Four young women and a young man, all people of color, sit in a room around a table; a white man stands in the back

Q&A: Jesse Hardman on why collaborating with community members is the future of local news

March 11, 2021

By Will Fischer

Jesse Hardman is a community media developer at Internews, a nonprofit that promotes quality journalism around the world. His work has taken him to places like Chile, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka for information ecosystem assessments and humanitarian news radio programs.

Around 2013, Hardman moved to New Orleans and started a project called the Listening Post. It has since developed into the Listening Post Collective, and today, it supports meaningful conversations between journalists and communities across the US.

>We caught up with Hardman to hear how he’s collaborating with journalists, community organizations, and community members to better meet information needs in underserved areas — and helping to reinvent local journalism along the way.

This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

WF: How did you get started with the Listening Post in New Orleans?

JH: You always start with an information needs assessment. I spent a summer going to community events, neighborhood meetings, barbecues — anything I could get invited to deep in neighborhoods. I would do a paper survey: How do you get information that matters to you in your community? How do you share that information? What sources of information do you trust? What kinds of issues do you wish were covered better?

From that, I learned that not everyone was going home to a computer, but people increasingly had internet access on their phones. This word-of-mouth system was also still very prevalent, so I knew meeting people in the neighborhood in their spaces would be important.

The project started as a partnership with the public radio station in New Orleans. The idea was to connect these strategies with an actual outlet so you could share back what the community was saying. I think audio is a great way to do that — it’s always nice to hear from the community.

So we used these self-recording devices that we put at libraries, grocery stores, or would even pop up on people’s porches. We would cover a range of topics that people shared with us that they wanted to understand better. We combined those two elements to create a podcast and would share what we learned back through a text messaging system.

The Listening Post Collective then grew out of people across the US asking us about what we were doing and why. We built this playbook that’s the core of our website and explains how you would go about doing this. Putting these strategies online gives people the opportunity to fashion something that might work in their own community.

WF: Is it important to collaborate with community organizations? Do you think more journalism organizations should be doing that?

JH: Community organizations often understand their communities well and partnering with them, or at least listening to them, is usually a good way to start. I think the fear from journalism outlets is that you’ll be doing advocacy journalism. I think the reason to do it is that’s where the trust is.

A lot of community organizations come with an approach of listening first and understanding what a community needs before you’re prescribing solutions. I spent two months sitting in the back of churches and neighborhood meetings, taking notes, before I asked questions. Each community is different and you want to reflect something back to them that feels familiar. That’s how you get buy-in.

WF: Has the COVID-19 pandemic changed what you’re able to do?

JH: The most successful thing I did in New Orleans were these really interesting signs that I created with a local artist. We silk-screened them ourselves and put them up on signposts all over the city. It grew participation and had this life of its own. That was not an online presence at all.

That’s why you establish an offline presence, when you can, which is what’s been so frustrating about COVID. Having that dual presence — being a person in a community and showing up and listening physically — and then trying to keep that conversation anyway you can, whether that’s text messages or Facebook. It’s important to make sure you invest in both of those strategies.

WF: Community members also play an active role in your journalism — you collaborate directly with them. How does that work?

JH: Now, we do an information ecosystem assessment and we share it with the community. We’ve also added a ‘request for proposal’ so community members can pitch ideas on how to solve some of the problems that we learn about through the assessment. That’s exciting because we’re investing in the communities and giving them the opportunity to respond to many of the things that they’re already aware of.

The best example is from 2019 when we surveyed Fresno. Now, there are two news startups and two other grantees. We’ve supported the two startups in Fresno with funding and guidance on how to become sustainable. One of them has gotten a grant and the other has grown subscriptions through Patreon. They’ve both been real hits in the community. Ivanhoe Sol is a bilingual print paper that gets delivered in the Central Valley. USpark Valley is focused on Gen Z and Millennial community members in Fresno.

In addition, one of the grantees is Jamila Harris, who covers the African-American community in Fresno and is actually collaborating with USpark Valley. The other is Lilia Becerril, who runs a Spanish language Facebook page, Unidos Por Un Fresno Mejor, that aggregates news and community information. I don’t feel like we need to professionalize what she’s doing. We give her pointers here and there, but it’s more about identifying homegrown projects that people are doing out of necessity for their communities. They deserve funding, too.

WF: Overall, what has been your biggest lesson or learning this past year?

JH: There’s this whole conversation around news deserts. When you do an exhaustive assessment as we do, you realize that nowhere is a complete news desert. There is tons of news and information getting shared, but not all of it is good, maybe some of it is misinformation.

But even in the absence of a legacy media outlet, it’s not like the lights are out and people don’t have any news. What’s interesting, and what we care about, is where is that job being picked up? I feel like we can’t ignore all of the community-led efforts that fill this space.

Yes, I am also sad that newspapers are going away. But a lot of those newspapers weren’t doing a great job of covering communities in a holistic manner — communities of color, in particular. The exciting thing is that there’s opportunity and space that’s ripe for investment. People are starting things and trying to fill information voids in their communities. So, what would be helpful to them?

Everyone is talking about the end of local news. But I think there is a real opportunity by partnering with communities and community members to raise the level of channels that people have grown themselves.

Will Fischer is a journalist covering the intersection of technology and media. He’s worked for Business Insider and New York magazine, and conducted local news research for City Bureau. Follow Will on Twitter @willfisch15 or email him at willfisch15@gmail.com.

About the Center for Cooperative Media: The Center is a grant-funded program of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. Its mission is to grow and strengthen local journalism, and in doing so serve New Jersey residents.

(Banner photo: Hardman also works with the youth-produced Boyle Heights Beat in Los Angeles, where he lives. Credit Jesse Hardman)