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How Gannett’s Knoxville News Sentinel got a wakeup call and shifted its coverage for Black communities

Here’s an idea to steal and adapt: Gannett’s Knoxville News Sentinel in Tennessee is telling more diverse, authentic stories that are making an impact, thanks to a new audience engagement initiative called the Digital Advisory Group, or “the DAG.” As part of a 2021 pilot, Knox News paired a Facebook group with one-year digital subscription trials to listen to Black voices and earn their trust. The DAG united community members and journalists to engage one another for more authentic content.

This is a series on Better News to a) showcase innovative/experimental ideas that emerge from the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative and b) share replicable tactics that benefit the news industry as a whole. This “win” comes from Joel Christopher, the executive editor for Knoxville News Sentinel (also called Knox News); Brenna McDermott, the newsroom’s growth and development editor; and Cynthia Benjamin, Gannett’s director of audience engagement and trust, based in Rochester, New York. The Knoxville newsroom participated in the University of North Carolina-Knight Table Stakes program in 2020-21.

Question: What communities do you serve and what can you tell us about the history of your organization?   

Answer:The Knoxville media market, like many across the nation, has typically served an audience that is primarily white and affluent, while practically one in four residents is a person of color. Black communities make up 17% of the city’s population. Coverage by major news outlets followed a familiar script: lots of stories about crime, and from a perspective that was almost exclusively institutional: police, prosecutors and judges. Few stories and videos, including from our newsroom, featured Knoxville’s Black communities in positive ways.  

We started executing a new coverage approach in 2020 and 2021 after joining a project with other USA TODAY Network–South newsrooms that critically examined coverage of Black communities. It’s called Confederate Reckoning, a national award-winning series that delved into the legacy of racism in the South

In that project, we uncovered our history of coverage, dating back generations, that obscured the experiences of Black people in Knoxville, distorted their accomplishments and challenges, and outright tokenized people of color. We weren’t including voices of color in our storytelling, outside of government and law enforcement, and we had followed that script throughout our history.        

Q: What problem were you trying to solve, and why was solving the problem strategically important for your organization?   

A:  Black communities had little or no trust in Knox News, so we distilled our solution to this: We will ensure that Black communities are truly and fully present in Knox News coverage. As journalists, without telling the full story of our community, we were failing to present a full account of life in Knoxville. And as human beings, we were failing to recognize the experiences of Black people who live here.  

To reveal the triumphs and challenges of our whole community, to create a meaningful conversation centered on solutions, it is imperative that we truly and fully represent the experiences of Black communities in Knoxville.   

Q: When did you realize your organization had a problem to solve? Was there a specific event or incident that sparked your effort?     

A: The event that ignited our newsroom’s efforts to genuinely change our approach was a true emotional awakening. It was a phone call from state Rep. Sam McKenzie, who represents parts of Knoxville. 

McKenzie questioned a headline on a crime-related story that generically referred to East Knoxville, a collection of plurality Black neighborhoods in the city. He pointed out the damage using that broad geographic label does to the people who live there.

“Google ‘East Knoxville,’” he said, “and tell me what comes up.”  The results were dismaying: a shooting, a murder, an arson, a shooting, a body found, another shooting. There was no reporting about the rich tapestry of lives lived in an entire part of Knoxville, and worse, it was creating and calcifying an image of neighborhoods that was distorted and deficient. 

We were part of the problem. 

It was like being hit with a bucket of ice water.

We needed to change dramatically, to tackle our legacy, serve the present and improve for posterity.   

Q: What measures around diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging was your newsroom taking before this?   

A: The major effort underway was a de-emphasis on mayhem reporting — the constant drumbeat of stories about assaults and robberies and murders that blend into a long narrative of despair — that began in February 2019. Editors demanded less drive-by crime accounts and more nuanced and critical reporting on the criminal justice system.  But we were still tightly focused on institutional reporting, and woefully disconnected from communities of color. That was obvious in the sourcing and framing of our previous work.   

Q: How is this approach related to Table Stakes (e.g. one of the 7 Table Stakes and/or an outgrowth of the Knight-Lenfest initiative, etc.)?   

A:  This approach was related to Table Stake No. 1 (“Serve targeted audiences with targeted content”).

Our participation in Table Stakes coincided with our organic efforts to de-emphasize mayhem reporting and bolster critical examinations of our criminal justice system, and was energized by our participation with our South Region newsrooms in the “Confederate Reckoning” series. 

Our mantra — “We will ensure Black communities are truly and fully present in our coverage” — was born out of our participation in the Table Stakes initiative. Table Stakes helped us to sharpen our efforts with a clear guiding principle, and to hold ourselves accountable to achieve our goals.   

