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Break Form: Making stories with and for the people

Introduction and Actions: Localore: Finding America

Editor’s Note: This report captures the impact and lessons from Localore: Finding America — an independent public media initiative comprising 15 teams embedded for nine months at forward-moving public radio and television stations across the U.S. to invent new storytelling models with citizens. The report was produced by the project directors at AIR, a nonprofit network of independent multimedia journalists. The American Press Institute is co-publishing the report to amplify its reach.

Over the past 2 years, teams of independent producers and storytellers embedded at public media stations in 15 communities across the country. Their mission was to share intimate stories, to explore what connects disparate places, and to watch a social media portrait of the public unfold in real time.

In short, they set about Finding America.

The work for this latest AIR storytelling initiative and two that preceded it is built on the premise that independent producers, like those comprising AIR’s network, are ideally suited to lead a public media industry in the midst of change. We “married” the nimble and diverse indie producer network to the established network of public radio, television, and digital operations across the country to create a series of local productions in cities large and small — from Bellevue, Washington, to Williston, North Dakota, to Paonia, Colorado; from Los Angeles to Chicago and Washington, D.C.

What began in 2010 as a series of experiments to help “public radio” make the shift to a diversified “public media” has evolved into a movement with hundreds of producers, station staff, community organizations, and collaborators. Those who participate in these inclusive, community-based Localore projects are expanding public media to engage, inform, and serve more of their neighbors. Each of these national initiatives builds on the previous work, deriving and designing around the best practices and refined objectives that we share in this report.

We learned important lessons along the way, about expanding the boundaries of journalism and taking advantage the many tools available to us today. Ultimately, this report attempts to capture those insights so others can join us in challenging the limitations of whose stories are told and in what ways.

What began in 2010 as a series of experiments to help public radio make the shift to a diversified ‘public media’ has evolved into a movement.

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The first glimmers of Beyond Belief, our Finding America production in Kansas City, emerged from darkness. A 2014 shooting at the Jewish Community Campus left three dead. AIR’s Finding America lead producer Steve Mencher, one among 150 people working on this national initiative, had moved from Maryland to help public television partner KCPT make new kinds of stories, to deepen the station’s ties to the faith community, and to help people in Kansas City connect across margins of faith and belief.

Steve and his team fanned out across the city to mosques, churches, synagogues, temples, and communities of nonbelievers to capture stories and produce live events, establishing a rich collaboration with people of differing faiths.

Steve, who describes himself as a “sporadically practicing Jewish-Buddhist,” immersed himself in new worlds, observing and absorbing the lives and practices of hundreds of people. In the process, he established a fledgling center of gravity for public media, a new conversation around commonalities like praying, perseverance, ritual, asking for help, and reliance on something greater than oneself.

A bold journalist who pursues new kinds of relationships with his or her subjects will deliver something different, and may be changed by the experience.

Reflecting on the effects of the work on his journalistic practice, Steve says, “If you’d told me a year ago that I’d be attending Bible study every Tuesday morning, I’d have found it hard to believe. And if you’d told me I’d sometimes be leading Bible study, I’d have said you were totally out of your mind.” He continues, “As a journalist, I believe in the importance of fairness, objectivity, and balance. I’ve learned, too, there is also love. Love and the core tenets of journalism can go together.”

By opening himself to a deep human connection, Steve brought a new dimension to his work. His experience demonstrates that a bold journalist who pursues new kinds of relationships with his or her subjects will deliver something different, and may be changed by the experience.

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Mencher’s approach — slow journalism that finds a community and explores it — stands in contrast to the breakneck speed of the internet, the Twitterfication of politics, and the politicization of news. We’re coming to appreciate the price we pay for speed. We miss a good chunk of what’s happening on the deeper levels of daily living. The price of deadline-driven journalism is that nuance is sacrificed to speed. Storytelling at the pace of Twitter tends to relegate whole communities of people into simple, sound-bite friendly narratives that suit the pace.

Speed, then, is one important factor that defines what’s different about our Localore: Finding America production. By experimenting with this and other aspects of traditional story-making practice, we begin to break open traditional form, and surface new ways to move deeply into communities — to make stories “with and for the people.” We are demonstrating how it is possible — necessary — that today’s new journalism be both fast and slow.

We are demonstrating how it is possible — necessary — that today’s new journalism be both fast and slow.

Another challenge confronting local communities today is the continuing consolidation of the newspaper industry. Nearly two decades in, it has given rise to what researcher Penelope Muse Abernathy calls “news deserts.”

In her recent study from the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she identifies specific rural communities with aging populations where declines in manufacturing, mining, and farming have led to the highest rates of poverty in the country. These are the communities where there are virtually no outlets for local stories and, as her case studies illustrate, where the internet has emerged as the sole source for people seeking meaningful news of the day. This is a powerful context for understanding our contemporary social and political environment. It also points to opportunity — arguably, an imperative — for those working at local public radio and television stations to fill a critical void.

As part of the Finding America initiative, AIR collaborated with Greater Public, ITVS, the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, and the Public Radio News Directors Association to commission a study from Edison Research to vet our theories about the relative strength of public media in the Localore communities, and to identify new opportunities for producers and stations across the country. One key finding is an opportunity for each local public media outlet to “emphasize the credibility of its news and journalism.” Television is a key platform for both public and corporate media consumers in the Finding America markets.1

Storymaking that is both fast and slow, and a critical deficit of reliable, local journalism: These are the starting points for the work laid out in this report, and our aspiration to “make stories with and for the people.”

The work rises out of public media, but what we share is timely and relevant to commercial and print journalists, or anyone with interest in elevating and expanding the ways we craft the day-to-day story of America. AIR’s investigator, Mallary Tenore, presents some of the techniques AIR’s team of producers created (or borrowed!) as they produced stories from the “far corners” of local communities for broadcast, live platforms, and social/digital streams. We present 10 obstacles that hinder success, and ways to work around them.

Localore: Finding America is the third in a series of national collaborations produced by AIR. We began in 2010 with the launch of Makers Quest 2.0 (MQ2) followed by Localore (2012–14).The collective work is both a multimedia production — generating thousands of stories in formats that include audio, video, interactives, illustrations, performances, installations, and more — and a field of sustained research and development taking place across public media in an iterative way, with a combined reach of more than 76 million gross impressions.

The work rises out of public media, but what we share is timely and relevant to commercial and print journalists, or anyone with interest in elevating and expanding the ways we craft the day-to-day story of America

From its inception, the work was built on the premise that independent producers, like those comprising AIR’s network, are ideally suited to lead a public media industry in the midst of change. We have effectively tapped into the nimble and diverse indie producer network and “married” it to the established network of public radio, television, and digital operations across the country to create a series of local productions in cities large and small — from Bellevue, Washington, to Williston, North Dakota, to Paonia, Colorado; from Los Angeles to Chicago and Washington, D.C.

What began as a series of experiments to help “public radio” make the shift to a diversified “public media” has evolved into a movement involving hundreds of producers, station staff, community organizations, and collaborators. Those who participate in these inclusive, community-based projects are expanding public media to engage, inform, and serve their neighbors. Each of these national initiatives builds on the previous work, deriving and designing around the best practices and refined objectives that we share in this report.

The lightning bolt is Localore’s emblem. We draw the lightning and welcome it: Moments of instant, catalytic change are possible. We have also learned that real change demands that we capture those flashes of energy or insight and direct them into what we hope will be a state of sustained invention.

The projects also create optimal conditions for many of our lead producers to do their best work, and we encourage and support our lead producers in taking what they’ve created in one community and spreading it to others.

A Homefront story night at the Black River Drive-In Theater in upstate New York featured stories of the military community.
Credit: Meredith Turk (Homefront: Fort Drum)

The trajectory of our talent “diaspora” is the strongest evidence of how individuals, empowered by their Localore experience, drive change. We look to Localorian Jennifer Brandel’s Hearkena growing “people-powered” journalism platform — Julia Kumari Drapkin’s iSeeChange climate project, and the new music platform VuHaus, inspired in part by Delaney Hall’s Austin Music Map in partnership with KUT.

We’ve seen Localore station producers step into leadership — Andi McDaniel who, in a few years, moved from working as a digital producer at Twin Cities Public Television to chief content officer at WAMU, NPR’s news talk station in D.C.; Sally Kane, who managed Localore incubator KVNF in Paonia, Colorado, and is now leading a rebirth of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters (NFCB); Noland Walker, a brilliant freelance film writer, who moved to senior content director at ITVS after serving as AIR’s network manager for Localore. Lead producers and stations from this latest round of Localore continue to cultivate the “green shoots” of the project they created.

Since we began in 2010, the drive to reinvent local public media has taken hold. Stations across the country — including many former Localore incubators — are investing in building stronger local ties. KUT and WGBH are among those with new community outposts; WNYC’s “Mott Haven Speaks,” led by Localorian Sophia Paliza-Carre, is part of a new beat documenting changing New York neighborhoods; and WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio, continues to build out its longstanding “Community Voices” program to bring new local storytellers to the airwaves. Our work parallels that of inspired peers, such as jesikah maria ross, senior engagement strategist at Capital Public Radio, who created a new center in collaboration with UC Davis called The Art of Regional Change — or The Center for Investigative Journalism’s StoryWorks project, which is experimenting with moving hard news to the local theater stage.

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The 15 current productions launched on Nov. 1, 2015, and incubated in their communities for up to 12 months. Each represents a three-way partnership between AIR, an independent producer hired by AIR to lead the project, and a station incubator.

These are not “one-off” experiments. All parties agree to work together to establish new innovation capacity that the station will sustain beyond the incubation period. When we complete our period of experimentation, the stations are left with an R&D infrastructure. Our recent survey of the field indicates nearly 60 percent of station managers are committed to continuing the work at the station, and fewer than 5 percent say work will not continue.

While this latest round of lead producers was embedded, they worked with our station collaborators and the teams they assembled to invent new models for making stories that put people they met at the front of the narrative. They were intent on turning a fresh eye and ear on the day-to-day lives of the people. We cultivated those living in our communities as collaborators, rather than subjects of a story.

Our lead producers were unconventionally more female (73 percent) and more racially diverse (43 percent) than a typical news team, which was an important factor in our approach. When recruiting lead producers, we explicitly sought storymakers who felt and articulated an intense connection with nontraditional audiences and stories — and what emerged in every market were teams that should make diversity-challenged news organizations take notice.

An important first part of the Finding America assignment was to ask our talent to suspend what they do best, leave behind their microphones and cameras, and enter as observers.

An important first part of the Finding America assignment was to ask our talent to suspend what they do best, leave behind their microphones and cameras, and enter as observers. What is the rhythm and flow? Who are the magnetic personalities? “Reflection” as a starting point for reinvention is part of our experiment, and not simple to achieve: to enter a new place with humility, forming what turned out for some to be lasting bonds of love and friendship. This was especially difficult for some of our lead producers, who heard the clock ticking from day one and were eager to start producing, and yet was embraced strongly by more than 65 percent of our station collaborators who welcomed a respite from the everyday grind of daily news assignments.

The Localore approach includes working across the “full spectrum” — that is, blending broadcast, digital, and “street” platforms in creating new models. In this latest production, we learned the primacy, not of social media platforms, but of social platforms: church services, hot dog wagons, roller skating rinks, drive-in movie theaters, food pantries — the places where people share their stories of joy and grief, celebration and creation, doing the things that make up daily living. It’s no surprise then, that from March through October of 2016, we produced 30 live events across our local communities. These are the places we are building a new public media, but not places where public media is well known — or even recognized.

We learned the primacy, not of social media platforms, but of social platforms: church services, hot dog wagons, roller skating rinks, drive-in movie theaters, food pantries — the places where people share their stories of joy and grief, celebration and creation, doing the things that make up daily living.

