How organizations across New Jersey are training community members to meet local information needs

Perusing the first round of grantees from the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium (NJCIC), you’ll notice a trend: nearly half of the projects are rooted in equipping more people across New Jersey with journalism skills to support more informed communities.

From Bloomfield Info Project’s Community Reporter trainings, to Newark News + Story Collaborative’s community media incubator, to Stories of Atlantic City’s Community Reporter Fellowship, NJCIC grantees are forging efforts to collaborate with community members on meeting local information needs.

At Journalism + Design, we’ve been working on similar ways to strengthen local news networks, with a key focus on expanding access to the tools of journalism. We believe that getting more people involved in gathering and sharing critical stories and information — particularly communities that have historically been excluded and marginalized — will make our local news systems more resilient and equitable.

Over the past few years, we’ve created a suite of open educational resources from the foundational curricula in our undergraduate program, and have collaborated with community colleges to develop low-barrier certificate programs for people to learn and apply journalism skills.

As NJCIC grantees worked to design and launch their respective community training programs, J+D partnered with NJCIC to host a series of workshops starting in November 2021 to support their efforts. Our goal was to offer this inspiring group ideas and resources — from specific activities they could lead with community members to best practices for teaching the tenets of journalism — that they could practically apply with their own communities.

We drew from both J+D’s established curriculum and the expertise among the group, and rooted our process in practices that are at the heart of J+D’s approach: design and systems thinking. We offered the workshops to all grantees, and we had participants from at least ten different organizations attend them.

In our first conversation, NJCIC grantees told us about their goals for training community members in journalism, and the different needs they had for their curriculum. This session helped inform the focus of our subsequent workshops, which we tailored in response to different grantees’ needs. You can see our agenda and notes from the first workshop here.

Participants from Stories of Atlantic City, Newark News & Story Collaborative, Bloomfield Information Project, Ridge View Echo, Paterson Alliance and Rowan University shared a range of goals for their training programs, including specific outcomes like enabling community members to cover government meetings and create profiles highlighting local businesses and community activists. We also talked about the deeper, community-level impacts that can come from broadening access to journalism: fostering greater accountability among elected officials and community leaders, nurturing connections between groups of civically engaged people, and increasing basic understanding of how local governments work.

Drawing from these insights, J+D developed three separate workshops that focused on specific approaches and classroom exercises that grantees could adapt and use for their own programs. Here’s a rundown of our sessions and the slides that we used, which anyone is welcome to draw from:

  1. Strategies for teaching journalism skills. We discussed overall best practices, facilitation tools and exercises that J+D and other grantees have used in introductory journalism and media classes.
  2. Mapping tools for community journalism training. This session explored several different exercises for creating visualizations that can help inform reporting and engagement, from mapping the forces at play in a complex issue to identifying the different stakeholders and assets in your community.
  3. Using design thinking to meet information needs. This workshop introduced a tool called the “design sprint” as a hands-on way to learn the design thinking process, which participants can use to identify what people in their community need to know more about, and brainstorm creative ideas to address their needs.

NJCIC grantees used the resources from these workshops in a variety of ways. The team from Stories of Atlantic City incorporated two of J+D’s exercises, Finding Your North Star and Fairy Tale Ledes, into their Community Reporter Fellowship Trainings. You can see an overview of their program here. We even teamed up together at the Collaborative Journalism Summit last week in Chicago to host a workshop for anyone interested in launching their own training programs. Check out the notes and slides from our session.

Simon Galperin from the Bloomfield Info Project threaded several J+D assignments and lessons into the curriculum that the organization used for its Community Reporter trainings, which began in April 2022. Staff from the newly-launched Ridge View Echo will draw from the workshops to support a network of community contributors for the outlet.

In a separate initiative, Democracy and the Informed Citizen, J+D also recently teamed up with the New Jersey Council for the Humanities and the Community Foundation of South Jersey to train more than a dozen people from six South Jersey communities in journalism as a way to support grassroots storytelling projects.

We’re thrilled to see so many different organizations leading programs like these to democratize journalistic skills and fuel more inclusive, participatory ecosystems for local news and information. And the NJCIC recently announced its second cohort of grantees, with several familiar faces in the mix who will continue investing in this important, community-rooted work. You can follow NJCIC on Twitter to learn more.