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How The Sacramento Bee built strong community partnerships to serve audiences it had long neglected

Here’s an idea to steal and adapt: Through partnerships with groups outside of mainstream media, The Sacramento Bee attracted new readers, gained access to a diverse talent pool of journalists and elevated the voice of under-resourced communities in the area.

This is a series on Better News to a) showcase innovative/experimental ideas that emerge from the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative and b) to share replicable tactics that benefit the news industry as a whole. The “win” comes from Ryan Lillis, assistant managing editor of The Sacramento Bee. The Sacramento Bee participated in the major market Table Stakes program in 2018 and the Gannett-McClatchy program in 2019-20.

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

Answer: Sacramento is one of the most diverse big cities in America. That diversity is a badge of honor flashed by local politicians and the media. But we are not an inclusive community; many of our neighborhoods and communities have been left behind during recent progress in the city.

And for years — maybe decades —The Bee and other mainstream media in Sacramento have underserved many of those communities.

In doing so, we were failing to attract and retain new readers who would help The Bee move toward a more sustainable future. This will be a long game. We have years of mistakes to make up for.

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: Our approach was most closely related to Table Stake No. 6 (“Partner to expand your capacity and capabilities at lower and more flexible cost”).

Q: How did you go about solving the problem?

A: We started with an acknowledgment that The Bee did not have deep connections and credibility in under-resourced neighborhoods and communities that traditional media has long underserved.

We also recognized that it was not our role to “give communities a voice.” Under-resourced communities have a voice. It is our role to use our platform to elevate that voice.

 Sol Collective partnership

Once we acknowledged that, we partnered with Sol Collective, an arts and social justice organization. That helped provide our journalists with access to those communities. In turn, young and emerging writers with Sol Collective or in its network have been published by The Bee.

We were then successful in receiving a $21,000 grant from Facebook through the Facebook Journalism Project Community Network. The Bee is using the grant to pay writers and artists for their work, as well as support regular workshops on topics related to journalism and art.

We held an event at Sol Collective in January to announce the launch of the Community Voices project, a series of stories, poems, columns and videos produced in partnership with Sol Collective and other community members. We also presented the results of a source diversity audit we conducted last year that showed the majority of the people we quoted in stories were white men.

We were incredibly fortunate to have built a relationship with Sol Collective board members over the years through writing stories about their work and attending their events. When we pitched a potential partnership with them, they provided great feedback and ideas.

Most notably, they urged us to bring on an editor of color to conduct the first edits of stories. As a white middle-aged male, I agreed that I did not have the life experience or proper perspective to edit stories submitted to the project. That editor-at-large is funded through our grant from Facebook and is a key point of contact for new writers, poets and photographers.

They also asked that stories in the project be outside our paywall. We agreed that was vital — we didn’t want suddenly to ask residents of communities we’ve long underserved to subscribe.

Connecting with new community organizations

Sol Collective members and board members have not only produced journalism for us, they have helped connect us with new and emerging writers.

Members of Black Zebra Productions were injured by federal agents while covering a protest in Portland. Rach Wilde/Black Zebra

We also partnered with Black Zebra, an independent media company with deep connections in — and credibility with — local activists. By partnering with Black Zebra, we have had access to video content and news events that were outside our traditional sphere of coverage and sourcing.

Our community partners at Sol Collective, along with contributing writers to Community Voices, urged us to connect with Black Zebra. During the first few days of anti-police brutality protests in Sacramento, two members of the Black Zebra crew were detained by police as its members produced Facebook Live videos. We connected with them, signed them to produce a documentary for us and, in the process, issued the crew Sacramento Bee press credentials.

I also contacted the Sacramento Police Department and the mayor’s office and urged them to afford Black Zebra the same professional courtesy as other “mainstream” media. They were not detained again after that.

Black Zebra is in the process of producing documentaries that will be published by The Bee on the demonstrations held throughout the Sacramento region. Black Zebra has since been covering protests and other actions in Washington, D.C., and Portland. Recently, members of their crew were struck by federal agents during a protest in Portland while another journalist from their team yelled “he’s press.”

Responding to George Floyd’s death

We have also strived to publish continuous content to meet audience needs. In the weeks that followed the police killing of George Floyd, we published multiple Community Voices pieces on the issues of police brutality and social inequality.

