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How are we going to invite and listen to audiences we’ve typically ignored?

By Jenny Choi.

Last night in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood a roomful of journalists and community members gathered to discuss the launch of the University of Texas in Austin’s Center for Media Engagement research analyzing Chicago audiences by neighborhood, roughly divided by the north, west and south-side regions. This event was a part of the Chicago civic media lab City Bureau’s Public Newsroom convening series.


In full disclosure, I was a program officer at the Robert R. McCormick Foundation and recommended the funding of this study, mostly to get updated baseline data on audience attitudes in specific regions I already knew were identified “information deserts” based on past studies in a new social media as ubiquitous newsfeed reality. (Newsflash: the majority of Chicago residents surveyed get their news from social media!)

It’s no secret that Chicago is a highly segregated major city – and that racially and socioeconomically the South and West sides tend to be predominantly black and brown and poorer than their predominantly white northern counterpart. The Center for Media Engagement study showed that the differences in attitudes toward local news by region are particularly striking, which we always kind of suspected, but didn’t realize how large the disparities actually were.

Studies like these (including this more recent national one by the Media Insight Project) and their key takeaways (i.e., if you come from a disenfranchised community you tend to be more dissatisfied with how your communities are represented in the media) may land a bit like “water is wet” epiphanies.

But this study took the next step beyond the obvious by also pointing out that misrepresented communities are audiences of missed opportunity, because despite being dissatisfied with local news coverage of their communities, these audiences were more likely to volunteer and civically engage to improve their communities – and audiences were more likely to donate to high quality local news that was freely accessible rather than paying for a subscription service.



Talia Stroud, director of the Center for Media Engagement

This, in conjunction with the recent Knight and Gallup study released earlier this week, shows that audiences value and consider high quality journalism a critical public service. We just have to listen better and produce more relatable, authentic content.

This was the heart of the community conversation that ensued. The Center for Media Engagement, in partnership with City Bureau, began a brainstorm of next steps as the room broke out in small groups with facilitated questions.

Here were some key takeaways that surfaced from the community conversation:

  1. Many reporters feel under-resourced to go more deeply with discovering the best sources for communities with which they aren’t familiar.

Meeting the pressures of deadline can interfere with finding the best sources that know his/her community intimately. And developing relationships and trust with communities (especially communities that public institutions have historically and systemically betrayed and disenfranchised) take time.

  1. Management needs to make smarter business decisions that prioritize reporters building relationships with communities, including investing in editors that support community-first relationship building and authentic coverage and will nurture a pipeline of journalists who actually reflect the communities served.


Jen Sabella, former deputy editor of the now defunct (but very much missed and beloved) DNAinfo Chicago, implored journalists, editor and management to “get out of their goddamn Loop offices and out into the communities.” (sidenote: Jen was one of a cadre of emerging, mid-management leaders in the Chicago journalism community that I was hoping to take over shops like DNAinfo at an executive level to demonstrate the business case for community-first approaches. She’s now managing editor of The A.V. Club’s new foodsite The Takeout.)

I was delighted to see Chicago Public Media’s Curious City producer Jesse Dukes in attendance and engaged, as Curious City was created at WBEZ by Hearken’s Jenn Brandel in 2012. But I couldn’t help think about the fact that although Curious City stories have proven time and time again (and still do) over the years that they are WBEZ’s most popular stories, the project is still relegated to a quirky side project that still hasn’t been integrated throughout the newsroom to shift its news-making practices.

  1. This audience study can be augmented by a content-side analysis of the adjectives often used by local media to describe these neighborhoods.

A community stakeholder and lead project manager for a digital photo archiving project for the Chicago Defender Angela Ford described preliminary research she has performed showing that analyzing local media’s actual coverage of south and west-side communities shows that the local media tends to use negative and disparaging language when characterizing stories from those communities:

“We need to make sure we’re not saying that these audiences who are dissatisfied as the problem, but also examine on the content-side that the audiences are reacting to consistent, negative portrayals of where they live.”

Stay tuned for how Chicago might prove that if we listen and convey stories that feel real, authentic and relatable to more and more communities, there might be a sustainability solution there for local journalism that the industry hasn’t effectively tapped into just yet.

For more information about the study, visit:


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