Media organizations should become more reliant on not only membership, but also community as more than just a business model: it’s a way of functioning as well.

Why? It allows for more relationships and nuance than we currently have in our media environment. Through the power of community, we can build more trust, relationships, and dare I say – open newsrooms, open to new financial models that would potentially generate more revenue than a traditional subscription model.

How do you design a media-centric community?

Let’s look at one of my favorite media communities: The City NYC. The City is a nonprofit newsroom covering local news and issues inside the New York City region. Sure, the city of New York has countless media outlets, hubs, local newspapers, even neighborhood outlets. We’re far from what would be considered to be a media desert (support your local newsrooms, y’all)! But that all being said — they’ve become my favorite source of news because of their approach to media content.

The City relies heavily on its membership-first model and leaning into the community of folks around them to actually do what journalism is supposed to do: inform.

Now, for those of you who know me from an academic sense, you know my background is in journalism and media. I hold a master's in Journalism: Media Innovation from NYU, and an undergraduate degree in journalism as well — but I’ll be the first one to critique the news and call out a broken system.

While it’s not new information that “objectivity is a myth” and “the view from nowhere benefits nobody” — our newsrooms still fail to apply this information. Meanwhile, the number of roles in traditional newsrooms are only decreasing.

There’s a lot of discussion about what a newsroom’s role in society is and every time I hear the discussion pop up, I keep going back to a lecture we had in grad school about the topic. News media is supposed to start conversations.

In the past year, we faced a tumultuous election, contested politics, a spike in misinformation and a saturation of platforms that are more than any one person can remotely plug into. It’s a lot. The news can be extremely overwhelming, and that’s just a simple way to put it. How do we fix this gap?

Well my friend, here’s where community comes in.

Back to The City. One thing they did early on that caught my attention is launch a popup newsroom in libraries across the NYC area. The project involved them going into libraries to discuss the news, ask folks what they should be covering and why it’s so important to them. This kept them in touch with their community.

When most Americans don’t subscribe to a newspaper (only 20% do) and will either read just the headline or browse through the context-missing comments, they miss the critical heart of any given news article. Read through the comment section of any local newspaper on any platform yourself and you’ll often see that most news media outlets can just be out of touch.

But let's look at the bigger system that created this sort of reporting — it’s out of touch, too. By failing to have conversations with the people who need their coverage the most, reporters and traditional media outlets, even if unintended, can come across as holier-than-thou to the public of which they serve.

Designing communities of news consumption

The City involves its communities in its reporting process. Visit their site and you’ll see a “help us report” section right on their homepage, with their different community-driven initiatives. From newsgathering (send us a tip) conversations on social media (all of their reporters and even their EIC are extremely active and engaged on Twitter), to even their strategic use of texts and emails (I received a text reminder asking me if I know how and where to early vote for mayor in NYC).

Looking to design your own community with a focus on trust and conversations?

Follow these tips from their playbook:

  • Make yourself available: how can you be reached, and if you can be reached — are you accessible and understandable?
  • Pose questions, then listen in and be curious about the answers: if you’re asking questions, stick around and engage with the answers, express curiosity and thanks, be open to new perspectives.
  • Allow differences in opinions while knowing your communities values: The City does great political coverage in New York City. That being said — it does so without compromising its journalistic integrity (reporting fairly on all subjects) and simultaneously protects their communities’ opinions and beliefs.
  • Create different layers of visibility: it’s important to understand and protect the contents of communication big or small, from public posts meant to be shared to private 1:1 conversations. Building trust means knowing if something should be shared or kept private, and if its shared — providing the right bit of context behind it.
  • Embrace new mediums: is text the best method of sharing information? Maybe it’s a phone call? An art piece? A sculpture? How may this change how conversations are held?
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