Trust, transparency and responsiveness: Indiegraf’s #ONA22 panel

Key takeaways about the independent news ecosystem.
Gabe Schneider, Ryan Sorrell, Erin Millar, Annelise Pierce and Duc Luu during a panel at ONA22.
Left to right: Gabe Schneider, Ryan Sorrell, Erin Millar, Annelise Pierce and Duc Luu.

The next generation of independent news publishers must be willing to challenge traditional journalistic practices in order to truly respond to community needs. That was the key takeaway from Indiegraf’s late September session at the Online News Association conference about “Building and Independent, Yet Interdependent, News Ecosystem.” 

For all of those who missed it, here are some takeaways from moderator Gabe Schneider (The Objective) and panelists Ryan Sorrell (The Kansas City Defender), Annelise Pierce (Shasta Scout), Duc Luu (Knight Foundation) and Erin Millar (Indiegraf):

Let’s start thinking about journalism as a service, not a product

Annelise Pierce, Shasta Scout: “I was really taken recently when I was sharing the platform with our legacy newspaper competitor at a local event and they talked a lot about which articles get the most clicks. Obviously we look at analytics at Shasta Scout, but analytics are never going to drive a change in how we look at native news, they’re never going to drive better reporting on the environment and climate change in the region. What’s going to do it is deeper audience engagement, more community connections, building trust with people who don’t normally believe the kind of stories that we’re telling. So we have to look at new models, new ways of doing things or we’re never going to create the change in culture that journalism is meant to inspire.”

There’s room for skepticism in truthful reporting

Ryan Sorrell, The Kansas City Defender: “One of the prime examples that we often give is an event that took place in Kansas City in March of last year. A man named Malcom Johnson was murdered outside of a gas station, and every single news outlet across the city published as fact that he was engaged in a shootout with the Kansas City Police Department. It wasn’t until two months later that gas station employees leaked surveillance footage which showed that Johnson was unarmed and murdered by a police officer. We would have never known that because it’s standard journalistic practice for news outlets to automatically report what the police say as facts. At the Kansas City Defender, we are pushing back at a lof of traditional journalistic practices. We are very much committed to accuracy, truthfulness and using multiple sources, all of that is very important to us. But we are very skeptical as well.”

Build a relationship and trust will follow

Annelise Pierce, Shasta Scout: “As far as building trust within the native community, I’m really lucky to be working with a freelance associate editor who has built very deep, reciprocal relationships with our local Indigenos community over the past 12 years. The work he has put into that is very intensive and time-consuming, but it’s tremendously important because with every single story we publish we’re coming up against more than a century of reporting that has excluded and demonized that community. Our ancestors cost us these connections by their bad choices, so we need a lot more relational work. There’s also some added complexity around how you avoid conflict of interests, because most times the reporting doesn’t end when the event ends, it means being part of the community. It also means creating special policies around fact-checking with our local native community, previewing quotes with sources, naming community members with their tribal names and using the appropriate titles and terminology. There’s a lot of different things, and it takes very deep relational work.”

Ryan Sorrell, The Kansas City Defender: “There are a lot of reports that show that young people, Gen Z specifically, are experiencing news fatigue and may not be as interested in hard news topics. So for our audience we took what we call a “cultural route” in order to connect. When we first started, we went to the historically Black district in our city and did “street interviews,” which we posted on Instagram. And people really connected with that. We recently did street interviews on things like dating and the top rappers in Kansas City. A lot of people wouldn’t consider that to be important as it relates to journalism, but for they’re interesting to audiences who are not turning into traditional journalistic news outlets. And they’re good to build a relationship: once we had built relatability and trust with those audiences, we had better flexibility to be able to talk about things like legislation at the state level or the new police budget.”

Erin Millar speaking next to Annelise Pierce.
Erin Millar and Annelise Pierce.

Begin with the end in mind

Duc Luu, Knight Foundation: “One of the reasons why Shasta Scout and Kansas City Defender’s approaches are so interesting is that they’re really helping reimagine what the purpose of journalism is. We have to begin with the end in mind, and if your end is to rebuild models that are already in the system and compete with them, you’re going to fail. What these outlets have done is look for what they want to see in their communities and pursuing that through their journalism. They are not measuring their success in terms of how many people are reading it. Very often, the problem is that the short-term economic constrains have caused publishers to look at the models that are already out there and pursue them, even though they’re not working. It just requires a different way of thinking about what the purpose is and how to pursue that.”

Acknowledging bias is critical

Annelise Pierce, Shasta Scout: “We face a lot of questions from our conservative community about bias and how we’re reporting stories, to which we say: everyone has a bias, and so do we. We use our Instagram to be front-facing about our bias, explaining our bias when covering different stories. There was recently a cleanup of a local open space, and the media talked about it as restoring this place for nature and for the community, even though about a hundred and seventy people were displaced without any sheltering. So we said, here’s our bias: we think human suffering is the most important part of the story, and we think there’s a false binary here, it’s not between the environment and people. We can take care of both. But we had to keep saying that – not in our articles, those were reported factually. But we kept sharing what people should understand about the article via Instagram. I think one of the most insidious lies of traditional media is that it’s unbiased. And by stating our bias upfront, we disempower a lot of that. We’re so used to thinking were’re not supposed to have bias. But if we acknowledge everyone has one and it’s no big deal, suddenly it becomes something everyone talks about. And we stop treating it like a bad word, which I think is healthy.”

Gabe Schneider, The Objective: “I really love something that Wesley Lowery, former Washington Post reporter, talked about. He says that there is an objectivity of self and an objectivity of practice, and there’s no such thing as an objectivity of self. You personally cannot be objective or unbiased, but you can practice fairness, understanding and empathy in your reporting. It always astounds me when people say they don’t have bias because you’re always setting the frame for the story, right? You’re always choosing who you interview and what kind of experts you use. Those are all biased considerations.”

Finding value-aligned funders is key for independent outlets

Ryan Sorrell, The Kansas City Defender: “When we first started, being an unapologetically pro-Black news outlet, I talked to several legacy journalists who told me we had to do unbiased reporting, and I think a lot of people still think that way. So it was very validating to have Indiegraf as the first organization to provide funding for us. A lot of people are still not okay with news outlets that take a position and consider themselves an advocacy news outlet. But if you think of the history of journalism, Black people did not have any consideration or say in putting objectivity as a news value.”

Erin Millar, Indiegraf: “One of the things that we noticed when we looked at The Kansas City Defender’s application for Indie Capital last year was that they were challenging what journalistic practice is. And from a straight business perspective, we had seen through IndigiNews that rethinking and being critical about journalistic practice in service of a community isa really good business strategy. It’s a huge opportunity, because the reality is that audiences don’t buy into these ideas of objectivity. So challenging them is a great way to build loyalty and trust, and you can ultimately build sustainable businesses on that.”

These are only a couple of interesting thoughts that came up during the session, ignited by questions both from moderator Gabe Schneider and from the audience. It was a deeply enriching experience for us at Indiegraf, and we left feeling grateful about getting to work with the people who are redefining journalism.

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