Invest in staff to grow local opinion journalism’s reach with diverse communities
Editor’s Note: The American Press Institute is helping news organizations reimagine local opinion journalism to promote healthier civic discourse and to better understand its role in news business sustainability. This essay by Robin Wilson-Glover, director of digital opinion at NJ Advance Media, is part of a series of essays on the topic, and explores how staffing and resources matter for building inclusive and relevant opinion content at a legacy news organization.
The slow public lynching of George Floyd three years ago birthed the reckoning that would alter newsrooms across the country. There was a clarion call for change and our newsroom in New Jersey listened.
We reevaluated our news coverage at NJ Advance Media — which operates NJ.com, the largest and the most popular news site in the state — and took a deeper look at how we cover communities of color, especially our public safety coverage. We re-established our Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Committee and tasked the group to define our challenges and come up with ways to meet them.
Our parent company, Advance Local, led the way in our hiring effort. At the time, our newsroom was like many others. Our staff was not reflective of the state, which was 54 percent white, non-Hispanic and diversifying rapidly. We wanted then, as we do now, for our staff to reflect the composition of our state. How else could we represent what New Jersey was and what it needed unless we reflected that diversity?
Diversity was especially important in our Opinion section, which directly represented the voice of the community. It was run by me, the only Black editor in the newsroom at the time. The section had become more critically important after we closed our comment sections, as it proved too difficult to moderate. Those sections were our main outlet for feedback on our coverage.
To grow opinion, we had to grow, too
Opinion content was chiefly provided through op-eds and Letters to the Editor, curated by me and individuals at three of our affiliated newspapers — The Easton Express, the Jersey Journal and the South Jersey Times. Only The Star-Ledger, our largest affiliated newspaper, had an editorial board with three regular writers. We couldn’t begin to adequately represent the diverse, underrepresented voices in our community. We had to change, too.
We settled on one new hire for Opinion. The marching orders for this manager would be to seek opinions from local New Jersey residents from different cultures and all walks of life who were involved in current news events or issues. We wanted to find people in underrepresented communities who didn’t typically deal with legacy media and give them a voice. This individual would certainly interpret the facts differently and have different priorities, see policy initiatives differently and recommend different solutions.
We were eager, as well, to get more videos and images of people from communities of color on our site and this manager could do this. So often, the faces of people of color on mainstream news sites are of Black and brown crime suspects, used primarily because police departments offered them up so readily. In Opinion, the faces depicted would rarely involve crimes and instead would be the faces of everyday people with ideas about change.
While this wouldn’t be local news, the content was a way to provide additional local coverage. By expanding Opinion, we hoped to provide information that would lead to more civic participation in government, local schools and grassroots community organizations. By increasing the discourse on local issues, we would make it easier for communities to learn about each other’s viewpoints and find solutions.
Doubling down on our growth
As we searched for candidates, two journalists stood out. Given our mandate for change to expand diversity in our newsroom, we hired them both. One fulfilled a request from the journalists of color in our newsroom on the DEI Committee to hire more managers of color who could help direct coverage, set a tone on the staff and hasten change. The title we settled on was Managing Producer/Diversity of Voices.
The second Opinion hire became a columnist, providing a young Latina voice in our coverage. This was advantageous because our sole Black columnist had retired several months earlier, and we desperately needed to interpret the news through additional cultural lenses.
Eighteen months later, we’ve learned that Opinion content may not drive nearly as many page views as news or sports but we’ve found that it does have an audience and — importantly — that readers will pay for the content. Further, this investment is bringing younger audiences to our content, which is critical for the future. Our new columnist, Daysi Calavia-Robertson, has steadily grown an audience and is now one of our most popular columnists on the site. In addition to her column, Daysi communicates with readers on Facebook, TikTok and Instagram, where she has nearly 12,000 followers.
A video reel of her interview with a Latina whose daughter went missing three and a half years ago garnered nearly 440,000 views on TikTok. A reel on a rally to protest the shooting death of a beloved community activist by police officers got more than 200,000 views on Instagram and 100,000 on TikTok. And a reel about a diaper giveaway got nearly 170,000 views with many commenters thanking NJ.com for the valuable information.
What new roles does local opinion journalism need?