Q: How did you go about solving the problem?   

A: We’re still solving the problem and will be far into the future. We made practical changes, like creating an internal guide for our journalists to Knoxville’s neighborhoods so they are better informed about the places they’re covering at a granular level, and more accurately reflecting where events are happening and what context is necessary for our audience.   

We focused intensely on broadening our sourcing, an ongoing effort to make sure we are giving equal weight to people who aren’t in positions of authority conferred by politics or economics. 

Our main initiative was to form a Facebook group that journalists could check in with. We grant members a trial subscription as an incentive to join and share their feedback with us. 

The idea originated at the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle during its Table Stakes diversity challenge in 2019-2020. Strategists tracked digital subscription growth and noted an overall rise in Black unique visitors via ComScore. 

Also, The Tennessean launched Black Tennessee Voices, an incubator of ideas by Black people with the goal of receiving guest opinions. They too had begun engaging Black voices in a private Facebook group. Through different strategies, both newsrooms connected with local people, shared content with them and listened to communities of color to improve their journalism. 

So last summer, we tested the DAG for Knox News. (Florida Times-Union, Savannah Morning News and The Commercial Appeal created groups last summer, as well.) 

Gannett would commit 1-year subscription trials (50 for each site) to help us engage BIPOC communities, repair relationships, improve our journalism for communities of color and earn trust. We needed to commit at least one person to create a Facebook group and “own” our effort. Knox News ultimately drafted a team to manage the group (social justice reporter, growth and development editor and the executive editor). 

Our first task: Build an invitation list of 50 non-subscribers who are Black people or live or work in a marginalized community – no one from public office, no one who is seeking public office. This was daunting. 

What should have taken us a week or two of sending out a communication and getting feedback from the newsroom wound up being a task we chipped away at over time. It was a similar insight for the other pilot sites. Our newsrooms lacked relationships with communities of color, and we had too few connections with non-subscribers. It was a tough pill to swallow. But we owned our failing, and we are building from there. 

We have more than 30 members in the Knox News DAG and we are nearing 1,000 members in communities across the USA TODAY Network. Most members are engaged in their cities and neighborhoods and/or care passionately about how people live their lives and the ways in which the media reflects their stories. They include everyone you would meet in a community, from neighborhood groups and volunteers to educators, doctors and others.

We measured the ways we were telling a fuller story of the Knoxville community by consistently tracking sourcing and story selection, using both spreadsheets and story tagging to keep track, and carefully guarded against turning efforts to build sourcing and representation into quotas by talking consistently and critically examining the ways our coverage was changing.   

Angela Dennis is a Knox News reporter who helps lead the charge on Digital Advisory Groups. (Courtesy of Gannett)

And as part of Gannett’s broader efforts to improve the makeup of our newsrooms, we intensified efforts to recruit and retain journalists of color in positions with the power to improve coverage. For example, we created a new job position tailored to Angela Dennis, a local journalist who hosts the nationally lauded “Black in Appalachia” podcast and occasionally freelanced for us before joining full time. She covers issues at the intersection of race and equity through both historical and contemporary lenses, and has helped shape our coverage. 

Angela successfully pushed us, for example, to shift how we describe the urban planning initiatives of the 20th century that tore apart Black communities. We now refer to urban renewal more accurately as urban removal.  

We now have a higher percentage of people of color on staff than live in the market. We increased the number of journalists of color from 14% to 20% from the start of our Table Stakes effort to now.

Q: What worked?   

A: Our coverage of policing, in particular, has put substantial pressure on city leaders to tackle endemic racism within the department and has directly led to the resignations of the police chief, two of three deputy chiefs, and several lower-level officers. 

Policing in Knoxville is now clearly the most critical issue in our community, led by our intensive, in-depth and ongoing coverage that revealed the problems. A half-dozen sources with knowledge of the police department’s inner workings told us officers filed complaints only after feeling emboldened by the spotlight we put on the problems.  

Our sourcing has improved dramatically, leading to a panoply of story ideas that we didn’t access before. We’ve connected with new sources through a combination of efforts: recruiting for the DAG and increased reporting on communities of color. We have become diligent about not applying broad geographic terms like East Knoxville to stories about crime. We have improved the representation of journalists of color in our newsroom, and in key coverage areas. 

Our Digital Advisory Group has been actively engaged. They are a collective of people of color who were nonsubscribers but agreed to accept a complimentary digital subscription trial and begin offering their input on our content. 

