Collaborative Case Study II: The Charlotte Journalism Collaborative

To meet the needs of its community during the coronavirus pandemic, a nine-member local news collaborative in North Carolina has hosted virtual town halls and catalyzed new Spanish-language resources

This story was originally published in The Whole Story.

(It is the second post by Solutions Journalism Network examining how solutions-focused news collaboratives are meeting the challenge of the coronavirus coverage. In this installment: an in-depth look at the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative.)


When the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative (CJC) formed about a year ago, its nine members committed to leverage the power of their shared resources to advance stories for the greater good that no one of them could mount on their own.

They started with a steady stream of solutions-focused stories about the city’s lack of affordable housing. Now, like other collaboratives, the CJC has quickly pivoted to the even more pressing coronavirus crisis with daily reporting and equally important stories on systematic change brought about by the pandemic.

Within the span of a week, it also organized two virtual town halls, where journalists asked community members how the coronavirus is affecting their lives.

The CJC’s six media partners include the Charlotte Observer, La Noticia, QCityMetro, QNotes, WCNC-TV and WFAE-FM. The three community partners include Queens University, the non-profit organization Free Press and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library.

Its coverage on the affordable housing crisis included an array of stories, whenever possible looking beyond Charlotte for fresh ideas to report, like when WCNC-TV reporter Nate Morabito took Charlotte viewers to Nashville to tour a housing development built from stacking used shipping containers.

When COVID-19 hit North Carolina, the collaborative recognized a need to spread reliable information, especially among the city’s most vulnerable groups, including older African-American men. That cohort has continued to be among the hardest-hit victims of the coronavirus, especially in urban settings like Charlotte.

The collaborative has also invested in translating English language COVID-19 stories into Spanish and will hire a bilingual intern to begin producing content in both languages.

In mid-March, the collaborative also devised an online engagement strategy aimed at identifying the most urgent community issues and questions. In less than a week, it planned and hosted two online town-hall gatherings, one in English and one in Spanish.

“Our experiment was to see if we could shrink the space between the questions community members are asking about Charlotte’s response to COVID-19 and the journalists whose job it is to get those answers,” said Alicia Bell, a CJC member and organizing manager of Free Press, which organized the town halls.

In preparation for those sessions, attendees were asked in an email questionnaire to consider:

What information do you need to stay safe and healthy?

Are local news organizations providing the information you need?

What’s happening in your community right now that shows solutions, resiliency and creativity?

Conversations during the virtual town halls touched on affordable housing, the CJC’s original editorial focus, as well as COVID-19 themes. For example, residents asked about how Charlotte’s digital divide, especially among Latino communities, was impacting daily life, how the state is responding to skyrocketing unemployment claims and what will happen for renters when a moratorium on evictions ends in mid-April.

Encouraged by the results, the CJC has plans to stage subsequent virtual town halls in late April and mid-May.

Sherry Chisenhall, executive editor of the Charlotte Observer, said that her paper needs “to figure out how our coverage can be helpful for the non-profits that provide core services in the community. Journalism that provides service for 30 nonprofits, for example, might have impact for thousands of people. Everyone — companies, nonprofits, families — is figuring out how to connect their version of a community, how to rebuild that when our systems and structures of connection and interaction are rapidly dismantled.”

Want to hear more about how the CJC quickly organized two virtual town halls? Check out this video where Alicia Bell of Free Press talks about that with Michael Davis, SJN’s Southern Regional Manager. Or read the transcript of their conversation below.

Alicia Bell, organizing manager of Free Press (left) and Michael David, SJN Southern Region Manager (right)

Q: What gave birth to this virtual town hall idea?

A: We’d been thinking about different kinds of engagement avenues to keep a consistent information loop alive between the CJC and community members. Most of the time that happens at in-person events or by showing up at other peoples’ events, places where people are gathering. But in the absence of that we took a few days to plan a virtual town hall, create a run of show and conduct the needed outreach.

