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How local Gannett sites embraced a whole-community approach to public safety stories

Here’s an idea to steal and adapt: Local news sites nationwide rely too heavily on law enforcement sources, and crime stories dominate their news coverage. Gannett newsrooms committed to repairing relationships and building trust with members of marginalized communities by rethinking community justice and public safety coverage.

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 Michael Feeley, executive editor of The (Delaware) News Journal; Brittany Horn, regional editor for crime and social justice at The (Delaware) News Journal; Audrey Harvin, executive editor of the Burlington County Times, Courier Post and The Daily Journal; and Michael Kilian, executive editor of the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester, N.Y. This initiative involves Gannett Co. Inc.’s Atlantic Region news sites, many of which participated in the Gannett-McClatchy Tables Stakes program in 2019-20.

Question: What was it about your newsrooms and your communities that drove this change?

Answer: Gannett’s Public Safety Mission Statement emerged locally and then regionally before being scaled nationwide in spring 2021, as multiple newsrooms recognized that traditional crime reporting was not serving our communities’ interests, nor our own.

In Rochester, one of America’s most segregated cities, Democrat and Chronicle journalists set up an internal working group in August 2019 to make public safety coverage less off-putting to members of marginalized communities.

The Democrat and Chronicle took steps beginning in 2019 to stop writing up nearly every police press release and to make a concerted effort to include community voices in public safety stories. And it joined other Gannett newsrooms in ending the routine publication of police-supplied mug shots.

The (Delaware) News Journal, for instance, was finding that deeper, more three-dimensional dives into crime and policing stories generated more readership and new subscriptions.

Such steps led to discussions in the autumn of 2020 involving Cynthia Benjamin, now Gannett’s director of audience engagement and trust, and Atlantic Region Editor Hollis Towns, who would call for a region-wide public safety approach.

An image from Gannett’s public safety training deck.

The Public Safety Mission Statement’s chief tenet: Our journalists need to become less reactive and more enterprising in covering public safety issues. And a multitude of voices are needed in coverage beyond simply law enforcement.

Communities in the region range from mid-sized cities like Wilmington, Delaware, to smaller cities and suburban, exurban and rural areas in places like Beaver County, Pennsylvania. The mission statement could not take a one-size-fits-all approach. For instance, a significant crime on Main Street in a small town would have different resonance to readers than one in a major metropolitan area.

Journalists across the Atlantic Region received training on this approach in late winter 2021. The effort was then scaled companywide by spring 2021, with training teams set up in each of Gannett’s other 11 regions to lead training discussions touching every Gannett journalist.

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

A: The goal of our Public Safety Mission initiative was to change our newsroom cultures to help repair relationships in our communities.

The first step was to acknowledge the distorting effects of highlighting crimes in some neighborhoods without balancing that with positive coverage. Some of our public safety reporting had limited news value and little, if any, public impact. The reporting often led to people overestimating their likelihood of becoming crime victims and engaging in racial stereotyping.

Our newsrooms were accustomed to rewriting press releases from police and prosecutors’ offices, with no context, offering no input from victims, families or community members. 

In late summer 2019, the Democrat and Chronicle conducted a content audit and found crime stories made up fully one-fifth of its content. Clearly, one-fifth of all human activity in the Rochester market is not crime-related. Change was needed.

Too often, we were finding that people calling with takedown requests for stories documenting their worst moments were justified: Charges were dropped or they were found not guilty, but we had never followed up or updated the story. 

In many cases, the calls for a takedown weren’t because a person was embarrassed, but because this story we hadn’t followed through on might be preventing them from finding employment or leaving their past behind — a part of the story we didn’t tell or previously consider when writing up a misdemeanor crime.

We needed to ensure that our sources were representative of those who live in our community in terms of race, gender, income, age and place of residence. We needed to conduct conversations in our newsrooms about sensitive coverage issues. 

Part of that process now involves having these conversations before the reporting begins. That allows reporters and photographers to ask questions and develop skills that are inclusive of diverse voices. It also challenges newsroom leaders to keep a line of communication open for all newsroom voices to contribute to coverage ideas and sourcing before, during and after breaking news and enterprise stories.

