I hope to see more community engagement projects like Oakland Voices.
At many of our Digital First Media newsrooms, we organize networks of people already blogging in the community and offer to help people launch blogs. Oakland Voices, a project of the Oakland Tribune, trains and pays people to tell the stories of communities in the East Bay area.
I led a writing workshop Wednesday for seven community correspondent/bloggers from Oakland Voices Wednesday at the Tribune’s new community newsroom in downtown Oakland. I’ll be speaking briefly this evening at a reception to celebrate the opening of the downtown newsroom.
Christopher Johnson, a former NPR reporter and producer, directs the project, funded by a grant from the California Endowment. Martin Reynolds, Digital First regional engagement editor, is executive director of the project, a partnership with the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. This is the second group to go through the nine-month project, which started in 2010.
The correspondents are highly motivated to tell the stories of their communities, neighborhoods in East Oakland, Christopher said.
“They feel almost to a person that Oakland is getting a bad rap,” he said. “They know a different city than they are reading about, seeing on TV.”
Christopher teaches them some journalism skills with no pretense of trying to turn them into detached journalists. The point of the project is to give voice to the neighborhoods from which these people come. “We don’t want them to be hard-core journalists,” he said. They write unabashedly as members of the community with “freedom to express themselves in their own voices and their own languages.”
Christopher provides and arranges training for the correspondent in the skills of writing, photography, fact-checking and how to conceive and execute stories. “I help them develop their story imaginations.”
I was pleased to learn that the Voices team has received training from some of the best newsroom trainers I’ve worked with: Aly Colón, formerly of Poynter, and Evelyn Hsu and Dori Maynard of the Maynard Institute.
Though Voices correspondents want to show a different picture of Oakland than they see in the traditional media, they aren’t interested in producing puff pieces. Michael Holland asked young people, “Do you know anyone personally that has been shot?” Ronald Owens produced a video (embedded below) of the names and faces of Oakland homicide victims last year. As I asked about the stories bloggers were working on, they mentioned stories about shame, obesity and single mothers.
Other stories are lighter features about community life: Katherine Brown‘s story of the Farmer’s Market in Fruitvale Village and Debora Gordon‘s profile of a teacher. Sometimes the bloggers cover community events: Katrina Davis‘ story about the last day of classes at Lakeview School, which is closing, and Howard Dyckoff‘s coverage of Code for Oakland.
The bloggers meet twice a week at the Tribune newsroom, discussing the challenges they face in working on stories and addressing journalism issues such as whether to identify people in their stories.
“It’s interesting to have people who are not journalists dealing with some of these issues,” Christopher said.
Where many journalists shy away from using first person, the Voices correspondents are “comfortable putting themselves in the piece,” Christopher said.
For instance, in the first assignment, each blogger walked a three-square-block area of his or her neighborhood, taking stock of their immediate community. Edward Cervantes‘ Health of the Hood post is clearly through his eyes and in his voice:
For those of us who live on Haddon Hill, it is important to remember that the calm and conveniences we enjoy are not necessarily standard throughout all of East Oakland. I may describe the elegance on our hill as fading, but it is elegant nonetheless.
The project bought five cameras for the correspondents and provides some photography training. “This is really about documenting what’s happening around you,” Christopher said.
All the correspondents’ stories post to their blogs on the Oakland Voices site and some are published in the newspaper twice a month. The first Oakland Voices package for this group of correspondents runs this weekend. “It matters tremendously to have their stories in the paper,” Christopher said.
I’d love to launch similar Voices programs in other communities Digital First serves.
Here are the slides for the writing workshop I led Wednesday for Oakland Voices: