A focus on people instead of power

Over the course of the pandemic, my company collaborated with TED to produce two seasons of the podcast Far Flung with Saleem Reshamwala. Each of the 20 episodes in the series visits a different city to find transferable ideas that shape that place. Without really intending to, we got into conversations with multiple people in four very different cities around the world about local journalism — and their comments may provide guidance for local news initiatives in the coming year.

During multiple unrelated interviews with local citizens in each — Caracas, Venezuela; San Juan, Puerto Rico; Bangkok, Thailand; and Durham, North Carolina — the topic of local news came up. We asked variations of, “What do you expect from local news?” The answers were almost universal across all the interviews in these four cities — and even more remarkable, since they were all conducted by different journalists and on different topics.

What did they say? In all four cities, citizens wanted local news to tell stories of people, not stories about power. In their view, besides tragedy and crime, all current local news media does is tell the stories of people in power, not about people like them nor stories that directly (or clearly) impact their lives. And when they talked of power, the definition is surprisingly broad. Politicians, government officials, and the wealthy have power, of course, but even interviewing book authors was seen as focusing on those with power. And to the people we spoke to in these four cities, those they see in power aren’t genuinely concerned about the lives of those in their neighborhoods — so why should they care about listening to those in power?

So what did they want instead? Those interviewed described their ideal as something we might call hyperlocal news — news focused on neighborhoods and the actions of residents. They don’t trust government and government officials, largely thinking those institutions aren’t working in the citizens’ best interests. They want news that is immediately useful to them. They want news that they can verify with their own eyes.

They want to hear stories about their neighbors as well as businesses and activities in their area. They want things that lift up and make them proud to be part of their communities. “I just want to hear how they’re gonna help more of the community rather than tear them down,” a woman named Angel told Saleem outside a bus station in Durham “Like, people are opening up gardens…trying to do something productive in the communities. And I wanna hear more positive than bad.”

In Caracas, Venezuela, Helena Field of El Bus TV (a group of journalists who provide local news reports live on city buses), described the approach as getting away from journalism that’s like a “helicopter” and more like a “bus,” with a clear, slow view of a limited geographic area at the ground level.

In Bangkok and San Juan, they spoke about the need for local media to focus on helping: helping connect people, helping address immediate concerns in times of crisis or need, helping to answer questions — helping to tangibly improve life.

Ever since I first stumbled upon this, I see conversations about “news deserts,” the regular polling about trust in media, and opinions about journalism very differently. The answer most media companies embrace to address these issues is to simply produce more, or to focus on addressing implicit bias or political partisanship. That isn’t fully misguided, but I believe that a humble, clear-eyed examination of the 2023 opportunity for local news will show that we’re defining journalism’s service too narrowly and too far from everyday life for the new audiences we hope to serve.

Journalism has the ability to inform, educate, and entertain. Entering into 2023, there’s an opportunity to expand our understanding of what “inform, educate, and entertain” can mean — moving away from power and more into the lives of those underserved by current journalism. As we summarized in the episode about Puerto Rico, local journalism has the power to show people that no matter how daunting things seem, their needs and struggles are real and their local media is actually listening, documenting, and sharing their life’s truth with others.

As journalists and those managing news media organizations continue to build capacity and try to engage with new audiences in the coming year, I believe they will start to see the people vs. power dynamic emerge in conversations with their potential audience, opening them up to new ideas of how to editorially orient their service and unlock the next generation of local journalism.

Eric Nuzum is cofounder of Magnificent Noise and author of The Audio Insurgent.

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