Redwood trees in Humboldt County

Internews & Access Humboldt: A Collaborative Conversation

February 27, 2020

Myles Smith, Internews Director of Programs, and David Frank, journalist and Internews Human Resources and Facilities Coordinator, discuss the Listening Post Collective, Information Ecosystem Report and collaboration with Access Humboldt.

Written Transcript:

David Frank: Hello, my name is Dave Frank and we're here in the Access Humboldt studios in Eureka, California. I am an employee of Internews Network and also a journalist who works with local media here in California; and I'm joined in the studio by Myles Smith who is the Senior Director of Programs at Internews. Hey Myles.

Myles Smith: Good to see you again, David.

David Frank: Fantastic.

Myles Smith: Good to be back in Humboldt County again.

David Frank: Visiting from DC, Washington, DC.

Myles Smith: I'm based in DC, but I don't claim to be from there.

David Frank: So why don't you tell us...where are you from?

Myles Smith: I'm from Maine actually. Okay. Rural part of America not unlike this part of America.

David Frank: Right on, there's insights there. Well, so why don't you tell us a little bit about Internews and we'll segue into the collaboration that we've done: Internews with Access Humboldt here in Eureka and Humboldt County.

Myles Smith: Right. So, some of you folks may not have heard about Internews before. Internews is a nonprofit organization that works internationally to ensure that people are getting the information they need to make good decisions and live full and healthy lives.

We work in about 80 countries across the world. We have offices in over two dozen countries on every continent on earth. So we're a pretty, pretty widespread organization and, interestingly enough, our headquarters office is right here in Humboldt County in Arcata. We've been based in Arcata for around 30 years and so a lot of the folks who lead the organization started out working at Internews right in Arcata. We have some folks in Washington as well. It's where I'm based.

To tell you a little bit more about what we do though is what we try to do is find needs in the information ecosystem that aren't being met and that could mean anything from teaching journalists how to do their jobs a little bit better informing the public.

It could mean working with schools and with community-based organizations to improve media literacy so that people can understand the information that they're consuming. All these different activities that we do to try to make help people make sense of the world around them. And we've done a lot of that overseas for many years.

And a few years back, one of... a couple of our international staff who have worked with us thought it would be useful to bring a lot of that skill and those lessons learned back to the United States, because we actually know that we have a lot of challenges in our media and information environment here in the United States, and we have a lot of things that we could do better here too.

So, we are taking a lot of those skills and lessons and bringing them back here to the US and one place is we really want to do this was in our homeland of Humboldt County and in Eureka. So that's what led us to this partnership with Access Humboldt that we're talking about today.

And so last year, we worked on the information ecosystem assessment here where we  collaborated with a lot of volunteer help and we reached out to members of the community to find out about where they get their information and maybe places where local information might not be making it through to their sphere.

David Frank: Do you want to tell us a little bit about that project that we worked on together?

Myles Smith: Sure. So an information ecosystem assessment - it's this long technical jargony word, but basically what it means is listening to the community and to find out how people are receiving, transmitting, understanding, trusting the information that they have available to them and how that information is impacting their lives and how that information could be...what the gaps are that could be filled in with new ways of communicating with the public, new ways of getting good information in front of them so that they can make good decisions and live more fulfilling lives.

So, in Eureka what we did was we mobilized some volunteers from our office in in Arcata and combined them with some volunteers that access Humboldt was able to mobilize; and we went out in Eureka and we talked to people and listen to what their concerns were, what their issues are, what are the...what is their experience with the information they have available to them about local issues and is it the information they need to make sense of their world and make good decisions and advance their social goals and be a good participant in democracy and in society.

And what we found when we did that…we did dozens of interviews. We went to the the Sequoia Park Zoo. We went to the Eureka Mall. We walked the streets the of the city between the Jefferson Community Center all the way up here to Eureka High School talking to people on the street, talking to people who who were coming and going, asking them these sorts of questions and the answers that we got were pretty consistent and interesting in that it was very clear that there are some real gaps in the information that people get.

They're pretty happy with their local media outlets that people follow and listen to things like the Lost Coast Journal and North Coast journal that they... sorry. Lost Coast Outpost, North Coast journal. I'm showing my Maine roots there. And the Times Standard and Red Headed Black Belts and all of these sources of information. Everybody has something that they trust and they feel like they're doing a pretty good job in their own way. And we feel that too, having looked at what people are getting.

But one thing that people feel like is missing is that there are big social challenges out there related to homelessness, related to use of drugs, and people who are experiencing hard times on the streets of our cities of Eureka and Arcata. And that these big challenges are the number one thing that many people are concerned about, but they don't have great ideas about how to fix those things.

So when the news media is reporting on it, it's one incident after another and here's a tragedy that happened or here's an unfortunate situation that some of our our residents are in, but the information doesn't actually help them figure out what they can do to fix that problem or fix the root causes of it. There might be coverage of these incidents but it's coverage that is quoting people like the city agencies or the police department but not necessarily... there's not a feel for the people who are experiencing those hard times and what it is they need to get out of that situation and fix it.

