On May 31, as protests over the police killing of George Floyd swept the nation, staffers at the Long Beach Post in Long Beach, California, watched as some demonstrations in their own city turned violent. By the following morning, 170 businesses in downtown Long Beach had been damaged or looted, including the building where the Post’s offices are located.
But as the sun rose over the downtown area, people started showing up to clear away the debris and repair the damages. By the end of the day, more than 2,000 volunteers had helped with the clean-up, said Long Beach Post Publisher David Sommers.
Watching this response from the community made Sommers decide to act on an idea he and his colleagues had been mulling for months: forming a community editorial board. The board, Sommers wrote, would bring new and different perspectives to the Post’s coverage, not only calling attention to wrongs in the community but also tapping into that same spirit that led 2,000 people to show up for their neighbors in a troubled time.
“We don’t want to be about what happened that night,” said Sommers. “We want to be about what’s going to happen moving forward.”
Community advisory boards are one way to start more of your journalism from a place of listening.
Sommers’ call for community editorial board members who would write regular opinion pieces and provide feedback on the Post’s reporting was met with many eager applicants — a total of 143 within a two-week time frame. In the hours leading up to the deadline on June 19, they were receiving an application every 10 minutes, Sommers said.
The range of applicants and the motivations they expressed for wanting to be part of the board were eye-opening, he added. “I’ve learned so much more about this community in these few weeks than I have living here 11 years.”
Community editorial boards — or to use another term, community advisory boards, although both essentially serve the same purpose — are one way to start more of your journalism from a place of listening. Depending on the makeup of the board and how members are recruited, they can point you toward stories that have gone uncovered and people whose information needs are not being met. And they can help you build — or repair — relationships with groups that are often marginalized or misrepresented by the news media, and perhaps by your own newsroom.
For this piece we spoke to a range of news organizations, some of which have been running community advisory boards successfully for several years, and some of which are newly experimenting with them. We’ll cover:
- how to recruit an advisory board that reflects the diversity of your community
- tips for running productive, meaningful board meetings
- how your newsroom can demonstrate accountability to the board
- considerations for successfully making the case for a community advisory board to your newsroom’s leadership.
What does a community advisory board do?
How a community advisory board is set up and what it does can vary, depending on your newsroom and your goals. Here are some examples from a range of news organizations.
- Guide and inform a specific reporting project: CapRadio, the public radio station in Sacramento, Calif., involves community members in a long-form documentary project called “The View From Here.” The series examines one social issue each year, like affordable housing and food insecurity, in collaboration with a diverse group of stakeholders. (Senior community engagement strategist jesikah maria ross recently wrote a playbook describing CapRadio’s community engagement process for another project, “Making Meadowview.”)
- Guide and inform reporting in general: Canopy Atlanta, a nonprofit news outlet that will publish its first issue this fall, thinks of its community advisory board members as assigning editors. Inspired by news organizations like City Bureau in Chicago and Outlier Media in Detroit, Canopy Atlanta uses a participatory reporting process to produce regular news magazines that each focus on a particular neighborhood in Atlanta. It forms a community advisory board in each neighborhood, which chooses the story angles and topics to cover in that issue, using feedback collected from the larger community.
- Contribute opinion content: At the Greensboro News & Record, the five-member community editorial board contributes regular opinion columns, mostly on local and state issues. Editorial Page Editor Allen Johnson convenes the board once per month to plan opinion content, as well as to give members a chance to provide feedback on recent reporting. The paper also invites local newsmakers to those meetings and makes a point to ask everyone, “What’s going on in the community that we haven’t covered?”
- Provide feedback on reporting and community insight during news events: WCPO, the ABC affiliate in Cincinnati, Ohio, has had a community advisory board since 2001, made up of about 20 to 25 members who serve two-year terms. The board typically meets quarterly, although members are in frequent contact with the newsroom. The members offer feedback on WCPO’s reporting as well as serve as a sounding board for coverage that’s in the works. During big news events, like the Floyd protests or the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, WCPO will call special meetings with its board to discuss coverage.
Recruiting a diverse board
Diversity is key to forming a community advisory board that drives more inclusive and representative coverage — but it’s important to remember that diversity can mean many things: political affiliation, race/ethnicity, class, education level, geography/neighborhood, age, gender and occupation, to name a few.
Outreach methods are the most important factor in putting together a board that fully reflects the diversity of your community.
Don’t just put a call out on your existing platforms and wait for the right folks to come to you, said Joy Mayer, director of the nonprofit Trusting News. You need to figure out ways to reach people who don’t normally engage with you, especially since these are the people who can help you connect with new audiences or rebuild trust with estranged groups.
Tap into existing information networks
Sonam Vashi, head of operations at Canopy Atlanta, says that they achieve diversity on their advisory boards by thinking in terms of information needs during the outreach and selection process.
“A renter will have different needs than a homeowner, for example,” she said. “You have to design community engagement by thinking about who lives in a community and where they get their information. If you set out to meet different information needs, and build trust by uplifting and partnering with existing information systems in a community beyond social media — say, the physical community newsletter, or the employees at a neighborhood store — diversity just happens. You don’t need to tokenize people.”