Q: How did you successfully get the word out?

A: Through some targeted email along with posts on social media channels. We emailed some people directly and received RSVPs, but we did not want the event to be by invitation only. We were fortunate to get assistance from people like Charles Thomas, the Knight Foundation director in Charlotte. He sent the invitation out to the vast network of community leaders he works with. That helped spread the work quickly during the 48–72 hours we concentrated on outreach.

Q: How many registered?

A: We had a combined total of 110 registered for the events. About 90 attended in total. The English session, held in the early afternoon, had more than the Spanish town hall, which was held in the evening. But the CJC is just now beginning to really build out its outreach list for the Hispanic community.The majority of our Spanish outreach contacts came from our CJC partner, Hilda Gurdian, publisher of La Noticia.

Q: Zoom allowed you, as moderator, to create sub groups for smaller discussion sessions. How did that work?

A: Going into the town hall we knew there was no way for us to have an effective conversation with that many people. Zoom has the technology where you can separate people into smaller groups, either ahead of time or during a meeting, and you can choose the people you want in those groups and move people around to balance out the makeup of the subgroup. As an example, we wanted to make sure we didn’t have a group with all journalists — or no journalists. We wanted the conversations to be a bit more intimate, more personal, so that people could introduce themselves. We wanted to create a space where people could have a productive conversation and then report back to the reassembled group at the end.

I added a little bit of wiggle room in case any of those conversations went longer. Initially I wanted the town hall to be an hour, but as I was going through how long each portion would take, it just wasn’t realistic to have it be an hour.

Q: One of the benefits for journalists to participate in a virtual town hall is to get story ideas they otherwise might not consider. Can you give an example of one?

A: A lot of folks were concerned about internet access. How would students have access? How would people working on the census have access? How would people who don’t usually telework get connected? The topic of internet access became both a possible education and a labor story.

People were also bringing up things like, “‘How do I stay connected to my community? What are people doing on a block-to-block level that are allowing people to stay connected?” That gave journalists listening in an opportunity to ask, ”Well, how are people connecting? What are the resources?” They were listening to real social and emotional needs.

Q: One issue that arose from the discussion groups is that people felt the small, neighborhood churches were less able to communicate with congregants than the larger churches. Is that another example of Charlotte’s digital divide?

A: Yes, and we definitely heard that come up. When communities had non-profits and neighborhood associations that were active and organized, they had different access to information than folks who weren’t connected to those sorts of organizations or didn’t have strongly organized neighborhood associations. Where there was pre-existing infrastructure in communities it was also easier to stay connected than in places where that infrastructure was missing.

Q: What was your follow-up strategy?

A: All of the people who registered, regardless of whether they attended or not, received a follow-up Google form from us. We were seeking additional questions or needs. The attendees were also asked to provide any questions that they might have heard from neighbors or friends who did not have access to the internet. The original attendees will be invited to subsequent events in late April and mid-May. They will also receive a separate email with insights into how the newsrooms used the information gathered from the two town halls.

Q: What would you do differently?

A: This will be easy to replicate, with different questions and more time to do outreach. One of things we learned is that there are different levels of information needed. On one level, people need information from decision-makers. They need to know what things have been put in place and what policies are being shifted. But in a second way, people need their stories and lived experiences to reach decision-makers. Journalists are a conduit for that because they can tell these stories that people who have decision-making power can read, watch or listen to.

A third way is that people are sharing information among themselves, information about policies, programs and resources.

As we do future virtual town halls, we’ll need to think about those three different kinds of information, but also about how information needs are going to shift. Our first one was like “What’s going on? What’s happening?” — immediate crisis response.

In a few weeks it’s going to be something more like, “We’re sitting in this now, firmly planted. What will be the needs there?” And at some point we hope there will be a discussion about recovery needs. How are we building past this? What is the resiliency we can carry on to our new normal?

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