models and inspire change for local reporting. Below is just a sampling:

  • The Minneapolis Star Tribune has a section devoted to good news called Tribune’s Inspired. “It was something readers were begging for,” said Gail Rosenblum, editor for that beat. She described the public response as “off the charts,” with “many of them writing each week to praise the content.”
  • The Philadelphia Inquirer’s UpSide was inspired by a reader who wrote to the executive editor asking, “Is it possible for you to consider publishing only good news for one day?”

“Upside has been very well received by our readers, especially during the global pandemic,” said Evan Benn, the Inquirer’s director of special projects and editorial events. “So many were isolated, worried and grasping for something good. We receive a steady stream of feedback from readers who appreciate the stories.”

  • Among other models of good news sections: The Washington Post has The Optimist, an email newsletter. The Today Show has Good NewsMicrosoft News and HuffPost titled similar sections of their own "Good News" as well. 
  • On the more serious side, the Gannett corporation, owner of USA TODAY and more than 260 local news operations, has added or reassigned journalists to 60 newly created beats, many on race and social justice. At USA Today, these include housing and social services, economic opportunity, sports inequality, and race in entertainment and pop culture.

“Engagement editors will also be tasked with conducting outreach, coordinating focus groups and leading digital communications with communities featured in the coverage,” wrote USA Today’s Nathan Bomey when changes were announced.  

In May, Gannett launched a year-long project on the national story of race, “Never Been Told: The Lost History of People of Color.”


Sherry Ricchiardi Ph.D. is the co-author of ICFJ's Disaster and Crisis Coverage guide and international media trainer who has worked with journalists around the world on conflict reporting, trauma and safety issues.

Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash.