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Posts Tagged ‘community engagement’

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Photo: Richland Source
As part of its effort to engage community members, an online news startup in Mansfield, Ohio, holds free Newsroom After Hours concerts that feature local bands — and free beer and food.

Local journalism is in trouble as giant organizations like GateHouse Media buy up papers and cut staff. That’s a problem not only because of the jobs lost but because so much important news is first revealed thanks to investigations at the local level.

Still, there are always people who will find find opportunity when everything looks bleak.

Doug Struck writes at the Christian Science Monitor, “Noah Jones is working. The young reporter for the Richland Source, a local news startup in the heart of Ohio’s Rust Belt, listens to the jazz quartet warm up and eyes the crowd. Then he takes the mic.

“ ‘Thank you for coming out tonight,’ Mr. Jones intones, in his best master-of-ceremonies voice. ‘Now let’s welcome the Mansfield Jazz Orchestra quartet!’

“The small concert, with free beer and food for the public, is in the middle of the shared-space newsroom of the Richland Source, an online site started by a businessman who thought his city needed more news.

“The monthly Newsroom After Hours concert – from jazz to pop to hip-hop – is just one of the unfamiliar roles for some journalists and publishers trying bold experiments to buck the wholesale die-off of local news sources around the country. Like mad inventors, they are furiously writing and rewriting plans to find what works, often in small-scale, community efforts. …

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill last year found that in the past 14 years, 1,800 newspapers have closed – 1 in every 5 across the country – creating a U.S. map spotted with ‘news deserts.’

“A Pew Research Center analysis in July showed newspaper circulation since 1990 dropping by half, to 31 million last year. Pew noted jobs in all newsrooms plunged by one-quarter in the past decade. A Wall Street Journal study published in May said Google and Facebook have sucked up 77% of digital advertising revenues from local markets. …

“For years, observers have warned of the effects of this loss of news coverage: paralyzing partisanship, lower voting rates, government corruption, little accountability among public officials, less civic engagement. … Equity firms have bought up many local news outlets at fire-sale prices, often slashing staffs and coverage to drain the last bit of profits. …

“[Carl Fernyak, founder of the Richland Source,] says he knew ‘zero, nothing’ about news publishing when he began the Richland Source six years ago, but predicts the organization is now within 18 months of breaking even. …

“In 2013, Mr. Fernyak joined a Chamber of Commerce study of the sagging Rust Belt town. ‘Without fail, each one of the businesses said we have an image problem, a self-esteem problem,’ he says. ‘Ninety-five percent of the coverage was crime.’

“Mr. Fernyak was in the office equipment business, but within six months he had hired a president, a veteran managing editor, and a few journalists, and started the Richland Source. … The site, which Mr. Fernyak adamantly keeps free to readers, offers up a smorgasbord of hard news and homespun stories. A recent front page included a shooting-suicide next to news that Barb Weaver had once again won the county fair’s lemon meringue pie contest. The site has local sports, summer parades, short features on business owners, and occasionally a deep dive into a social problem.

“To support this, and to bond with readers, the Richland Source and its owner do some decidedly untraditional things. There are the newsroom concerts, trivia nights at a local brewery, movie nights, and roundtable discussions with high school students – all staffed in part by Richland Source employees.

“The Source has a marketing arm that crafts social media strategies and ads for businesses, the editors are trying to sell an artificial intelligence program they use to generate short stories on high school games, and the staff solicited $70,000 from businesses and community groups to pay for two extensive reporting projects. Reporters are expected to make an ‘ask,’ through email and social media appeals, for readers to sign up for memberships at $5 to $20 a month. …

“ ‘I like it,’ says Cheryl Moore, a clerk at the 111-year-old Hursh Pharmacy. ‘It’s current, it’s true, and it’s factual.’

“The mayor of the town concurs. ‘They’ve been a breath of fresh air,’ says Timothy Theaker, who was first elected in 2011. ‘If the news is always negative, it starts tearing down the community.’ …

“Mr. Fernyak thinks newsrooms and owners are figuring out models that will work. ‘We’ve had a crazy amount of support from our community for this,’ he says. ‘I had people saying, “It’s about time.” ‘ ”

More at the Christian Science Monitor, here.

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Photo: Arts Professional
Theatergoers can buy tickets at a Heron Foods store’s pop-up box office in the United Kingdom.

There’s a UK publication in which people who are in the arts write articles on initiatives their organizations have tested in case other groups want to try something new. This one is from a theater troupe in Hull. (Prolific arts and culture blogger Amelia in Hull is sure to know all about it.)

Magda Moses writes at Arts Professional, “Hull Truck Theatre’s pop-up box offices are part of our community engagement project called Community Dialogues. The project works to develop deeper relationships with people from areas of low arts engagement and high deprivation in Hull, encouraging them to come to the theatre, often for the first time.

“My job is to get out into the local community to build relationships between community organisations and the theatre, and to better understand the barriers that might stop people attending the arts. …

“As our community relationships developed, we recognised that barriers to engagement with the arts include time, cost, lack of awareness of what’s on, childcare and a sense of it being ‘not for me’. We realised that we could work with retail chain Heron Foods, which has busy stores in the areas in which we work, to learn more, build personal relationships and start to address some of those barriers. Heron Foods is already our main auditorium sponsor and offered us space to trial our visits. …

“I asked shoppers to share their past, present and future experiences of theatre, linking that with A Christmas Carol, our Christmas production. People’s experiences were extremely varied – some attended often, while others were unsure of why the theatre might be relevant to them.

“Members of our box office team then joined us, enabling customers to buy tickets from an iPad. We now run these pop-up box office and community engagement sessions in four Heron Foods stores once a month, and having other staff in attendance has helped the project become more embedded across the theatre. …

“We continue to ask people why they don’t visit the theatre. Some have told us they feel intimidated by the building, let alone by walking up to the box office to buy a ticket. Some are worried they don’t know the conventions of what to wear or how to behave. …

“One of the biggest barriers is ticket price. Why should they spend £15 to see something they don’t know if they’ll enjoy? We sought to address this barrier last November through the marketing campaign for our production of ‘The Last Testament of Lillian Bilocca’ about the women of Hull who campaigned for fishing industry reform in the 1960s.

“We held back 100 pay-what-you-can tickets to the production, which were only made available to the targeted communities via the pop-up box offices. These tickets were popular and we received positive feedback that people were thrilled to be able to afford to see a play that was directly relevant to their community.”

Read how Hll Truck Theatre’s community-engagement efforts have worked, here.

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