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How the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle forged relationships with communities of color

Here’s an idea to steal and adapt: The Democrat and Chronicle of Rochester, N.Y., is attracting new readers in the area’s nine most diverse ZIP codes by transforming its storytelling and moving its engagement into long-overlooked neighborhoods.

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. This “win” comes from Michael Kilian, executive editor, and Cynthia Benjamin, emerging audiences editor, of the Democrat and Chronicle, a Gannett publication in Rochester, N.Y., and Len LaCara, senior content strategy analyst for USA TODAY NETWORK. The Democrat and Chronicle is a participant in the Gannett-McClatchy Table Stakes program.

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

Answer: Our audience historically has been old and white and dwindling in one of the most segregated communities in the country. 

Worse, the newsroom has been largely disconnected from people of color — and people of color have felt disconnected from us. Even something as simple as obtaining local voices on a New York state bill banning discrimination against black hairstyles proved to be a struggle. 

In 2018, a local nonprofit released the findings from a community poll that showed that African American and Latino individuals in Rochester were virtually “invisible” in local media coverage — including newspapers and television — aside from sports, crime and courts stories.  As African American editor Cynthia Benjamin said, “I need to see people who look like me — people from my side of town, my family, my gender. I want to feel like the good stories are talking about my community, too. Don’t just talk about my community when something goes wrong.”

Bottom line: A canyon built of community distrust and staff indifference separated the D&C from the audiences we require to grow and thrive.

To survive as a business, we have an urgent need to expand our audience and become more diverse — initially by focusing on race and ethnicity in coverage and staffing. In the Rochester metropolitan area, African Americans make up 11 percent of the population, Latinos make up 8 percent, Asian Americans 3 percent and people of two or more races 2 percent.

In our home county (Monroe County), the latest available census estimates show people of color make up 30 percent of the total population.

We must acknowledge all of what the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education calls “Fault Lines,” which must be crossed if our newsroom and coverage are to mirror the Greater Rochester region not only in terms of race but age, gender, sexual orientation, geography, class and disability.

Doing so will help our product better reflect our market, which has become substantially more diverse since the turn of the century. Indeed, the relationships we’ve built since summer 2019 with individuals and organizations of color have paved the way for our success to date in making our COVID-19 coverage inclusive.

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 directly relates to Table Stake No. 4 (“Funnel occasional users to habitual and paying/valuable loyalists”). We are trying to guide African Americans and Latinos through the stages of the audience funnel: from little to increasing use, to habitual use, to paying for our content, products and services. We are starting to deliver content so authentically and consistently that individuals and organizations of color value us enough to recommend the D&C to others.

Q: How did you go about solving the problem?

A: We created a team of four that included our executive editor, our emerging audiences editor, our senior content strategist and our food and drink reporter Tracy Schuhmacher, who has a deep and abiding appreciation of the cultural richness of our community. We defined our challenge and worked the problem strategically. We focused first on our newsroom culture. It needed to change from one focused on page views to one focused on creating journalism reflecting the richness of our communities.

We needed to recognize our lack of connection with audiences of color and begin to build robust relationships with diverse individuals and groups. And we acknowledged how limited our partnerships have been in diverse communities and how necessary such partnerships are to build trust and to broaden our audience.

D&C Senior Engagement Editor Julie Philipp, left, chats with a Rochester woman during the Danforth Community Center’s holiday luncheon on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019. (MICHAEL KILIAN/DEMOCRAT AND CHRONICLE)

When we presented our challenge of serving diverse audiences regularly and effectively to our news staff, we divided everyone into six working groups focused on solving problems, such as how to make our public safety coverage less about suspects and trials and more about the community response to challenges including crime. One group examined what became the key question: How do we write FOR audiences of color instead of merely about them? And so on. Each group’s conversations generated invaluable buy-in before we “hit the streets.”

Our first moves outside of our staff were to start to work with community partners. We sponsored the 50th edition of the Puerto Rican Festival, whose director marveled at being invited to the newspaper offices. We partnered with the Ibero-American Action League, a half-century-old Latino organization, which quickly led to our news highlights being read on Spanish-language radio. 

And in likely the most valuable step of all, we collaborated with community groups and city libraries to launch a mobile newsroom, funded by a Facebook Journalism Project Community Network Grant. From October until the COVID-19 crisis began, every D&C journalist spent multiple days engaged in the mobile newsroom effort in various neighborhood settings, including the Ibero-American Action League’s headquarters, a city library branch and two community centers. The journalists met neighborhood residents and generated compelling content we otherwise wouldn’t have delivered to readers. We also brought in community members to talk to the entire staff. All this listening led to solutions-oriented content rather than stories simply pointing out problems. Among them:

As part of our initiative, we’ve used the Hearken social listening platform to find out what communities of color are curious about. But one challenge is that Hearken tends to elicit questions from readers we already have, so more work needs to be done to reach audiences who don’t come to us already. We were in the earliest stages of using GroundSource, which helps build community through text-message conversations, when the COVID-19 outbreak hit. Our plan is to use the service this spring to communicate with audiences of color who might not be reading our public health stories on our website.

