Some Thoughts on Possible Roles for Non-Profits (and other community actors) in Journalism


At the close of 2010, with real estate markets around the country still reeling from foreclosures and the financial crisis, home and rental prices in the San Francisco Bay Area remained high, even making modest gains.

The weather is nice and the tech industry is, for the time being, strong. Talented and highly-educated young engineers and programmers and marketing gurus pour in from elsewhere, and the rent goes up. And in one of the most affluent regions in the country people sleep on all-night buses because they can’t pay rent, along waterways and under bridges. Disproportionately minorities and immigrants, there are more than 7,000 homeless residents in Santa Clara County.

More than half are Black or Hispanic, and 51 passed away prematurely this year. A full accounting of life in the bay would look much differently than the tech juggernauts and young professionals popular image often imagines.

A small and dedicated army of social workers, bureaucrats and general do-gooder types fight daily in the trenches of homelessness, making significant and consistent reductions in the number of those sleeping outside over the last decade. For the past year I’ve had the fortune to have been able to count myself among that army.

Some months back the non-profit I work for asked for my thoughts on a social media plan. One aspect I proposed was a very basic digital media training curriculum that could be taught on-site to social workers and case managers, and to the individuals struggling for a place to call home—to fellow soldiers in the army, as it were. The idea was that by giving voice to those actively engaged in the day-to-day business of ending homelessness, this often hidden or ignored world could be publicly documented for the wider community. Out of the chaos of so many individual advocates and homeless individuals blogging and tweeting and uploading, some organizing blog or website would curate and contextualize the new information—my non-profit’s blog.

The suggestion hung stagnant in the air until an opportunity to apply for a Knight grant was hinted at a month or two later. We had been conducting early-morning street outreach walks through encampments and along the banks of a creek nearby and a steadfast volunteer partner for the effort had been the student body at a local Jesuit university. I had been thinking about collaborative social media projects with local journalism schools, and it occurred to me that the community volunteer requirements Santa Clara University students had to meet might be leveraged to our advantage.

In broad outline, the idea was that teams of media and journalism students from Santa Clara University would—in fulfillment of volunteer hours—create and conduct digital media and literacy trainings among the homeless and the staff of service agencies, and through a class project curate the content being produced in the wider context of homelessness in Silicon Valley (that context: drastic changes in social policy over the last three decades regarding homelessness; the ten-year plans instituted in the last decade across the country; the transition from continuum-of-care approaches to the housing first model—and how that is working in San Jose specifically; the public costs to hospitals and jails and all taxpayers of chronic homelessness versus the costs of different solutions; the very pertinent fact that San Jose and Santa Clara County specifically have been progressive about this, though that’s not widely understood).

As the San Jose Mercury seeks bankruptcy and slashes its newsroom staff (down 60 percent in the last decade), I also suggested that whatever class project came of this should partner with local media outlets in need of content and coverage. Not just the Merc, but the exciting new ventures in the area like the Bay Citizen and the SF Public Press, among so many others. It’s no coincidence that so many of the emails of new carnival entries flooding my inbox this morning are looking specifically at j-schools. Vadim Lavrusik was inestimably correct in the last carnival. “The days of journalism school content living on islands that are not a part of their community should come to end,” he said.

This was not at all what my boss was looking for, and the proposal I set forward was blended with the more managed message of our organization. I’m not optimistic about our receiving any funding, but I still think there is something to this idea.


Much has been written about the ideal of objectivity and the “View from Nowhere.” As Jay Rosen put it:

What authority there is in the position of viewlessness is unearned– like the snooty guy who, when challenged, says, “Madam, I have a PhD.” In journalism, real authority starts with reporting. Knowing your stuff, mastering your beat, being right on the facts, digging under the surface of things, calling around to find out what happened, verifying what you heard. “I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it.” Illuminating a murky situation because you understand it better than almost anyone…

In the old way, one says: “I don’t have a horse in this race. I don’t have a view of the world that I’m defending. I’m just telling you the way it is, and you should accept it because I’ve done the work and I don’t have a stake in the outcome…”

In the newer way, the logic is different. “Look, I’m not going to pretend that I have no view. Instead, I am going to level with you about where I’m coming from on this. So factor that in when you evaluate my report. Because I’ve done the work and this is what I’ve concluded…”

If the View from Nowhere continues on, unchallenged, trust in the news media will probably continue to decline.