All of these steps were critical so that we could stop writing solely for spectators and begin to serve the needs of the communities most affected by crime.

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 initiative is related to Table Stake No. 1 (“Serve targeted audiences with targeted content”).

Q: How did you go about solving the problem?

A: The overarching issue with traditional police and courts coverage is that it gives readers an outsized view of how much crime permeates a community. 

Crime stories have littered front pages, news sections and homepages for years, providing little context or little value to the reader other than to provide crime news as a spectator sport. We must do better. So we asked ourselves some fundamental questions:

  1. What happens if we take the time and space that was once filled by crime news to do more in-depth, enterprise and watchdog reporting that serves our whole community better?
  2. What happens if we spend time telling stories in neighborhoods rather than just showing up when a shooting happens?
  3. What if we write stories for a neighborhood rather than about a neighborhood?

A screenshot of a story by The (Delaware) News Journal.

None of this means we don’t cover crime and its impact on people, neighborhoods and communities. We spend more time on the impact now.

Solving this problem meant starting with some tough and uncomfortable conversations. Why were we reporting crime coverage the way we were? What communities was our public safety coverage serving — and who was it greatly failing? 

And most importantly, was our coverage adding harm or disservice to any of our readers? 

The answer to this, unfortunately, was yes — but that didn’t mean we couldn’t change our approach. Instead, we had to begin acknowledging the role the media at large has played in this disservice.

An important and easy first step was stopping mug shot galleries and the use of mug shots all together, recognizing instead that law enforcement pick and choose the crimes they announce and the mug shots they release, capturing people on their worst days in their worst moments, often in situations that may not reflect the full story. 

We also know that people of color have traditionally been portrayed negatively in these images and these images have in turn been splashed throughout news coverage, giving the perception that crime is disproportionately committed by people of color in poor communities.

Next, we had to take a hard look at who our sources were, and whether we were engaging anyone in the communities where our crime coverage was occurring. 

A screenshot of a story by the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.

Traditional public safety coverage relied on police logs and press releases, often leaving reporters without the need to go out into communities and talk to the people most affected by these crimes. Through this strategy, we shifted our focus to the voices missing in our coverage and began demanding a higher bar for what we reported, ensuring that we would follow crimes through the court system rather than stop at the first announcement of arrest.

By leaving these stories in the past, committing to following our coverage through the criminal justice system, and engaging people most affected by crimes in underrepresented communities in our coverage, we found a whole swath of local residents who wanted their stories to be heard. 

It isn’t easy forging relationships in communities we have long ignored or under-covered. But we have found that they value fair and accurate coverage and wish to see their communities portrayed fairly and accurately and for more than just crime.

Q: What worked?

A: Showing up again and again is at the heart of making this strategy work. 

After decades of only being in some of these communities when police lights were flashing against residents’ homes, it took a demonstrated commitment to win over people who have felt overlooked in our past coverage. 

We need to show up for community events and the celebrations and moments of achievement, as well. That change doesn’t happen overnight either. We’re still doing that work today. In Delaware, we’ve created two Underserved Communities reporter positions — repurposing beats that were once more traditional such as “night cops” — to allow us to tell stories from long-ignored neighborhoods. 

Crime and public safety enterprise reporting is a rich pool for watchdog journalism that tells readers information they didn’t know, whether it be details hiding in court documents, interviews with neighbors who have lived on the block for decades, context about why this crime is happening, and solutions for what can be done to stop it.

These include stories such as a look at a community after a police standoff, or a look at how police secrecy stops news of alleged excessive force by police from getting to the public.

We know this work, when done effectively, goes a long way toward building relationships and trust in the community, while garnering strong readership and subscribers who have an interest in better understanding their communities — and paying for it. 

Take the work of Jose Ignacio Castaneda Perez, one of The News Journal’s Underserved Communities reporters. We purposely created the beat with little structure to allow Jose to find his own way and see what stories resonate, and we’re already seeing that flexibility pay off.

