Editor’s Note: Over the last year or two there has been an increased interest from newsrooms — both corporate-owned and independent — in forming editorial or advisory boards made up of local residents. The boards provide a direct link from the newsrooms to their communities, making their journalism more relevant and inclusive. API recently covered the fundamentals of setting up and maintaining a community advisory board. In this piece, Stephanie Rivera, community engagement editor at the Long Beach Post, writes about the Post’s experience launching a community editorial board.
It’s been over a year since the George Floyd protests of last summer quickly turned into a racial reckoning in newsrooms across the country—with progress toward a more diverse journalism industry still moving slowly.
The Long Beach Post—a digital publication covering the second-largest city in Los Angeles County—heard from its community, acknowledged its failure in creating a diverse newsroom reflective of the city, and worked to correct it last year.
We did this by launching a community editorial board, one made up completely by Long Beach residents from all over the city who had different life experiences and expertise. They met virtually every week to discuss community issues they wanted to examine, published a few editorials or opinion pieces each month, and even ended up being valuable sources for our reporters. In order to reduce barriers to participate, we compensated board members for their time by paying them $100 per meeting. Their term, which ended in August, lasted one year by intention in order to have fresh perspectives. The road was bumpy, but overall the experiment with the inaugural board proved to be a success.
They wrote about police accountability, homelessness, education and violence. Their piece on hunger called the community into action and led residents to reach out and “adopt” families for the holidays. Their highest-read editorial was in response to the Capitol insurrection in January, compelling our local congressman to respond. One of the most heartfelt opinion pieces came from a board member’s own experience with violence and the work he does with the formerly incarcerated community. That piece (and others) led this board member to new consulting opportunities that would not otherwise have been possible to him.
We know change takes time, money and resources that a lot of newsrooms don’t have. We know we must be methodical, sincere and intentional with each decision we make, whether that’s a new hire, a new initiative or a new project.
Rushing into things is never a good idea, but there’s also never going to be a perfect time. Especially when the need is urgent.
So here’s how we did it, what worked, what didn’t, and what others can learn from our experience.
Choosing board members
When Post Publisher David Sommers published his call for applicants in June 2020, he thought we would only get a handful of responses at best. Instead, 143 people heeded his invitation to apply for a seat at the table within the two-week timeframe we gave them.
The prompt was simple: In fewer than 500 words, applicants were instructed to share about themselves, their thoughts on Long Beach and the issues that matter to them. We also wanted to know how they would interact with others who may have differing viewpoints.
Here were some other requirements of editorial board candidates:
- Live in the city
- Disclose any potential conflicts of interest
- Be available for in-person or virtual meetings
- Respect a diversity of opinions
- Have an intellectual curiosity about the community
A panel of four members of our organization (myself as a reporter transitioning into an editor role, our senior columnist, a member of our advertising team and our publisher) scored each applicant on a scale of 0-10. We came up with 34 finalists who received 30 points or higher based on cumulative scores and chose our seven members from the top of the list.
We did not conduct interviews. Instead, emails were sent to the applicants as we scored and deliberated and once again to those ultimately selected in order to confirm their continued interest. The whole process—from the time the applications were submitted until the board members were selected—took about three months.
We didn’t know what to expect, so we kept our expectations loose. We were transparent with the members that they were part of an experiment never done by us before and were with us on this journey.
Board meetings and output
The board officially started in the fall of 2020, while the pandemic continued to devastate the region, especially our communities of color. Because of this, we decided to make the board meetings virtual on Zoom. They were recorded and shared in a Google folder that all board members had access to and which also included their draft pieces, public documents they had requested, and meeting agendas. We also set up a Post email linked to the board members’ personal emails to allow for communication between them and with the community.
As the liaison between the board and the newsroom, my duties mainly included setting agendas for the weekly Thursday night meetings, moderating discussions and helping with research and editing. The agendas included follow-ups on pieces the board members were working on, newsroom updates (including upcoming editorial projects they may want to write an accompanying editorial on), and scheduling meetings with sources for board-written editorials as well as guest speakers.
A total of 15 editorials and 12 opinion pieces were published in the 11 months the board was together, along with a handful of accompanying resource lists, like how to support the homeless, and some multimedia pieces. We even translated some. But the process was challenging at times.
We realize how critical it is to have a comprehensive onboarding and training process early on, especially if the goal is to bring on those who face barriers to these kinds of opportunities.
