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Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service marks five years of reaching the city's urban neighborhoods.

In 2011, a grant from the Zilber Family Foundation launched a social and journalistic project that was also a grand experiment: Could a new media outlet tell stories about Milwaukee’s marginalized central city communities that the mainstream media were missing?

The Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service marked its fifth anniversary last month, and by many measures it’s a remarkable success. It’s building an audience; it has won meaningful journalism awards; it’s provided training in community journalism for scores of students; and most important, it’s told countless stories that might well have gone unnoticed. It has also forged relationships with some of those mainstream media outlets, garnering increased exposure for the undercovered stories it brings to light.

“Many people see us as telling the positive stories, and I love that, because we do tell the positive stories,” says Sharon McGowan, editor-in-chief for the NNS. “But we also tell the more difficult stories – the stories challenging our city.”

Those have included coverage of municipal courts and the way poor residents are penalized more harshly than those who can afford to hire their own lawyers; stories about mass incarceration and its disproportionate impact on the poor and people of color; and coverage of human trafficking that got attention well beyond Milwaukee on National Public Radio. “That story uncovers a really dark and hidden side of the city,” McGowan says.

The operation has come a long way from its founding, when “no one had heard of us,” she notes. “Now, five years later, people come to us as the source for news about Milwaukee’s central city.”

As of earlier this week, the NNS had garnered some 1,039,515 page views since its launch. It employs four professional reporters and two additional staffers to handle web and social media production – all of them part time. That staff is augmented by two graduate students under fellowships provided by the Public Policy Forum and a handful of interns each semester, mostly from Marquette University but some from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

The service is a collaboration among several institutions. It’s a project of the United Neighborhood Centers of Milwaukee, but it also gets substantial in-kind support – primarily newsroom facilities and equipment – from Marquette’s Diederich College of Communication, where McGowan has a faculty appointment.

With a budget of less than $300,000 a year, the service has been working to expand its sources of funding beyond the original Zilber Foundation money; the Greater Milwaukee Foundation and the Northwestern Mutual Foundation have contributed support as well.

The media that the NNS was launched to supplement have helped expand its reach. “This has been critical in letting people know who we are,” McGowan says. “We do not have a marketing budget.”

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From the start, the NNS’s model included providing its stories free of charge – with due credit – to any news organizations wishing to use them. That’s been happening. The websites Urban Milwaukee and OnMilwaukee.com both run NNS stories. WUWM’s Lake Effect program regularly spotlights its work, and since November of 2015 the Journal Sentinel has been posting links to NNS stories on its main news page. More recently, WDJT-TV, Channel 58 has added NNS stories to its news programs, using the work of students in a digital media and journalism class that McGowan co-taught.

“Our initial goal was to reach three different audiences,” McGowan says. The media was one; another audience consists of “the people who work and serve in low-income and minority neighborhoods we cover – people who were already invested in making the city a better place for everybody.”

The third segment is made up of the people who actually live in those neighborhoods. “By definition the people who live in the neighborhoods we cover are often struggling,” she notes – making the time and the means to access media all the more difficult.

NNS has adjusted to try to meet those challenges. Launched and still primarily based on the web, the service has expanded its presence on social media. “We have a very robust Facebook presence – we get 50 to 100 likes every week,” she says – and she credits that presence to helping connect the service with more people in the community.

So has keeping an eye on the future – and the reality that especially in the central city, mobile phones have become the key lifeline to the internet.  “The way we’re reaching them and continuing to reach them is through their smartphones,” McGowan says – and NNS has optimized its content for access that way.

Content, not just technology, also has helped build that audience. Job listings, community activity posts, employment training and job fair events are all big draws, and the NNS is making itself a central repository for those listings. So do news stories speaking to the needs of residents. “Anytime we publish a story about expunging one’s criminal records, we get an extraordinary response,” McGowan notes.

Even more important, though, are stories simply raising the visibility of communities and their residents. “There’s such good work going on in the neighborhoods through all kinds of nonprofits,” she says. “Residents read about themselves in those stories; those voices are rarely found anywhere else.”

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Crowd-sourcing and audience-produced news have been yet another element, with the “Neighborhood Lens” project that lends cameras to community residents who document their lives and their neighborhoods and another project that encourages people to submit op-ed style articles about the issues that concern them.

And it’s venturing into database journalism with the planned launch sometime before June of a Milwaukee Poverty Database “to make searchable and sortable data bout urban issues in the broadest sense that is easily accessible for reporters and nonprofits.” That project is being made possible by a grant from the Online News Association and the Marquette Strategic Innovation Fund.

“We need data as reporters and the community needs data,” McGowan says. After a similar project by another organization was discontinued, “we stepped up and tried to fill that gap.”

The Neighborhood News Service would be noteworthy in any era. Even in the staid old world of traditional newspaper and broadcast journalism, critics bemoaned what they saw as one-sided and simplistic coverage of minority and urban communities, emphasizing crime, mayhem and dysfunction at the expense of other subjects.

But the NNS has arisen at a time when journalism is struggling to reinvent itself amid a storm of challenges: splintering audiences; technological shapeshifting that renders yesterday’s revolutionary new media channels obsolete tomorrow; and a collapse in the sources of revenue that could once support robust, penetrating newsgathering.

The NNS isn’t immune to those challenges, either. While pursuing a nonprofit model, the service also has explored opportunities to sell ads, although “we don’t have a natural audience for advertising,” McGowan acknowledges. It continues to seek additional foundation funds and has been soliciting reader donations.  Yet like many far more established journalism organizations, it continues to seek that holy grail of how to survive.

So is the Neighborhood News Service here to stay? McGowan would like to say it is – but she’s candid enough to know that it’s too soon to make that promise. “We’re working very hard to improve our sustainability chances,” is the most she can say.

People who care about the future of not just all of Milwaukee, but of journalism in this city, should hope that that hard work pays off – and that someday, the answer to that question is an unequivocal yes.

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