We have interacted with DAG members in a variety of ways. Primarily, it’s through posts and comments on the private Facebook group, but we’ve also done small group meetings with DAG members, and reached out to individuals through direct messages.    

Q: What didn’t work?    

A: We have not solved the in-person community connection piece of our efforts, partly because of pandemic challenges, and partly because it’s an intensive effort that we have at times lost sight of under the demands of daily journalism.  

It’s the challenge we’re putting front and center in 2022.  

We’ve held a series of meetings with the leadership of the Beck Cultural Exchange Center, a repository of the region’s Black history and culture, to work on collaborations on several projects we’re still refining. The Beck extended its first-ever solo invitation to its speaker series to investigative reporter Tyler Whetstone, who discussed his work on the police department and the obvious changes in how we cover Black communities. 

Q: What happened that you didn’t expect?   

A: We didn’t expect the flood of new coverage ideas that originated from our deepening connections with Black communities. 

This screenshot shows a story from the “Black in Business” series published by the Knoxville News Sentinel. (Courtesy of Gannett)

We published, for example, a longform digital project and 12-page special print section called ‘Black in Business’ that focused on Black entrepreneurs, and it unlocked additional sourcing for additional reporting. It also inspired a local venue owner to create expanded space and a showcase event for hip-hop artists. We decided to make ‘Black in Business’ a quarterly effort to feature the dozens of additional Black entrepreneurship stories that were shared with us after the first series was published.  

We also didn’t expect the institutional pushback from our changed coverage: We’ve fielded complaints, for example, from police, prosecutors and city officials who said giving the same prominence in stories to those who don’t hold official positions as those who do is somehow “unfair.” 

Our response is straightforward: We recognize that the perspectives of people most affected by political and economic decisions deserve the same weight as those who wield conferred power.

Finally, as we faced our diversity challenge head-on, the Knox News evolution wasn’t without friction. Earning staff buy-in took time, and skepticism abounded about the efforts to expand sourcing in Black communities, especially among people who held no positions of institutional or conferred power. It was a major shift for our team. 

But tragic events in the community propelled our efforts forward. 

During a terrible outbreak of gun violence that claimed the lives of eight Black teenagers — most of the victims were from the same high school — top editors pressed the news team to deepen its sourcing. 

Reporters and photographers succeeded by attending every public event connected to the crisis, such as memorial services, demonstrations and government meetings. We also check in regularly with families, even when we’re not pursuing a story, to keep communication going.

The newsroom felt stressed, sometimes confused, and struggled to balance the demands of change with the increased high-stakes workload spurred by the epidemic of violence. 

With each breakthrough on sourcing, however, and the increasingly sophisticated reporting that grew from better community connections, more and more staff members saw the results, and more and more bought in. Top editors, too, adjusted their expectations, coming to understand just how laborious and long our metamorphosis will be. 

Q: What would you do differently now? What have you learned about your community since trying this new strategy?       

A: We didn’t establish our Digital Advisory Group until the summer of 2021, and that effort would have been invaluable earlier in our initiative. 

We would devote more resources from the outset to engage people of color for different voices and more input on our coverage in a method that empowers them to speak freely about their perceptions. 

We also would recognize from the outset the enormous lift of a fundamental change in newsroom culture and create more support for staff members who needed help understanding and executing the effort. 

We would adjust our expectations, especially among editors, for how quickly journalists can build deep sourcing, and celebrate even the smallest accomplishments. We would be urgent in our long view, but patient with the many small steps required to build sustainable success. 

Q: What advice would you give to others who try to do this? What advice would you give others trying to better connect with communities of color?   

This screenshot shows a story by Angela Dennis on social justice, race and equity in Knoxville. (Courtesy of Gannett)

A: You must fulfill the promises you make. With journalism’s long history of flawed coverage of communities of color, distrust runs deep. Failing to deliver on promises does even more damage than never making an effort at all. It’s also vital that you have a team comprising editors and staffers who meet regularly and frequently to measure progress and plan next efforts.   

In our newsroom, the team includes the executive editor, business growth and development editor, college women’s sports reporter, race and equity reporter, public affairs reporter and a photojournalist.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?   

A: This is not a quick fix. This is not a two-month project, or a two-year project. This is a radical rethinking of how we practice journalism that will take years to become part of our DNA. As the Rev. Renee Kesler, president and CEO of the Beck Cultural Exchange Center, put it to us: If you don’t inculcate practices and structures that sustain themselves after all of you are no longer in the newsroom, all the effort will be for naught. 

More on audience engagement: How the Florida Times-Union used Instagram to connect with a younger, more diverse audience