Change isn’t possible without measurable results. We began tallying daily how much content would involve black and brown communities. We measured how the content performed and checked new digital subscription growth in the nine target ZIP codes. We studied which topics might resonate with the audiences new to us and armed the staff with this information. The metrics started moving in the proper direction within just weeks.

When the pandemic arrived, the relationships we had built proved invaluable in ensuring communities of color would be included meaningfully in our coverage. That was critical, considering how severely the virus is affecting those communities. Our relationship with the Latino organization led to public health content being translated into Spanish, published on DemocratandChronicle.com and read on the Spanish-language radio station regularly this spring.

When the COVID-19 outbreak hit, we had to put the D&C’s mobile newsroom on hold. Reporters and editors have sought to maintain relationships built in the previous several months, revisiting sources to find leads on how the new normal is affecting people of color in Rochester. And communication with partner organizations has been robust. This effort has helped ensure people of color are represented in universal stories such as expectant moms and families with medically fragile children.

Q: What worked?

A: We have made significant strides in changing the mix of content that we provide to our audiences. As we did that, we discovered that we were able to add news of value to more of our community.

Specifically, we increased the percentage of our content of interest to diverse audiences — which we are tracking through the use of system tags — from only 3 percent in the early fall of 2019 to as high as 17 percent in February 2020. As our staff ramped up its COVID-19 coverage, we maintained the same number of stories of interest to audiences of color as we had produced in previous months.

We cut in half the percentage of routine crime stories, while creating more content about communities’ responses to issues, such as open-air drug markets. By February, we were producing more content of interest to diverse audiences than we were creating traditional crime content.

Perhaps best of all, story ideas to serve these audiences were coming in ever-larger amounts from our front-line journalists.

We hired two Report For America journalists, one of whom will use the approaches of social journalism to convene parents in Rochester’s struggling city school district and share their experiences, ideas and solutions with our readers and with each other. The other reporter will write about Rochester’s fast-growing Latino community. Both begin in June.

Stories aimed at diverse audiences are getting substantial readership in the nine diverse ZIP codes, as much as 30 percent of page views from those neighborhoods. Digital subscriptions in those nine ZIP codes are growing at nearly twice the overall rate since October (an acknowledgment, of course, of how low the base was in those neighborhoods).

Q: What didn’t work?

A: The percentage of journalists of color in our newsroom is 19.4 percent. In the past year, we have failed to add journalists of color in permanent newsroom positions because hiring has been on a long-term hold. The concern is that our audiences of color eventually lose faith that we are serious about becoming a newsroom that looks like the full community we serve.

More social media shares of our content are aimed at diverse audiences, but we have yet to succeed in delivering a social media “look” and “voice” that would attract more local African American and Latino residents to our work on a consistent basis.

Q: What happened that you didn’t expect?

A: Reporters and editors who rarely, if ever, included people of color in their stories stepped up and became newsroom leaders in doing so. As longtime African American editor Sheila Rayam put it, “I’m hearing conversations I never expected to hear involving reporters [that] I never expected to be having them.” That is a reminder that dedicated journalists can and will adapt when they see the value in doing so.

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

A: We created a Diverse Subscribers Advisory Group whose members would receive free digital subscriptions for one year. It proved to be far more difficult than we thought to enlist people to join, which likely reflects the historical disconnect between the local newspaper and communities of color. So instead of 150 people, we wound up with about 40 black and brown residents who live and/or work in seven of our nine target ZIP code communities in the city. These subscribers are mostly in their 30s, 40s and 50s. They range from single parents, Spanish-language radio hosts and human service workers to married parents, black young professionals and medical doctors.

Creating this advisory group is a step we should have waited to make for at least another year, by which time we would have built sufficient numbers of new relationships in communities of color — the “ask” wouldn’t have come out of left field. What we’ve learned time and again since summer 2019 is the value of building and sustaining relationships and the accompanying levels of trust. There is no shortcut or substitute for that.

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

A: Include everyone in your newsroom and your organization, including your state capitol bureau, your consumer marketing experts and your brand experts. It’s everyone’s fight to serve a broader diversity of audiences for the betterment of our organization and our community.

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

A: Many newsrooms, including ours, have undertaken “diversity initiatives” in years past. They often failed, in large part because they were perceived by staff, readers and sources as something outside the norm. Inevitably, the momentum would fade.

By placing our focus on building sustainable relationships with people and groups in our most diverse neighborhoods, and by leveraging these relationships to deliver compelling content, our front-line journalists have organically spurred what we and our readers all want — better journalism.