Local news fellowships will help fight newsroom inequities

In the next two years, I predict that community reporting fellowships will become increasingly important in diversifying newsrooms and strengthening local news ecosystems. As DEI efforts to diversify newsrooms stall, these fellowships  will help journalists of color to gain experience and share stories that reflect their communities, while filling important information gaps.

Local news outlets are a vital part of civic and community life, particularly for people of color, who are more likely to trust local news organizations, feel connected to their primary news source, and depend on the media as a check on individuals in positions of power.

But despite this demand for and trust in local news, and despite recent diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts across the news industry, these communities remain underrepresented in U.S. newsrooms.

Here in New Jersey, the state’s largest news organizations, Gannett and N.J. Advance Media, have fallen short of promises to diversify newsrooms dominated by white men. Without the sustained intention and ability to not only recruit but also invest in and keep journalists of color on staff, DEI efforts, however well intended, will continue to be just that — efforts, not transformative accomplishments.

Such initiatives are commendable, especially given that the alternative is more of the status quo. Still, the solution to meeting community information needs and building local news outlets that are more reflective of the news audience also rests beyond the traditional newsroom in the wealth of stories, media savvy, and experiences of the communities covered.

As part of my work at the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University, I seek to connect with and support journalists, media professionals, and various stakeholders in New Jersey’s local news ecosystem. Part of this work involves championing DEI initiatives intended to open doors for more journalists of color and promote newsrooms that reflect diverse communities across age groups, races, gender, abilities, and ethnicities. But there’s also the opportunity to work outside of traditional channels to help support journalists and storytellers, particularly those who live in communities identified as news deserts.

In the past year, my work with the South Jersey Information Equity Project has afforded me a better understanding of the local news landscape. I’ve also had the pleasure of working with emerging journalists and storytellers to build media skills while sharing community-driven, restorative narratives often neglected by mainstream media. The experience has convinced me that local news fellowships like SJIEP will continue to emerge as a powerful tool against newsroom inequity and information gaps (or misrepresentation) in communities of color, particularly those in regions with limited sources of local news and information.

The Center launched SJIEP in partnership with the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists in 2019 to help increase the quality and quantity of local news and information produced by and for communities of color in New Jersey, primarily in Camden, Burlington, and Gloucester Counties. We hosted SJIEP’s first fellowship cohort this year to build community support, recruit local reporters, target information gaps in South Jersey, and specifically support Black media makers by connecting them with resources, funding, and platforms.

We worked with four gifted and highly motivated storytellers, all early-career professionals with varying levels of media and journalism training, to produce stories on topics ranging from community policing to youth development, health services, and thriving entrepreneurship in a pandemic economy. The fellowship included hands-on training, co-editing sessions, networking opportunities with veteran journalists based in South Jersey, and, early on, the chance for direct input from the community through a series of convenings. We also worked with media outlets dedicated to covering communities of color in South Jersey to co-publish the fellows’ stories.

Next year, we’ll expand the program with a new cohort of fellows and a new roster of media trainings, career development workshops, and a dedicated mentorship track. With each iteration of the SJIEP fellowship, we strive to build on our investment in journalists of color and, by extension, the communities they belong to, the neighborhoods they represent, and the people they serve.

Relatively speaking, it’s a drop in the ocean when confronting the historic societal inequities and injustices that have played out in the media and harmed communities of color.

Still, such fellowships provide the training that equips more storytellers and journalists to tell our stories in spaces that are just as important, if outside of traditional newsrooms.

Cassandra Etienne is the assistant director for membership and programming at the Center for Cooperative Media.

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