In Wilmington’s Southbridge neighborhood, a community long plagued by violence, flooding and social issues, while lacking the resources this segment of the city needs, Jose is now a household name and a go-to for residents when news breaks or problems arise. 

It has resulted in telling stories like the legacy of William “Balagun” Robinson, a man whose impact was so felt in this community that neighbors want to name the park after him, alongside public safety enterprise pieces that dive deep into the ripple effects that a mass shooting has on this neighborhood. These are the kinds of stories that, without strong community relationships, become much more difficult to tell both quickly and accurately.

Our enterprise reporting around public safety and social justice issues continues to be a strong driver of subscriptions.

A screenshot of a story by the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.

Q: What didn’t work?

A: One of the biggest challenges is helping some newsrooms break old habits. 

Many reporters and editors have been producing public safety content for decades and find it difficult to change how they cover and report crime. While we provide training and engage in conversations about how we cover public safety, there are challenges and hurdles that we field every day. 

The goal is to help those that are struggling to embrace the change, connect with their communities and rebuild trust. We recognize that it’s not a quick fix and that repairing community relationships will take time, positive reinforcement and a commitment to both our newsrooms and our communities.

Q: What has the response from your audience/community been?

A: There has been limited criticism, mainly from people who wonder why television had a story of a particular crime and we might not have. But we are prepared to persevere and hope the critics might eventually see value in these changes. We are not trying to alienate anyone—just do better

Our hope is that Gannett sites would reach new audiences in long-underserved communities — people who know we are here but have a negative impression of our coverage. We are realistic about the time it will take to repair our reputation in diverse communities.

Our metrics tell us more people are reading. And our reporters are receiving positive reactions from sources and community members. We continue to grow our digital-only subscriber audience and have just started to look at growth in previously underserved ZIP codes.

Q: What would you do differently now? What did you learn?

A: The short answer? Go back in time and never start running cop briefs in the first place or falling into the trap of rewriting press releases. 

But knowing we can’t do that, it would have served us well to have some of these harder conversations sooner. The criticism of undercovering communities of color or writing off readers who we didn’t think were interested in our coverage is valid — and we could have learned a lot from them years ago when they started walking away from legacy media in the first place.

We would have conducted more training earlier on how police reporters can become enterprise reporters. The standard we set — don’t write about a crime unless we intend to see the case through to its conclusion — tended to be harder to meet at smaller news sites, where old habits and the need to fill the print newspaper pages were more ingrained. 

And we’ve learned that more editors need coaching on how to recognize enterprise reporting opportunities and to guide reporters and photographers through them. Good enterprise answers a “Who?”, a “How?” or a “Why?” question well, whereas traditional news reporting has focused merely on the “What?” 

Newsroom culture is built around that “What?” question even though the other questions lead to more reader engagement and new digital subscriptions. Seeing this, we are planning extensive public safety enterprise training and coaching for editors and front-line journalists alike a bit later in 2022.

So much of this work starts with getting every reporter and editor involved, because racism and criminal justice don’t just start and stop with the breaking news and crime reporters. It seeps into every layer of our coverage, every household and every home, and in turn, every story we pen. 

We must not only own what we’ve done wrong for decades, but actively work to make it right, to give voice to the communities and the people we have for far too long generalized with our coverage or parachuted into when tragedy struck. It’s about relationships and people, and our journalists are well-equipped to do this work. Now, it’s on newsroom leaders to give them the time and space to make it happen.

Q: What advice would you give to others who want to engage underserved communities?

A: Our advice to those seeking to engage underserved communities is to be transparent and honest about your past engagement and your future goals. Reach out and get an assessment of how you are perceived by those communities and feedback about how to improve. Ensure that diverse voices are included in your discussions. 

Once you have that feedback, look at your goals and decide how to balance your resources and the communities’ needs. Remember that it won’t happen overnight and should be an open, on-going process that will require adjustments and tweaking, but the commitment to getting it right should always be the goal.

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

A: Change is hard, but the future of local news in an ever-more-diverse society requires we focus on community justice and safety, and not on old-fashioned crime reporting.

More on building trust: How Gannett’s Knoxville News Sentinel got a wakeup call and shifted its coverage for Black communities