Don’t just put a call out on your existing platforms and wait for the right people to come to you.
Examining the existing information networks in your community can help you connect with community organizations and local influencers who can spread the word that you’re looking for people to join your advisory board. If your coverage area is large, think about breaking it down by regions — and perhaps prioritizing neighborhoods or zip codes where few of your existing audiences live.
You can also ask outgoing board members to nominate people to take their place, as WCPO does; or, when you’re recruiting, ask people who else you should be talking to.
Think about what you’re asking of people
Three things to consider when planning recruiting methods is the time commitment you expect from board members, any resources they will need (like a computer, internet access, or a car to drive to meetings), and whether or not you will compensate them. Most of the community advisory boards we spoke with were volunteer-based, but some, like Canopy Atlanta and the Long Beach Post, plan to offer board members a stipend.
“We anticipate the work of the Editorial Board will take approximately one hour per week and no more than four to five hours per month,” wrote Sommers in an email. “It will be a one-year limited term, and we will be offering a modest stipend” — $20/hour — “to board members to compensate them for their time and labor in this advisory role.”
Think about any barriers people may have to participate, whether it’s scheduling, child care, lack of transportation or internet access, and ways you may be able to remove them. Mayer said that she once offered to drive board members to meetings.
Look for people who are willing to listen and learn
Although vastly different backgrounds and life experiences are desirable in community advisory boards, every member should share two attributes: the ability to listen to others with an open mind and contribute in a constructive way to discussion and debate.
Many news organizations are upfront about these requirements. The San Diego Union-Tribune, which has had a community advisory board in place for four years, lists these qualities in its selection criteria, and David Sommers, publisher of the Long Beach Post, stressed that in his call for applications.
“Candidates will be expected to have mutual respect for a diversity of voices and opinions,” he wrote. He asked applicants to describe how they would work to compromise and how they would handle it when their position may not be shared with the majority.
Although you shouldn’t be quick to dismiss your harshest critics (if they apply), anyone with ties to public office, who seems likely to push a certain agenda, or who seems unable or unwilling to engage in respectful dialogue probably does not belong on your community advisory board.
Running effective board meetings
The point of having a community advisory board is to listen to members’ perspectives and ideas, and let them guide your journalism. However, that doesn’t mean meetings should be a free-for-all.
Newsrooms should designate at least one staff member to serve as a liaison to the board. That person (or people) will organize and facilitate meetings, maintain open, frequent communication with board members, and ensure the newsroom demonstrates accountability to the board.
Having board members help determine and refine coverage, whether in general or for specific projects or policy items, is a good way to truly engage them.
Establishing and distributing an agenda in advance and defining clear outcomes for each meeting helps board members keep themselves on track, which makes it easier for those on the newsroom side to sit back and really listen.
The San Diego Union-Tribune sends out an agenda to advisory board members well in advance of its monthly meetings. Part of the meeting covers projects board members are involved with, such as a series called “Someone San Diego Should Know,” for which members can nominate and interview a lesser-known individual whose work has made a positive impact on the community. Clear guidelines, including an interview template, and helpful tips from reporters and editors make such projects easier and more rewarding for board members, many of whom don’t have experience interviewing or writing for newspapers.
The meetings also leave space for board members to offer feedback on the Union-Tribune’s reporting. In one meeting, they discussed the newsroom’s immigration language policy, inviting the board to hear from two local DACA recipients, and requested the board’s feedback on using the term “unauthorized” versus “undocumented.”
Having board members help determine and refine coverage, whether in general or for specific projects or policy items, is a good way to truly engage them, says Vashi. “It’s about building a shared vision around their interests and needs.”
At Canopy Atlanta, ahead of each meeting, the newsroom staff compiles a list of broad topics that were surfaced in listening forms distributed to the community at large. They then ask board members to discuss more specifically what they’d like to know about each topic. From those conversations, the board narrows it down to at least five topics (with story angles) that reporters will then pursue for the next issue of the magazine.
Help board members get to know each other
It’s important to help board members build good relationships with one another — especially because they come from different walks of life — to effectively discuss issues that may affect each of them differently.
“Hearing some of the realities that members of our community are dealing with has been, at times, surprising,” said Stevie Swain, CEO and founder of a local consulting group and a member of WCPO’s advisory board. “Understanding the impact of what one government decision or policy has on a group and the domino effect of those decisions on other aspects of the community has also been enlightening.”
Many community advisory board members say the opportunity to get to know people in their community is one of the most rewarding aspects of serving on the board.
“We’re in an era where having these kinds of meetings can be tough,” said Allen Johnson, editorial page editor of the Greensboro News & Record. “As they get to know each other and trust each other, the less personally they take things.”
