Delivering news in low-income communities through organically built digital news services

I am working to create a network of digital local news services to help revitalize underserved, low-income communities that the media has abandoned. I am starting in East Palo Alto, a Silicon Valley city of 30,000 residents that has an 18 percent poverty rate and a long-sullied reputation that obscures its many vital qualities. I am collaborating with residents and youth, whom we are training in journalism skills, as well as with nonprofit agencies, and together we are preparing to launch a news service that targets primarily the millennials whom the mainstream media has lost.

How will your approach answer the journalism challenge you are trying to solve?

The media is abandoning low-income communities, stripping them of what journalism offers: a public mirror in which to observe themselves and be seen by others, a chronicle of their history, and a civic watchdog. Where they are paid attention to, it is often through negative, one-dimensional or inconsistent coverage. These communities need their own news organizations. And the larger public needs a greater understanding of daily life nearer the south end of the economic ladder, of how it is connected to those communities, of the challenges they face, and also of the strengths and resources they contain.

My challenge is to restore local news coverage to these neglected communities, and also to develop a means of bringing the life and issues of these communities to the broader public’s attention.

If East Palo Alto’s news service succeeds, it can demonstrate the need and desire for such an enterprise, and that it can be supported at a reasonable cost. That should deliver momentum to an effort to build more such news services, creating a network that could help reinvigorate low-income communities and focus attention on the challenges they face as well as the promise that can be found there.

How is your approach different from what already exists?

Small publishers (including, in the San Francisco Bay Area, East Palo Alto Today and Central City Extra) struggle to produce financially viable print/web publications in low-income communities. Online news sites (in the Bay Area, Mission Loc@l and Richmond Confidential) also focus on media neglected communities. The undoubted pioneer in covering the underserved and media-neglected is New America Media, which has long addressed marginalized ethnic communities and has a network of six news sites focused primarily on youth culture.

While my approach of creating a network of news services in underserved, low-income communities contains elements of each of the others, it is distinct in that it is to be a video-first, member-based teaching model, with residents led by a professional journalist, and aimed primarily, though not only, at a millennial audience. Also, my approach includes curating and distributing through larger media channels the best of the stories that the network of community news services generates.

What elements of your proposal have you researched, tested or created?

  • In starting EPANow, a digital news service for East Palo Alto, I have secured roughly $20,000 in initial funding and established partnerships with talented, credible local leaders and organizations.
  • What began as a pursuit driven by my own interests and vision was quickly transformed. Now it is shaped more by the visions of community members. I think this is its greatest success to date.
  • We have begun EPANow journalism classes with 10 to 15 residents who attend two to three sessions a week. We have identified important stories and begun our reporting.
  • We have established collaborations with local nonprofit service agencies that will allow us to attract residents and deliver important services and information as a conduit between those agencies and our audience.

What are your immediate next steps?

  • We plan to launch EPANow toward the end of March.
  • In order to do that we need to complete at least four news stories, including two features and an enterprise piece, and start work on at least four more.
  • We need to determine the right mix of stories to enable us to post fresh content while also focusing on more deeply-reported content — and the right method of doing that. It will be a learn-as-we-go process but one for which we need at least a road map.
  • We need to determine how to configure/code our website and mobile site so that they can do what we need them to do, ranging from hosting a live feed of member contributions to allowing service agencies to update their own information listings.
  • We need to secure funding to allow us to continue beyond May.

What resources or advice do you need to complete those steps?

  • We need more new or used equipment — two video cameras, a digital SLR, three tripods, and two desktop computers.
  • We need programmers and coders willing to work with and advise us on the site.
  • We need advice and guidance identifying and approaching prospective funders.
  • We need $115,000 for operating costs from June 1, 2015 to May 31, 2016.

Please list any collaborators, partners or significant outside advisers on your project.

  •  Jamaal “Future” Mashack  is a filmmaker, documentarian and youth mentor who is the associate director of EPANow. An East Palo Alto native, he has been an indispensable player in the launch of EPANow, recruiting people for journalism classes, leading instruction in videography and editing, producing journalism for the news service — and giving credibility to the venture.
  • Olatunde Sobomehin is a social entrepreneur who has worked in East Palo Alto for 15 years and directs StreetCode Academy,  an initiative connecting underrepresented youth to the Silicon Valley tech ecosystem. A Stanford University graduate, he has been an advocate for EPANow, giving it credibility. He helped secure funding for the project and consults on issues from community support to recruitment and resourcing.
  • Marcia Parker, a JSK Fellowship program committee member, has been an invaluable source of support and advice regarding the overall model of my project and the search for funding.

What specific aspects of your project would you most like to receive feedback about?

  • The overall model of being integrated into the community as much as possible.
  • Once launched, the quality of our journalism.
  • How to make such a news service most useful to the community.
  • Ways in which to distribute certain stories from the service to a broader audience.
  • How to make such a news service sustainable? I see foundation grants as a substantial portion of EPANow’s revenue; however I am also struggling to determine some strategy involving advertising in an economically struggling marketplace, balancing the desire to provide an important service to local businesses and residents with what so far seem to be limited market opportunities.

This is the refinement phase of Hay’s effort to address a challenge in journalism. Learn more about his initial exploration phase of the process. Have questions or suggestions about this challenge? Email or follow him on Twitter @jeremyhay.