How Santa Cruz Local proved the value of community engagement to staff
Founded in January 2019, Santa Cruz Local is a local news platform that produces a podcast, newsletter and website about public policy in Santa Cruz County, California. As of August 2020, Santa Cruz Local had 592 paying members, its newsletter had 4,877 subscribers, its podcast attracted 1,000 regular listeners and its website captured 64,000 unique monthly users.
After some Santa Cruz Local staffers initially questioned the purpose of community engagement, CEO Kara Meyberg Guzman wanted to help every member of her team understand its value and show how it can be woven into the outlet’s editorial process.
- News outlets that prioritize community engagement can see a boost in their audience revenue.
- Before introducing community engagement (or any new strategy) into your editorial process, it’s essential to get your entire team on the same page and to get their buy-in.
- News outlets that are cash- or resource-strapped should leverage digital engagement over in-person engagement; that has become even more important during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Journalism startups that employ seasoned journalists who have existing community ties should tap into their local knowledge and networks.
Santa Cruz Local’s current team is small, with just five people, including a community engagement intern. But its size is also an advantage, according to co-founder Stephen Baxter. Unlike larger, corporate media outlets that are “institutionalized in their ways,” startups can introduce a new approach to journalism without having to convince large legacy newsrooms to adopt it, he says. “Luckily, we’re not [large], and we could just do whatever we want.”
Both Baxter and Meyberg Guzman are familiar with corporate-owned media, having previously worked at the local newspaper, Santa Cruz Sentinel, as a reporter and the managing editor, respectively. Baxter had worked at the Sentinel for six years, developing deep relationships with community members in Santa Cruz County as a journalist who covered police, fire, courts and breaking news. And he’d been a daily newspaper reporter for more than 12 years.
“[The Sentinel] is an institution. It’s been here for over 160 years. It’s legacy — totally legacy,” Meyberg Guzman explains. “What [Stephen] brings to this organization is that he is the hardest-hitting reporter in our county. He has been doing this for many years, and he’s a great reporter and editor.”
Despite being recognized as California’s best newspaper in 2012 and 2010, the Sentinel continued to shrink in size. A diminishing workforce coupled with mounting burnout caused Baxter to quit the Sentinel in 2016 and take a few years off from journalism before he reconnected with Meyberg Guzman. “She wanted to do something different, so we started this thing up about a year and a half ago — and it’s gotten a lot of momentum,” Baxter explains.
Although Meyberg Guzman wanted to prioritize community engagement from the outset, she faced skepticism from other team members who didn’t understand its value until API consultant jesikah maria ross started advising them in October 2019. (Ross is the senior community engagement strategist at Capital Public Radio in Sacramento and author of “JMR’s Participatory Journalism Playbook”.) The CEO herself admits she “wasn’t really sure what community engagement was” at first, but was drawn to the practice because it seemed to align with Santa Cruz Local’s mission and vision.
“Before even we met with jesikah, we weren’t all totally aligned on what community engagement is, and what the need for it is and how it fits into your organization,” Meyberg Guzman says.
Baxter was the most vocal skeptic, expressing concern that community engagement would detract from the most important part of their work: reporting. At the time, only he and Meyberg Guzman were reporting for Santa Cruz Local.
“I gave her a little pushback because … I wasn’t totally clear about the difference between community engagement and reporting,” Baxter says. “When I went to [journalism] school and graduated in 2005, that wasn’t really on the table, this sort of thing. So my first reaction was: Well, that’s what reporting is.”
His perspective changed after Santa Cruz Local hosted listening events with hundreds of community members leading up to California’s presidential primary election in March. After attending some of these events, Baxter started seeing community engagement more as a “baseline for your reporting” rather than an extra unnecessary task.
“It clicked for me then, I think, because you’re talking to people — random sources — but not in a transactional sense. It’s not for a story you have to file that day. It’s more relaxed conversations with people,” he says, adding that community engagement encourages journalists to talk to people with whom they may not typically engage. “As a daily reporter, sometimes you’re so busy flying around, trying to get your story done, that you don’t really get to step back and do that kind of thing.”
- Through facilitated conversations and activities, make sure your entire team understands and is aligned on community engagement before pursuing it.
- Create a document that reminds you of your mission, including a statement describing your publication’s commitment to community engagement.
- Develop a quarterly editorial and business plan, scheduled out over 12 months, to ensure you work at a sustainable pace.
- Segment your audience to identify communities you currently reach, as well as those you want to reach but don’t; then develop unique engagement strategies for these segments.
- Under-resourced startups should focus on digital engagement because it’s more cost-effective.
What they looked like in practice
Because the Santa Cruz Local team initially had a loose idea of community engagement, ross wanted to solidify their understanding by getting everyone to develop a community engagement mission statement together.
“She helped our entire team align and recognize the value of the engagement and really invest in it as an organization. And she gave us the tools — ‘this is what it looks like’ — and fine-grain detail and advice, too,” Meyberg Guzman explains. “[The] big picture: This is what we’re doing and this is why we’re doing it.”
To establish a basic definition of community engagement, ross helped the team differentiate between outreach and community listening. Before ross started working with them, Meyberg Guzman says, she would attend local events but only ever evangelized about Santa Cruz Local; after ross, however, she started taking the time to listen to community members and ask them questions like: Do you want to hear from this group? What are your biggest priorities? What do you want to read a story about, or listen to an episode about?
“It’s an opportunity. It’s first the listening part and that in and of itself becomes outreach because people are like, ‘Oh, what is this organization? They’re actually listening to me?’ That gives us so much more cred than just saying what we are, who we are, what we do,” Meyberg Guzman adds.
Broadly speaking, Santa Cruz Local’s primary audience is made up of Santa Cruz County residents, especially “older” people, those with higher education, and newspaper readers who also subscribe to the Sentinel. ross helped the team narrow their target audience segments to four groups: Santa Cruz Local’s core base, which it wants to grow “as much as possible”; younger people in their 20s who are engaged in the community; residents living on the east side of the city; and a group they term “working families,” which are low- and middle-income families with children whose parents both work. She recommended that the team focus on listening to one of these segments each quarter of the year.
Due to California’s presidential primary election in March and the upcoming U.S. presidential election, Santa Cruz Local pivoted to focusing on listening to communities where there are hotly contested races. The team also shifted these engagements to virtual, rather than in-person, due to COVID-19. It also wants to prioritize Spanish speakers and marginalized communities that have been hit hardest by the pandemic. After the November election, the team plans to step back and assess their engagement metrics and revenue to see if their strategy is working.
- Since launching their listening tour in earnest at the beginning of the year and shifting to virtual engagements after COVID-19 hit, Santa Cruz Local’s newsletter subscriber base has grown five-fold to more than 4,800 as of August.
- Paying members more than doubled from 245 in January to 592 in August.
- As of August, Santa Cruz Local’s podcast has around 1,000 regular listeners across platforms.
- As of August, SantaCruzLocal.org attracted 64,000 unique monthly users.
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