The Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service aims to break through the ‘disaster and gloom’ – and be actually helpful

Ron Smith is editor and project director of Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, which launched in 2010. The interview was conducted by Sara Shahriari, director of leadership and talent development for INN, and Emily Rosemanresearch director and editor of INN.

Sara Shahriari and Emily Roseman: Tell us a bit about your news release. What kind of services does Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service (NNS) provide? What is the main purpose of the wall socket?

Ron Smith: The Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service provides professional reporting to Milwaukee’s communities of color that are primarily black and Latino. Our mission is to intentionally shine a light on ordinary people doing extraordinary things in our neighborhoods but whose accomplishments are rarely picked up by other media, which tends to focus on unhappiness and sadness as well as drama and the traumas.

However, we are not a “good news” site. Our goal is to paint a complete picture of the lives of downtown residents.

Shahriari and Roseman: Tell us about you. When did you start working at NNS? What does your role look like?

Black-smith: I’m a lifelong journalist who started working in high school for a nonprofit media outlet that produced a monthly newspaper written by and for Chicago teens. Since then, I’ve worked at places big and small, including Newsday, The Oregonian, the Los Angeles Times, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. I left my position as news editor at USA Today to come to the NNS in 2019. My job involves much more than I anticipated, including training students, working with our paid team of six part-time reporters and editors; and two reporting support for US Corps members.

Shahriari and Roseman: The NNS website includes a list of 18 neighborhoods you cover. Who does your outlet primarily serve and how do you know? Is your current audience different from the one your outlet intends to serve?

Black-smith: While we specifically tailor our coverage to Milwaukee’s black and brown communities, we’ve also attracted readers who live outside of these neighborhoods and want to learn more about downtown life. We can see this by looking at our daily newsletter mailing list. At the start of the pandemic, we had 3,000 subscribers. Now that list is 7,425. On Facebook, we have 17,937 followers. We can tell through our interactions that our audience is more diverse than expected, but further analysis is needed.

Shahriari and Roseman: In a previous conversation, you mentioned that a central part of NNS’ work serving communities of color is meeting your audience where they are. Could you tell me more about what you mean by that, and give an example of how it works in practice?

Black-smith: At NNS, we’ve put a lot of thought into our newsgathering menu. It makes no sense to do all this work if our audience is not being served. Milwaukee is one of many cities in the midst of an eviction crisis. As we continue to spin stories that hold our elected officials and community leaders accountable, we know that’s not the most pressing concern for someone going through the eviction process. They are afraid to stay at home. We intentionally include resources where readers can get help filling information gaps.

Shahriari and Roseman: What challenges do you face when trying to measure the impact and reach of this work?

Black-smith: The biggest challenge we face is the lack of time and expertise to do thoughtful analysis. We know this needs to become a priority, and we’ll work to get an audience growth strategist to help us turn what we know anecdotally (or think we know) into something more quantitative. In many ways, we are still guessing about our readership, and we actually need to conduct a readership survey to help us gauge who they are and also to help us gauge how to grow viewership.

Shahriari and Roseman: What mistake did you or the team make while working to serve black and brown residents of Milwaukee? How has this mistake changed the way you serve your audience now?

Black-smith: I think we always make mistakes, but a lot has to do with our ability. Until this year, we hadn’t been able to reach our Spanish-speaking audience, but through our partnership with the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, we were able to hire someone to translate some of our stories.

I always say we’re a “community-powered” newsroom, but I don’t think our newsroom as a whole spends enough time in communities and we need to be more intentional about that. In 2022, for example, we dedicate the fourth Thursday of the month to getting out into the community and talking to neighborhood groups and agencies about what they do and what stories they think we should cover. I think this will help our efforts to cover the community and show residents that we don’t want to be transactional. On the contrary, we hope to be transformational. You can’t listen to the community if you’re not in the community or provide a safe place for leaders to interact with your newsroom.

Shahriari and Roseman: What advice do you have for other news outlets hoping to adopt a mindset of meeting audiences where they are?

Black-smith: Cross. And be prepared to make mistakes, own up to your mistakes and share them with the community. Ultimately, the news industry is about relationships. You can’t meet anyone where they are if they don’t trust you. And trust takes time to build. Don’t expect miracles overnight. Crawl. Then walk. And then run. Nobody has all the answers. But I’m willing to bet our readers are a lot smarter than we think. Be prepared to let them in and explain your process. Create a culture where you seek feedback – and a culture where you do more than listen. Create a culture in which you act.

Shahriari and Roseman: And after? Is there a story you’re looking forward to in 2022?

Black-smith: With the addition of the first editor in our history, I am thrilled to elevate our coverage while helping our reporters continue to grow and soar in their storytelling. I want us to really focus on our surveillance efforts, with solution-oriented stories that examine the city’s lead poisoning crisis; our eviction crisis; and violence, incarceration and Covid-19 in our communities. At the same time, we will continue to be intentional in reporting on ordinary people doing extraordinary things. People need more than unhappiness and sadness. They need to see the humanity that exists in our world and especially in their neighborhoods.

Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service editor Ron Smith, top left, pictured with other staff.

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