At NJ.com, the organization created a new role of Managing Producer/Diversity of Voices. This role was charged with seeking opinions from local New Jersey residents from different cultures and all walks of life who were involved in current news events or issues — the intention was built into the job description:
The Managing Producer/Diversity of Voices is responsible for a new initiative to elevate the voices of diverse and underserved communities, including Spanish speakers. The job requires finding members of diverse and underserved communities who will develop opinion pieces that provide the writers’ perspective on news events and current issues.
The managing producer will also produce content in a medium he or she most excels and work with support in the room to strategically experiment with written, video, audio, newsletter, event formats or other emerging spaces.
This manager will also manage functional relationships with freelancers and manage performance-based metrics for team and individual employees. Communicating frequently with the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Committee and the Diversity, Culture and Identity reporter will also be essential. This managing producer will report to the Director of Digital Opinion, working closely with the multimedia, social and newsletter teams to help produce content.
In your own news organization, what needs could you work into a new or updated job description, if you do plan to hire? Video? Social media?
The impact of our staffing is clear
Daysi says a comment she hears again and again from readers is how happy, relieved or even thankful they are that there’s a journalist on staff at The Star-Ledger and NJ.com that speaks Spanish. There are times that she has interviewed someone in English and can tell they’re struggling, so she switches to Spanish and she says she can instantly see that they’re relieved.
Some of that joy is not only from being able to express themselves freely but in knowing that since she’s Latina they share a base of understanding about each other’s lives, their backgrounds and their culture.
“When I’m able to bridge that gap and tell the stories of people in New Jersey’s diverse communities, I know I’m making an impact,” Daysi says.
Our new Opinion manager, Ande Richards, has been successful as well. She has managed to find organizations that traditionally haven’t appeared in mainstream media and exposed debates in communities that aren’t typically covered. Last fall, tens of thousands of our readers read op-eds on Hindu nationalism. Ande’s coverage of the NAACP’s national conference in Atlantic City drew praise from the Black community, and the local chapter credited her coverage with the growth of their youth scholarship program.
Ande finds people in the community who talk often about social injustice and created what longtime Congressman John Lewis called “good trouble.” She also manages to get on NJ.com the voices of people who mainstream audiences rarely hear from, including individuals who are currently incarcerated. In July, our readers were eager to read about an inmate who impregnated two others who were incarcerated. Ande gave that person, a transgender woman, a voice.
@njdotcom We sat down with Dulce’s mother Noema Alavez Perez. Click the link in bio for the emotional interview about her daughter’s disappearance. #newjersey #dulcemariaalavez #njnews ♬ Documentary music that raises tension – Ken Nakagawa
Lawrence Hamm, the leader of a social action group in Newark, N.J., said the change in coverage has been noticed in his community and appreciated.
“At a time that local news coverage has been decreasing, the need for media coverage in Black, Latino, working and poor communities has increased. Social, economic conditions in those communities is growing worse. Police shooting deaths have actually increased since the death of George Floyd,” Hamm said.
“At a time like this, coverage by the media is critical, and we’ve seen that additional coverage and attention. This has been the valuable service that Ande Richards has brought to this community.”
As we reach out to a broader audience we have some challenges and decisions to make, including which voices we won’t include. Each news site must make its own decisions. We decided that op-eds from readers who don’t substantiate their opinions with facts are tossed. Op-eds on issues we’ve written about recently are shelved.
Readers have also noticed the extra voices, which has encouraged them to write, and for some to write more frequently. Our bandwidth, however, allows us to publish fewer than half of the op-eds that our readers submit, which sometimes engenders disappointment for those willing to contribute. We try to explain and hope for their understanding.
While we have reached many new communities, we know we’ve only scratched the surface. There are hundreds of communities that we have not yet approached. We’ll also have to get past a recent trend at some media outlets of contracting Opinion sections to curb costs. Despite the popularity of online commentary sites and large legacy news media, some small local news sites have given up on providing enlightened and reasoned commentary.
The good news is that NJ Advance Media, like most others, still values engaging with readers and fulfilling its role as a public servant for readers and our democracy. And, George Floyd’s death still remains a powerful reminder of our responsibilities and our role in society.
Robin Wilson-Glover is the director of digital opinion for NJ Advance Media, a member of The Star-Ledger Editorial Board and co-chair of the company’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee. Contact her at email@example.com.
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