The News & Record changes out half of its community board members every year. The remaining board members, who have had a year to get to know each other, set the tone for the newcomers, Johnson said. He also dedicates the beginning of every meeting to warm-up exercises, like questions or brain-teasers, that help people relax and get to know each other — not about their jobs or political views, but their hobbies or families, the things that round them each out as a person.
Many community advisory board members say the opportunity to get to know people in their community is one of the most rewarding aspects of serving on the board.
“The board is comprised of such a diverse range of San Diegans, that honestly, I would never have the chance to interact with otherwise,” said Lee Ann Kim, a member of The San Diego Union-Tribune’s board. “I really enjoy being able to listen in and learn from their perspectives, especially during such a fraught time in our nation’s history. And I also appreciate the space to also be heard from my own perspective as an immigrant, woman of color, and mother.”
Here are a few other considerations for running effective board meetings:
- Help new board members learn about your newsroom. Invite editors and reporters to talk about their beats and how they work. Once in-person gatherings become safe again, hold at least one meeting in the newsroom and offer a tour of it. Encourage questions. “It is incredibly beneficial for board members to learn the inner-workings of a newsroom and news gathering, how editorial decisions are made, and what kind of voices the paper is seeking,” said Kim. “We often hear from and interface with newspaper staff — from beat reporters to managers — and it is helpful to put a human face to the paper through these interactions.”
- Be ready to work with different personality types — more outspoken people tend to dominate the conversation, and quieter folks may be less comfortable speaking up in front of a crowd. As you learn about the dynamics of the group, work with your colleagues to make adjustments to ensure everyone can contribute in the way that’s most comfortable for them.
- When in-person meetings are possible again, have them catered — good food is a great ice-breaker.
Demonstrating accountability to your board
The most important thing you can do for the people who have given their time and energy to help your newsroom is to show them that their input is valued, and that it makes a difference.
At WCPO, community advisory board members are often in direct communication with the station’s news director, general manager and others. “They have our cell phone numbers … and we encourage them to connect with us,” said Mona Morrow, community affairs director. “We give members special attention when they contact us. We give their ideas and concerns priority consideration because we know they are committed to seeing us succeed.”
When changes are prompted by feedback from the board, make sure they know about it.
WCPO also calls on its board during times of crisis or need in the community. They held bi-weekly Zoom meetings during the start of the pandemic, and as civil rights protesters marched in Cincinnati, they called meetings to discuss the station’s coverage of it and ask for feedback.
At Canopy Atlanta, once stories are “assigned” by the community advisory board, reporters select and train people from the neighborhood to help with the research and reporting. Each published issue is shared with the advisory board members, who can see how their ideas and input were turned into a final product.
When changes are prompted by feedback from the board, make sure they know about it. In the case of The San Diego Union-Tribune, a timeline for deciding on changes to its immigration language policy was established with the board, and the conversation also prompted a look at other language that could be considered biased, outdated or inaccurate. Community and Public Relations Director Luis Cruz later sent a survey to board members on other terms the newsroom should potentially revisit. And once the newsroom officially decided to abandon the term “unauthorized immigrant,” Cruz followed up in an email to the board to explain how and why the decision was made.
Finally, make sure board members have a prominent place on your print and digital platforms. The News & Record includes board members’ names on the masthead and features their bios on the website. “We want people to know they’re important,” said Johnson. “We want them to be celebrities in the community in their own right.”
Making the business case for the board
One thing all the newsrooms we spoke to for this article had in common was leaders who recognize the value of a community advisory board and are willing to invest in it.
Morrow, who was hired at WCPO in 2001, said she told the station’s general manager in her interview that forming a community advisory board would be a top priority of hers if she was hired.
“There has to be commitment from the general manager or higher,” she said. “If they support the idea, it will be reflected in who they hire.”
But getting leaders on board with the idea of forming a community advisory board, in a time when most newsrooms are cutting expenses and staff to stay afloat, can be a challenge. It may prove just as difficult to get coworkers, who are taking on more and more responsibilities, to get behind the idea.
A community advisory board could help your newsroom meet important diversity, equity and inclusion goals — like improving source diversity.
Putting a successful case together depends on your ability to show how the board would benefit your newsroom — that instead of creating more work, it could ease workloads by providing fodder for stories, helping connect reporters with diverse stakeholders and experts, and ultimately helping you home in on the stories that are most useful to your community (and maybe letting go of the rest).
A community advisory board could also help your newsroom meet important diversity, equity and inclusion goals — like improving source diversity and doing more journalism that addresses systemic inequalities in your community.
A successful case will include these arguments and suggest specific metrics to make those running the board accountable to them. For example, the person (or people) who will manage the board could track sources and story ideas that originate from the board. They could also compare engagement metrics and community feedback on stories that come from the board to those for stories that originated in the newsroom.
A clear-eyed look at what you hope to achieve with a community advisory board, the time and cost involved, and the ways success will be measured is the best way to convince newsroom leaders who may be both wary and weary of new initiatives.
“I certainly do think it pays bigger dividends than the investment,” Johnson wrote in an email — “good content, good ideas, good feedback and good will.”