In June 2016 as part of the Edison study, pollsters were dispatched to Finding America live events to test our assumptions about the media habits of those living in the “far corners” of local communities, and also to draw a clearer demographic profile. The findings reinforce the importance of live events to raise awareness of public media service, and also to expand stations’ awareness of “crucial voices we may be missing.” As you’ll read in more detail later in this report, Finding America produced 30 live events. Producers experimented with and expanded on creating live platforms — bike rides, neon flashing mailboxes, abandoned drive-in movie theaters.

Edison highlights another important strategic finding about a new cohort of community collaborators. This “plugged-in, switched-on” constituency is influential. Working in close coordination with AIR’s independent lead producers, they represent important connective tissue between public media stations and those living in the wider community public media is trying to engage.

Neighborhood organizers, churches, and small-business owners are important strategic partners in building a more inclusive public media system.

Throughout the report are graphs that visualize how the local productions developed and experimented, month by month. Also detailed is public engagement with AIR’s own social/digital platforms, including our online meta-documentary, which connected themes and findings across all of the productions. Although “local” is very much in our DNA and design, we understand that neighborhood stories reveal national concerns. We extended our reach via national broadcast and digital pathways in partnership with NPR’s All Things Considered and WGBH’s WORLD Channel. In total, Finding America has generated more than 48 million gross impressions.2

Our production units have been based in communities whose realities aren’t well represented in newsrooms. Localore provides dedicated producers and respectful collaborators, and communities respond by sharing stories beyond the limited narrative of despair, poverty, struggle, or injustice served up by the 24/7 news cycle. Immediate presence is key to the design of the experiment. Our teams work and live next to teenagers living day to day with gun violence in Milwaukee, gun capital of the U.S.; families of those incarcerated in New Orleans; bus commuters outside of Seattle who can no longer afford to live in the city where they work; Yupik elders who walk the dissolving shorelines of Alaska; veterans living in the shadow of Fort Drum, home to the most deployed battalion in the country.

We don’t want to sugarcoat difficult realities facing these communities. We do want to tackle the limitations of a news cycle that rewards stories of despair and division, often leaving viewers and listeners feeling helpless and hopeless, in a world that is out of control.

2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the creation of public broadcasting. We have rich challenges and fantastic opportunities to extend our journalism to better reflect the rich diversity of America. In this context, LBJ’s 1967 call for a public broadcasting system that brings “enlightenment to all the people of the United States” is more than an inspired vision. It is a rallying cry for journalists, stations, and storymakers — coming at a moment of great national divisiveness — to tap the elemental power of media to shed light on and reflect a broader human experience.

We hope to encourage those of you working at media outlets — editors, managers, news directors, reporters — to trust your boldest instincts. Challenge what constitutes daily news, and do what it takes to support your brightest talent to do their best work.

The team “claps” at the conclusion of our Public Media Lab in December 2015, when lead producers and station collaborators gathered at the MIT Open Docs Lab for a two day intensive.
Credit: Betsy O’Donovan (Public Media Lab)

Your expertise in service to communities that are hungry for their stories to be told is key to the flourishing new media we seek. With this work, we encourage independent producers, documentarians, podcasters, and journalists to not only use your keen minds, but also keep your hearts open in ways that challenge the image of a hard-bitten journalist who’s seen everything. The world needs your compassion as much as your skills. You are the vanguard, but you are not alone. We are ready and eager to help you.

Through public media and led by our most creative makers and intrepid stations, we can, together, cross over bold lines of division to bring forward a new, rich human dimension. We are called on to help people explain lives of extraordinary endurance, worlds of joy and faith, and the richly diverse population of America today.

And, importantly, it is our moment to enlighten those already familiar with our work — the educated, affluent, predominantly white Americans who are already consuming public media — to worlds just up the road. Their investment has helped build the national treasure public media has become. We must lead them in a new direction, pulling from one side to the other, helping to bring disparate and divided parts of the community together. Illuminating, connecting, healing: This is the power of media.

  1. Edison Research, Localore: Finding America Study, Summer/Fall 2016
  2. Gross impressions represent the number of instances of engagement with content, including, for example, headcount at an event, likes on a Facebook or Twitter retweets, listening to a radio story, or watching a television promo.

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