Pillar of democracy California community journalism helps drive US media turnaround

Capital Public Radio in Sacramento, California has developed a "radio garden" where journalists and listeners come together to raise bees, grow vegetables and discuss issues

Capital Public Radio in Sacramento, California has developed a "radio garden" where journalists and listeners come together to raise bees, grow vegetables and discuss issues

(CapRadio via Flickr)

For years, American mainstream media has been experiencing a steady downward trend, with journalist layoffs and the disappearance of many newspapers. Democratic infrastructure has suffered as a result, but a turnaround is in the making through community-focused journalism.

At the confluence of the American and the Sacramento rivers, Swiss emigrants established the settlement of New Helvetia around 100 kilometres (62 miles) northeast of San Francisco. Now known as Sacramento, the former Swiss colony has become the capital of the most populated US state – and the world’s eighth largest economy – in the middle of one of the most important American agricultural regions.

The number of media organisations with a presence in town is a sign of Sacramento’s political influence. One of them, Capital Public Radio (CPR), is one of several radio stations covering Californian state politics. Begun as a student-operated broadcasting project back in 1970, CPR today employs more than 40 journalists and broadcasts around the clock.

“We have become somewhat of an institution in California,” says Joe Barr, CPR’s chief content officer. But the community radio channel continues to innovate, inviting roughly half a million daily listeners to actively participate in the making of its programmes.

Part of democratic infrastructure

“We see ourselves as an important feature of democratic infrastructure for both the capital and the state,” Barr says while introducing a very special part of his radio station: the gardenexternal link. Here, journalists and their listeners harvest vegetables and honey side-by-side. The space, which has a layout similar to the ancient Greek meeting space known as an Agora, is also a venue for broadcasted events, conversations and storytelling sessions. The radio station has created a new position tasked with planning and organising those interactions: the “Community Engagement Strategist”.

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In the coming months, the CPR studio and office building will also undergo a complete renovation designed to enable continuous interactions between journalists and citizens.

Barr explains that the process is about going beyond traditional radio journalism to have the community participate in story production from beginning to end.

Towards community-related journalism

The CPR garden initiative is just one many attempts to modernise media in California and other parts of the US and bring it closer to the audience it serves.

“The 2016 election was a wake-up call,” says Peggy Holman, executive director at the nonprofit organisation Journalism that Mattersexternal link. Last weekend, Holman hosted a conference on “citizens’ media” at the University of Oregon, located some 800 kilometres north of Sacramento. More than 130 journalists, civic educators and researchers met to develop new forms of community-based journalism. New technologies play into this, allowing traditional media “consumers” to become “co-producers”. But the conversations and presentations at the eventexternal link also made clear that the journalists themselves must bring “competence” and “attitude” to community-related journalism. 

Donations increase

Media in the US and many other countries have faced dramatic losses in traditional revenue streams with the movement to online publication. But since the November 2016 election of US President Donald Trump, many outlets – including CPR – have seen a surge in subscriptions and funding.

This article is part of #DearDemocracyexternal link, a platform on direct democracy issues from swissinfo.ch.

“We have seen a massive increase in donations from individuals and companies,” Barr says.   

Foundations and philanthropy have also contributed to the increased financial support for media. In California, the non-partisan, non-profit media venture CALmattersexternal link, which offers daily coverage of both local and statewide politics, has especially benefited. 

“Many of our online stories are also published by those local newspapers that still exist,” says CALmatters editor-in-chief David Lesher, a former traditional policy reporter who worked at the Los Angeles Times for many years. 

It’s another example of how American media organisations – and their funders – are now stepping up their efforts for the sake of modern democracy.