Off of the internet and into the streets

By Patsy Newitt

Social media and the internet have, of course, altered the course of journalism. News cycles are shorter, Twitter is king and budding journalists are required to know how to do it all: audio, video, photos, live-tweeting and engagement.

But what’s forgotten throughout this narrative is the multitude of citizens who aren’t online.

The internet reaches a pretty homogenous group. Twitter users, for example, are typically younger, wealthier and of the political left, according to a 2019 Pew Research Study. 42 percent of Twitter users have a bachelor’s degree, compared to 31 percent of the general public, and they are three times as likely to be younger than 50.

In Chicago, there is a distinct digital divide, which falls, as many things do in this city, between the North and South and West sides. More than half of the households in Englewood don’t have internet access in their homes and in the South Shore, 46 percent.

Lack of internet access is a barrier — it’s nearly impossible to fill out a job application or learn remotely, let alone stay informed. And while journalists can’t singlehandedly fix access inequity and injustice, they can work to meet people where they are and provide crucial information and resources to those who need it.

But yet, there seems to be little to no effort by news organizations to reach community members offline, or at the very least being in tune with online communities.

This is the essence of community engagement. Newsrooms need to be looking for ways to reach groups that aren’t the Twitter demographics — white, upper-middle class and politically savvy.

Journalists need to leave the newsroom. Journalists need to reach people offline to figure out what they need covered, what information they’re missing and most importantly, how they want to receive it.

And while the COVID-19 pandemic has stunted the ability to meet in person, there are newsrooms that are putting in the work, finding innovative ways to engage with groups who are historically disenfranchised and under covered.

Injustice Watch, a non-partisan news publication for example, is sending copies of their ballot guides into Cook County Jail. Nonprofit journalism lab City Bureau hosts free workshops called Public Newsrooms to be more responsive to community needs.

If journalists and publications are going to paint themselves as those who speak truth to power and give a voice to the voiceless, then they need to be putting in the effort to reach past the digital divide.

You can’t expect readers to adapt to your standards and practices, particularly if those standards and practices are inaccessible in the first place. If you want to be making a difference, if you want to be addressing injustice, journalists need to be finding new ways to reach people.

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