In local news, it can be tough to strike the right balance between time spent working in the newsroom and time spent out in the communities you cover. The latter is crucial to painting an accurate picture of your coverage area, and a 2019 Gallup poll found that people who have more direct contact with their local news organizations tend to have higher levels of trust in media.
At the end of October, Honolulu Civil Beat announced that it would host pop-up newsrooms at public libraries across the state, bringing groups of staffers to work work from the libraries. The hope was that it would give Hawaiians a chance to learn about how Civil Beat works, and let Civil Beat staffers learn about issues important to Hawaiians.
Hosting office hours or meet-and-greets with journalists and the communities they cover isn’t a new idea, Patti Epler, the editor and general manager of Civil Beat, said. In 2018, Dallas Morning News held community office hours at multiple North Texas libraries for residents to meet DMN’s journalists and ask them questions. In 2019, The City organized the Open Newsroom for people to talk to its engagement team about what neighborhood issues mattered most to them.
Before the pandemic, Civil Beat hosted in-person events at venues near its office in Honolulu. In 2018, the newsroom purchased a Civil Beat-branded van so its team could drive around and meet residents throughout Oahu, the most populous of Hawaii’s eight islands.
“During the pandemic, we started doing a lot more online meetings and discussions, and we got people from all over the state,” Epler said. “We learned that people have an interest if they can get to us. So now, going out to these more rural areas, it’s definitely a different crowd. They’re older, more worker-oriented. They’re not the same kind of political movers and shakers that come to our events.”
In the first few library sessions, Epler said that people didn’t talk much about Civil Beat itself. There were a couple of people who wanted to know how comment moderation worked, and Epler pulled out her laptop and walked them through it. But mostly, people wanted to talk to Civil Beat journalists about local issues in their communities, because they’d had a hard time getting ahold of their elected officials. At one session, Epler said Civil Beat’s transportation reporter Marcel Honore got a lot of attention from visitors because they were concerned about rail construction projects in their area. (These sessions also work best at libraries that have a separate room or space for Civil Beat so that the chatter doesn’t disturb library patrons who aren’t interested, she said.)
“These folks see themselves as very rural and feel there’s like a Honolulu-centric power at play, and that they’re not included in it,” Epler said. “They feel very left out of the discussions. They were super appreciative that we took the time to come out to them and listen to them, because they do feel shut out and it is very hard for them to get into the main part of Honolulu where most of the government meetings take place.”
The first pop-up newsroom was at the Kahuku Public and School Library in Oahu. There, the staff heard from residents that they wanted to learn more about using social media for news. A few weeks later, Civil Beat returned to Kahuku with social media and engagement manager Ku’u Kauanoe, who led a workshop for interested community members. Things like that are mutually beneficial to both residents and the libraries: attendees get to learn something new and the libraries get to welcome new patrons who might not have otherwise visited.
Civil Beat has a pop-up newsroom schedule on the website and Epler writes a post a few days before the next session to let readers know who they can expect to meet and what Civil Beat learned from the last one. While the main priority isn’t to generate content from these visits, Epler said, they’ve started to produce videos from each session with visitors telling Civil Beat what they love about where they live. Epler noticed that the people that come to talk to Civil Beat are proud of where they come from and have no plans to move. They see raising awareness or getting news coverage of issues in their communities as a way to improve them. News coverage often only reflects what’s bad or wrong in their communities, so Civil Beat sees these short videos as a small step to balance that out.
“I’ve been doing this journalism thing now for 40 years,” Epler said. “In the old days, I don’t think we would have even given a second thought to getting out of the office in this way and taking the staff out on a regular basis. This really helps people in our community get to understand what we do and and see the possibilities.”