The biggest obstacle was that not every board member was an experienced writer, specifically an opinion or editorial writer. This often meant difficulty in getting their thoughts on paper or being overwhelmed with the amount of research and revisions needed before a publishable piece was produced. Some board meetings turned into ranting or venting sessions over certain issues, without anyone stepping up to write about them because they were wary of how much of their time it would consume. We thought having an ex-journalist on the board would help—and it did for a bit—but his love for journalism resulted in his early departure in order to take part in an investigative series with us (you can read his work here).
As the liaison, I had to balance between corralling the group into productivity and making sure I wasn’t doing the work for them or potentially inserting my voice into their pieces. At the same time, I had to manage my own time outside those weeknight meetings. I would spend anywhere from 10 to 20 hours a week on editorial board duties.
Sometimes, I found myself back in my reporter shoes as I filed public records requests, dug through public documents and looked for studies and reports on behalf of board members. It was exhilarating at times, especially when requested information ended up being useful data for our reporters. For example, when a board member asked me to inquire from the local school district which families were sending kids back to school for hybrid learning this past spring, data showed it tended to be the families attending richer, whiter schools. I knew this was an angle we hadn’t yet explored and shared the data with the editors. It allowed for this article to be written, which was followed up by this editorial.
Hearing from the board reminded us that sources don’t need to have degrees or credentials, and their lived experiences and passions are just as valuable.
Reflections and recommendations
I want to be clear that challenges were expected as we embarked on this journey. On our end, there were no quotas on pieces and we kept our expectations flexible. We were all living through a pandemic that impacted us in very different and difficult ways, and I made sure to always keep that in mind. I remember feeling a shared sense of burnout with the board members at times. When I detected frustration or low energy that oftentimes impacted their work, I would suggest wrapping up meetings early or postponing them all together.
As we prepare to seek applicants for a second cohort, we are taking a pause to reflect on the work from the past year and review the feedback we received from the board’s exit survey.
The survey included 17 questions that ranged from their understanding of local news, their experience on the board and any recommendations they have. Some suggested more onboarding and training in editorial writing, others noted that hearing the newsroom backstories inspired them to read the local papers even more. Others felt the time and energy into researching and writing pieces was unevenly distributed.
The board included two Black members, two Latinx members, one AAPI member and two white members. All leaned politically left-of-center to varying degrees. Some suggested a conservative voice, others called for no white members in order to ensure the voices of those usually left out of conversations were uplifted.
Here are some notable responses:
- “I was challenged by the requirement for the majority of the board to vote on the efficacy of [editorials] before it could be seriously considered or addressed.”
- “I learned how to explore other points of view. I learned to be in a space with people I didn’t always agree with.”
- “[I]n completing my term on the board I’m inspired to start volunteering and engaging more directly in projects that impact my local neighborhood.”
- “I learned to respect the opinions and life experience of the other board members. The experience was enlightening, consciousness-raising, and at times, difficult to accept.”
Hearing from the board reminded us that sources don’t need to have degrees or credentials, and their lived experiences and passions are just as valuable. So I also asked them if they would be willing to continue being sources for our reporters. Six members agreed, allowing for access to local voices on entrepreneurship, small business, education, homelessness/housing, racism, the re-entry community and environmental issues. We also hope to have regular meetings between newsroom editors and the board in order to receive feedback on stories.
With data and experience under our belt, we can now take more measured and calculated approaches to the board, starting with an application that provides clearer expectations.
Here’s what we are considering:
- Candidates should be available to meet in person once a month (if safe to do so) and be available for occasional conference calls or virtual meetings.
- Candidates are expected to publish one opinion piece a month and be lead author of two editorials during their term.
- Candidates must be active participants in discussions and be comfortable collaborating in Google Docs, writing and researching in a timely manner and meeting deadlines.
- This job requires thoughtful discussions, therefore candidates must not exceed three excused absences during their term.
In addition to these requirements and expectations, we are also considering having a contracted editorial writer, staggering the start of board members to have overlap in experience, and having backup board members who can step in if a board member’s position is forfeited before the completion of their term.
Most importantly, we realize how critical it is to have a comprehensive onboarding and training process early on, especially if the news organization’s goal is to bring on those who may otherwise face barriers to these kinds of opportunities. We’re looking to others who are doing similar work, like Prism’s Reflective Journalism Project that trains community leaders and others on the editorial process. This will be critical to ensure members feel empowered to share their own insights, to build trust with newsrooms, and at the same time be a true voice for their community.