Success Story: Fiscal Sponsorship

Tapping Journalism’s Civic Power

The digital age has been wreaking havoc on journalism since the first wave of blogs began a democratization of information with which society as a whole continues to grapple. Media consolidation, click-bait ‘journalism,’ content mills, and now the crisis of ‘fake news’ have all been part of the fallout. But there have been successful responses to this massive change, and one is applying a nonprofit business model to journalistic efforts. Community Partners is proud to help sustain nonprofit journalism efforts that champion ethical and inclusive reporting; while our current four journalism-related projects represent different trends in the field, they all aim to train a new generation of journalists in their own unique way.

The 1992 Los Angeles riots left USC Annenberg professors Sandra Ball-Rokeach, PhD, and Michael Parks wondering how communications practices could help empower underserved communities. Their question led to the Metamorphosis Project, a research initiative that studies the intersection between civic engagement and social justice in under-reported communities. Through their research, they found that the city of Alhambra, just south of Pasadena, was quite unique. Not only was the small city under-reported in larger media outlets, it was made up of an ethnically diverse population with low civic engagement. The pair launched ALHAMBRA SOURCE, a new hyper-local and trilingual news source for the community in the same year Alhambra “canceled their local elections because the same candidates were running unopposed,” noted project manager, Evelyn Moreno.

Since its beginnings, Alhambra Source has been for the community written mostly by reporters from the community. Alhambra Source staff hold community workshops regularly at which residents are encouraged to voice their concerns, pitch story ideas and receive guidance on how to proceed. For their next event, Alhambra Source has partnered with Asian Americans Advancing Justice LA to bring communications professionals from USC, LA Times and KPCC to lead a workshop for high school youth.

“We want to combat fake news,” said community outreach coordinator Dominic Tovar. “This workshop is framed to tackle media literacy in mainstream and ethnic media. We’re going to teach students how to fact check and write without bias so that they can not only become better writers, but can also be accurately informed.”

Like Alhambra, low levels of civic engagement have also been documented in the Fresno, Merced, East Coachella and Long Beach communities, along with few opportunities or services for young people. YOUTHWIRE is a network of hyper-local journalism hubs made up of teens and young adults ages 14-24, and who are 70 percent Latinx and over 95 percent people of color. In addition to having an online platform, each hub releases a bilingual paper twice a year, a statewide journal annually, and all maintain relationships with their daily, local newspapers that regularly publish their work. “We see ourselves as part of a youth ecosystem that involves other nonprofits, schools, parents and media outlets that are all contributing to the development of young people,” said program director Tim Haydock.

“The lack of participation doesn’t have to do with apathy, but rather a lack of opportunity for young people. We see our work as a way for them to see themselves as part of their communities where they can influence, serve and lead in those communities.” In the future, YouthWire plans to hold more community events to further empower their youth and champion their voices so that they can tell their own stories to impact change in their communities.

Focusing on another aspect of journalism in the digital age, OPENNEWS supports the ‘journalism code’ community, which includes journalists, developers, designers and editors who explore new ways of storytelling by connecting the best of technology with traditional ways of sharing the news. OpenNews offers the journalism-code community personal and professional development opportunities in order to navigate the systems within newsrooms. “The folks in this community are often the people really pushing (or pulling or dragging, depending on the organization) for change to bring news organizations into the future,” said deputy director Erika Owens. The OpenNews community are experts in visualizing data and presenting information in the most accessible and technologically sound ways. “It’s an ongoing challenge in newsrooms to reflect the communities they serve,” said Owens.

OpenNews hopes to fill this need by offering more convenings and events geared towards supporting and empowering their community of professionals from all kinds of different backgrounds. Recently, they held an un-conference style event, an event which has no planned schedule or speakers, but rather is formed by attendees. “As people were pitching ideas, one person didn’t realize that if they pitched a winning idea, they would then run that session,” said Owens, “It was great to see that folks are willing to jump in on issues that matter to them; and for them to see that they do have expertise to offer.”

And finally, based here in Los Angeles, is WITNESSLA, a criminal justice news site led by editor and founder Celeste Fremon. It’s a happily small effort unafraid of taking on some of the city’s big criminal justice issues, like taking the lead on stories about patterns of abuse and malpractice in the Sheriff’s department that, eventually, led to criminal indictments and then convictions against both Sherriff Lee Baca and Undersheriff Paul Tanaka.

While Celeste continues to focus WitnessLA’s reporting on issues of law enforcement, criminal justice and education policy, she also sees supporting and training the next generation of journalists as an important part of her project’s mission. Interns from the USC Annenberg School of Journalism regularly work at WitnessLA, learning how to report on criminal justice issues. And next up is a youth reporting venture that will work to empower the young people who are often the subjects of stories about the criminal justice system, to tell their stories themselves.

“We want to hear those powerful voices; we think it’s super important to help train a next generation… struggling to make change in the system through use of the written word”: informed citizens, journalists, and the next generation who’ll run for office.

Using the nonprofit fiscal sponsorship model is perfect for WitnessLA, notes Celeste. “We don’t have to be worrying about our bottom line… or advertisers, or shareholders…I think it’s a really important part of the journalistic landscape and we need all these puzzle pieces right now.

Plus, we feel significant, and at Community Partners everyone makes us feel we are too.”

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