The days of journalists swooping into a local community or neighborhood to gather the news and then returning to work in isolation in a downtown newsroom have ended for many newspapers. The Charlotte (North Carolina) Observer is the latest to follow that trend with its mobile newsroom.
As executive editor of The Observer, Rana Cash realized some local communities weren’t receiving sufficient coverage about issues crucial to them. This is a particular challenge in communities of color, which traditionally have seen news reporting primarily focused on crime and other topics those communities view as being negative.
“To make the mobile-newsroom concept work and to begin to build trust with the people and leaders in all communities of color, we not only engaged in self-examination but also talked to people in those communities about what kind of coverage and topics they want to see and how we could do a better job sharing their positive, inspiring stories,” said Cash.
Although its mobile newsroom isn’t on wheels, it is mobile in the sense of establishing a remote newsroom temporarily in a local branch of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Public Library. Library branches tend to be a central resource in most communities. The first mobile newsroom was launched in the Sugar Creek Library branch near the Hidden Valley subdivision in January 2023. Surprisingly, desks and computers were moved into the Library’s main room. Cash wanted the reporting and publishing process to be more visible and allow the staff to interact with the local population.
“We are planning several events for the community during our mobile newsroom partnership with the libraries, including a presentation about the news-gathering process. We’re also working with the library’s workforce development staff member to create a presentation for job seekers,” Cash said.
The Observer, in conjunction with the Library, is making plans to host a photography exhibit and is organizing a student journalism workshop.
Cash assigned an Observer editor and journalist to work from the first mobile newsroom. Lisa Vernon-Sparks joined the paper in July 2022 as the race, culture and community engagement editor. She is a team editor for those stories in the newspaper and now manages the mobile newsroom. Previously, she had been a co-opinion editor with the Richmond (Virginia) Times-Dispatch, spent many years with other newspapers and worked in television production in New Jersey and New York.
“The third part of my job is community engagement. I facilitate opportunities for the newsroom staff to engage publicly with community members. We may host a panel discussion event focused on a particular topic of interest in the neighborhood. We invite experts to lend their perspective on the topic and people in the community to share their first-hand experiences and suggest solutions,” Vernon-Sparks said.
DJ Simmons, a former Report for America Corps member, is the race equity reporter for the Observer. He covered a similar beat — marginalized communities — at The Athens (Georgia) Banner.
“I had lunch recently with a gentleman from Hidden Valley and explained I was trying to learn more about the community. He laughed and said this was the first time he had ever actually sat and talked with a reporter. I think the Observer’s mobile newsroom has helped to overcome that disconnection,” Simmons said.
According to Cash, the response from the Hidden Valley community and its leaders has been positive, with many asking excellent questions about the mobile newsroom and how the Observer will sustain its presence there when it moves to another neighborhood.
Bob Sillick has held many senior positions and served a myriad of clients during his 47 years in marketing and advertising. He has been a freelance/contract content researcher, writer, editor and manager since 2010. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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