The obvious logic that the best people in a given community to report on the issues their community is facing are those facing the issues head on has been ignored. That community groups have an agenda—to build the community, to make it safer and more livable—is a a benefit, not as a bias. They are there—let them tell us about it. We know where they’re coming from.

The role and definition of the ‘professional journalist’ is anybody’s for the remaking right now. One potential role is perhaps simply to bring communities together online and let them tell their own stories—to broaden the discussion by moderating the conversation with as many interested parties contributing as possible.

Here in the Bay, Oakland Local knows this. From their website:

The mission of Oakland Local is to democratize access to new media and web social media skills by partnering with community organizations to provide them with the skills, resources, and awareness to tell stories and make their voices heard through publishing on Oakland Local and on the web. We believe there is a digital divide based not on access, but on knowledge, so we teach news writing, multimedia and social media skills to bridge that gap.

Journalists as teachers and tutors of digital media literacy may seem a far wandering from the job we thought we signed up for. But in other ways it’s very much the same. Where journalists once offered the unheard access to the press, they now have the power to hand the entire press over to them. This will not make us obsolete. Indeed, with more information available, context and filtration become even more demanded. Jason Barnett wrote in the last carnival that “the most overlooked and generally dismissed skill (of journalists) is that of community organizer.” I would suggest that journalism—journalism schools in particular—learn to become community information organizers. Students should serve as the catalyst and curator of this new world of content. As we get our sources online, we can not only curate their content but plumb it for story ideas.


Last November the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art held a panel discussion on the future of investigative journalism. The panel included A.C. Thomas, investigative reporter for ProPublica; David Cohn of and this-very-carnival fame; a photojournalist; a newspaper editor and a publisher. The discussion was tied, tangentially, to an ongoing photography exhibit. It wasn’t long before someone asked what a panel of journalists were doing debating the future of news at a museum of modern art. After struggling with the question for a moment, Thomas concluded that investigative journalism was his art—a calling, he said, he felt a need to do. “This process of following up on tips, of investigating claims of wrongdoing and turning that into a story that people engage with,” he said, “is my art.” The panel nodded in agreement.

People don’t like being lied to. Whether is stems from self-interest or from some humanitarian impulse to expose and right wrongs, investigating corruption is something civilizations will always yearn to do. We create anonymous wikis so people feel comfortable leaking information. It became apparent to me at the museum that it wasn’t the future existence of investigative journalism we feared would fall with the newspaper industry, it was a steady paycheck (which is also very important, admittedly).

Homelessness amid affluence is no secret waiting to be exposed. Sandwiched between the stone halls of one of world’s most prestigious universities and the high-end retailers of a manicured downtown, the people sleeping at the Palo Alto Transit Center with backpacks and shopping carts every night are not hidden. What is less visible are the innovations in social policy that are changing the way cities deal with homelessness; the outreach workers and case managers and doctors and nurses working every day to bring people inside; the process of returning from war or foreclosing a house and a dream, or of losing an entire family in an instance and coping with the ensuing depression.

It is not investigative journalism that we risk losing. It is the sustained, day-to-day work of covering a particular beat, the unfolding stories of our society that point at truths so present and obvious we stop seeing them, that we risk losing. There are dedicated people in just about every community deeply involved in these stories, at churches and non-profits and out in the trenches; let’s help them to share, like we’ve always done.

See more ideas on Twitter via #jcarn.

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4 Responses to Some Thoughts on Possible Roles for Non-Profits (and other community actors) in Journalism

  1. Pingback: Carnival Roundup No. 2: Increasing news sources #JCarn « RJI

  2. Pingback: Carnival Roundup No. 2: Increasing news sources #JCarn « Carnival of Journalism

  3. Zak says:

    this is great danneo. thanks.

    have you seen what the detroit digital justice coalition is up to?

    inspired practices are emerging…

  4. Pingback: This Week in Review: TBD gets the axe, deciphering Apple’s new rules, and empowering more news sources » Nieman Journalism Lab » Pushing to the Future of Journalism

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