So, one of the things that our study found was that we need solutions-based journalism to become part of the culture in in Humboldt County to help people understand how they could solve these big problems. And that's a hard thing to do. It's hard to get people to agree and collaborate on these big projects. You have media outlets that are constantly worried about where their next subscriber is gonna come from, if advertisers are gonna keep working with them to keep their news outlet going. And it's hard for them to work on long-term projects for a lot of reasons.

This situation is very similar in many other places in the United States and a big focus of Internews' work here in the US. So, a couple of other ideas that we came up with through the information ecosystem assessment here in Eureka were that there could be a lot more work on information and media literacy to reach more of the public. North Coast Journal did some excellent work on media literacy late last year after our assessment. I don't think there was any relationship between the two, but just phenomenal work. But it's only reaching their readers.

How do we get more people in in our communities to understand how journalism works, understand how the news media is funded, understand where their information is coming from, so that they can make choices that are going to lead them to facts, make choices that are going to lead them to information that's based on evidence that they can use that information to improve their own lives, hold government's accountable, and make their community stronger?

So, there's a lot of different partnerships that we're exploring with Access Humboldt about how to get that culture of information literacy into the schools; perhaps through the Public Library System and other institutions that are also looking for ways to inform the public. The public library system is a really good resource for exactly this type of project because it's also going through a time of transition.

So, as many people know, the news media is getting harder and harder to fund in the way that it used to be. It used to be that you could run a newspaper that would, through subscriptions and advertising and classified ads, have plenty of revenue to hire, in a town like this, a good number of reporters that could go around and cover issues all over the county and keep good watchful eye on the day-to-day happenings of this county. And then that information could feed into other sources like the North Coast journal that might do more investigative work or folks commenting and looking at the issue from different angles on things like Red Headed Black Belts or Lost Coast Outpost. But that system is quickly eroding now because it's really hard to fund news and information for a fairly small population using just advertising.

And in a similar way that the libraries are also changing... it used to be that people would go to libraries talk to a librarian about how to get access to materials like books and Internet... but now that stuff is so widely available on demand through your phone and on your own computer, that the library isn't seen as the same reference point that it used to be. But librarians do similar things to what journalists do in terms of helping people understand the world around them, helping people get answers to questions that they want to have answered.

So, one thing that we see as an opportunity here is to put together community organizations with public libraries with media institutions. Access Humboldt and Internews are looking into how we could bring these pieces together to inform...inform the public on issues that might not be profitable, might not be sustainable for a for-profit news company to provide to the public, but it's right in the wheelhouse of these institutions like Access Humboldt and the Library System.

David Frank: So, the ecosystem assessment had some results that we now have heard about; ways, possible future steps and actions that we can take. One of those things that we've talked about in our collaboration is the Listening Post Collective. Can you tell us a little bit about what that is and also who we would be hearing from when we roll that out?

Myles Smith: Right. So, the Listening Post Collective is Internews' project that is based in the United States. And we're working in a number of communities all across the country to hear from people that the sort of mainstream or traditional news media, the more formal news architecture is missing or that their stories aren't really able to be heard through these mainstream outlets. And a lot of the reason for that, frankly, is because these media companies are running short on funds. They don't have the money they need to hire reporters to cover all these different beats, to cover neighborhoods or communities or outlying rural areas of their districts. That, it's too expensive for them to do it.

So, the Listening Post is a way to try to bridge that gap and bring people into the information conversation of a place that maybe aren't being heard. One thing we were reflecting on with Access Humboldt when we did this research here in Eureka is that there are sizable communities Spanish speakers, Hmong speakers, who don't have any information media products specifically tailored to them; specifically tailored to them in this place. Certainly people who speak those languages may be able to find sources online but they're talking about California in general or maybe the United States and there's not really a resource for them to get local news and information that allows them to participate in local life.

I mean, you can see it too in our research, which you can find on Access Humboldt's website, that there are a lot of people that are just not part of the conversation. And if we could bring them into the conversation and do a better job of engaging them through information, we can do a better job of engaging them in democracy, in government, in other aspects of community life to make sure that they have the same great experience of being an informed engaged citizen as the people who have the advantage of getting English language news and information as a matter of course in their life.

David Frank: So, let me ask you this question actually about Listening Post just before we wrap that up. So for folks who don't really know like physically tangibly — how is the information received and what is done with the information?

Myles Smith: So, Listening Posts can be physical things or they could be a process by which people who are engaged in the community, who represent communities that are less likely to be heard can pull information and pull community concerns out of these underserved or under-attended to parts of the population and make sure that media outlets, local government, community institutions like libraries are tailoring their services, tailoring their stories, trying to incorporate those under heard folks into what they're doing.