We were incredibly fortunate to have built a foundation for connecting with communities we had historically underserved when protests against police brutality began in late May. On the first weekend of the protests in Sacramento, we published a column about racism in Sacramento and the United States more broadly, written by one of our frequent Community Voices contributors. The column appeared above the fold on 1A of our Sunday newspaper. It was also promoted in an email newsletter and on The Bee’s social media channels.

The connections we made also were invaluable in helping us shape our coverage. We published a collection of first-person accounts from Sacramento residents about why they were protesting. Those accounts were submitted to us through the Community Voices project.

How we are changing our practices

 Two immediate and essential policy changes resulted from conversations we had with our community partners.

First, we banned the term “looting” from our coverage. The term has been weaponized and has strong racist overtones. Instead, we are now more specific in our coverage; we’ve replaced “looting” with “vandalism and theft.”

Second, we adopted a new policy on the publication of police booking photos, also known as mugshots. We had informally discussed scaling back the use of mugshots. Our editors crafted a new policy in early July and, after receiving some feedback from community partners, we adopted new restrictions July 9. Now, with limited exception, we do not publish mugshots out of a recognition that doing so disproportionately harms people of color and those with mental illness, while also perpetuating stereotypes about who commits crime in our community.

 We are also launching a community-funded journalism “lab” focused on equity and which the Community Voices project will become a part of. Sacramento is among the most diverse cities in the nation, but we have long-standing issues of inequality and segregation.

We have hired an editor to lead our equity lab coverage and are in the process of recruiting a reporter to write about the culture, triumphs and challenges of Sacramento’s Black communities and a journalist to cover the broader issue of equity. We anticipate the team will be in place by the end of September.

Q: What worked?

 A: Our Community Voices project and our focus on serving communities we long neglected have attracted new audiences and subscribers.

We have begun to see success by funneling occasional, or even rare, users into paying subscribers. Even though our Community Voices pieces are placed outside our paywall (they are free to all), the stories and videos have led to nearly three dozen new digital subscribers for The Bee, far outpacing the freelance fees we have paid to produce the content.

For example, a subscription URL on a Facebook post we wrote in support of Black Zebra — after the crew was detained by Sacramento Police — generated 14 subscriptions.

Q: What didn’t work?

A: Sharp, focused opinion pieces performed better online than stories without a specific focus. Stories and commentary related to COVID-19’s impact on under-resourced communities, as well as stories about protests and social justice, resonated with readers. Other stories without sharp commentary did not.

Q: What happened that you didn’t expect?

A: Our outcome goals related to this project were tied to page views. We recognized that we would be serving (new to us) audiences and that the first step would be purely to attract readers and measure success by page views.

We did not expect to generate as many subscriptions as we have, especially given that all of these stories are outside our paywall.

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

A: We would have held more public events, if not for the pandemic, with other community groups. We’ve co-branded the Community Voices series as a “Community to Newsroom” pipeline in which we are helping to cultivate the next generation of Sacramento journalists.

In the absence of public events, we can and should conduct virtual town halls and training workshops. Those plans are in the early stages of being developed and will be expanded now that our new equity lab editor, Keiona Williamson, has joined our team.

We have also learned that despite our lost connection with many communities, The Bee is still a big deal in those neighborhoods. That should serve as motivation for other news organizations. If done consistently and in partnership with key community members — and if you’re willing to listen and acknowledge you have much to learn — you can attract audiences you’ve lost.

As we launch our equity reporting lab, we will continue to seek to elevate the voices of communities that The Bee has long underserved. We plan to bring Community Voices under the umbrella of the lab and will continue to investigate longer, sustainable funding sources.

Q: What advice would you give to others who try to do this?

A: Recognize that your organization may not have the valuable connections in the community necessary to fairly and accurately elevate the voices of underserved areas. It’s preferable to partner with community organizations to help you make those connections. And recognize that you are playing the long game. Results will not come right away, because you’re trying to reverse years or decades of neglecting vast audiences and communities.

Q: Anything else you want to share about this initiative?

A: Be patient. Be willing to try new things. But most importantly, be willing to listen and learn.

Related content: Learn how the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle forged relationships with communities of color