That could be anything from creating a physical station where somebody could go to a community library in one of the rural parts of Humboldt County and submit comments through an interface on what's going on in that County; what are they concerned about in relation to the big issues of the day? What is it that they feel like their local government should be doing about the problems that they see there without having to go physically to the community meeting town-hall meeting or the Town Council meeting to give that feedback directly.

So, if we have other ways to get people's opinions and participation, government is going to be more likely to be responsive to a wider group of people. You know, there's an expression — the squeaky wheel gets the grease — and you're making a lot more squeaky wheels by having lots of other ways for people to engage with their government and engage with their media; lots of other ways to influence those institutions to be more representative and accountable to the community.

David Frank: Fantastic. So in addition to this type of outreach engagement that Listening Post would provide, we also talked about the potential for crisis communication as another way to sort of leverage the experience and skill set of Internews in our community. Can you tell us a little bit about that plan?

Myles Smith: So, after we did our research last year, we, in this county, experienced the blackouts and of course on the East Coast we were reading all about it. It was disruptive for everybody here and one of the things that was disrupted obviously was the information ecosystem and how people were getting information about what was going on. Who has ice? Where can you get groceries? Where can you charge your phone? Who has internet? How are you going to, how are you going to try to get through life and be resilient in this, in the wake of this challenge.

And, what Internews does a lot of internationally is find places where natural disasters, like earthquakes or hurricanes or even crisis situations that emerged longer-term which could be something like a refugee situation, we try to figure out how best to get information to people who need it and using the format's that they use. So if people are more likely to get information through a text message or video message or voice message that comes through their phone, maybe that's the way we should be communicating with them.

In the United States we've done a little bit of this work after learning how to do it overseas and, in response to wildfires that happened in California a couple years ago, we set up partnerships with Spanish-language community radio stations in Sonoma County and the one station there that we worked with was the trusted source of information for Spanish speakers who were affected by the wildfires. And, for a number of reasons that we can all imagine, those folks maybe didn't trust local government institutions or the police or didn't feel like those institutions were well-equipped to handle their needs, either due to language barriers or other institutional barriers. But they trusted the radio station and we were able to work with that radio station to help them figure out how to get this information out to Spanish-speaking folks in Sonoma County about how to be resilient, how to put their livelihoods back together in the wake of the wildfires.

And we could see similar partnerships with Access Humboldt, with the library system, with county and city governments within the county on how we could better prepare ourselves for the next blackout, or for the next fire, or other natural disaster that happens here. Because we know these are going to keep happening with climate change and if we get out ahead of them we can make it a little bit more livable for everybody, including the people who are most vulnerable and least likely to benefit from all that preparedness that public safety institutions do. We need to make sure that we prepare everybody to survive those.

David Frank: Fantastic. So we talked about the tools that Internews brings that we can share with this collaboration, like the information ecosystem assessment, the Listening Post Collective, the successful project that was done down in Sonoma County in response to the fires in a misrepresented or underserved community. What other opportunities are there here? Can you can you tell us a little bit about you know are the potential collaboration for the future that we can really engage in?

Myles Smith: Yeah. I think that Access Humboldt and Internews are really natural partners because Access Humboldt is a hyperlocal organization and Internews is all about hyperlocal information. And, because we both have a lot of staff here and we both have a lot invested in this place — this is where many of our staff live and work including you David. And we want to make sure that that we do what we can to improve everybody's information environment here.

So how could we do that in other ways with Access Humboldt? The sky's kind of the limit. I mean this is a really unique opportunity because we have an institution here in Access Humboldt that's already set up to help the community find its own voice. And Access Humboldt was designed to use the traditional television broadcast infrastructure to do that and we see how quickly Access Humboldt is learning to use radio distribution, online, and other formats to help the public inform itself and be participants in democracy and community life.

I think, together with Internews, we can even accelerate that transformation so that we find new ways to ensure that information benefits everybody and as a public good. I mean, one way we think about information at Internews is that it is like a master resource. It's like energy and, if you don't have energy, everything else becomes more difficult. Well, the same is true with information. We want to make people's lives richer and make people, make sure people have the tools to participate in public life. And the only ways to do that is with information.

And, as the media industry suffers through change in the structure and the revenue model and a lot of the money that news institutions used to have to inform our communities has left this place and gone to Silicon Valley to Google or Facebook or other big platform companies, we need to find ways to support information locally. And, if it's a public good then everybody has a right to information and that you need to be informed in order to participate and if people don't participate the system degrades.

Access Humboldt, Internews and these other local institutions are going to be the types of organizations that fill the gap to ensure that these counties, especially rural counties where there's not a lot of interest from for-profit media companies to work to help us, we are gonna have to help ourselves here and that's the opportunity I see.

David Frank: Fantastic! This was great, Myles. Thank you for joining us here today. I really appreciate your feedback on this collaboration.

Myles Smith: Thank you.

David Frank: Look forward to seeing you again next time you visit, Myles. Take it easy.