Google News Initiative teamed up with Local Media Association in 2022 to showcase North American Innovation Challenge projects from local news organizations that focused on diversity, equity and inclusion.

The Google News Initiative Innovation Challenge program empowers news organizations to demonstrate new thinking in online journalism, better understand their communities, and develop new publishing business models.

Over three webinars, leaders from local news organizations showed significant impact and highlighted replicable ideas and actionable takeaways for other newsrooms.

  • Shaw Media, Qnotes Carolinas and Winnipeg Free Press created programs and products that amplify the voices of traditionally underrepresented or misreported people in their communities. Honest feedback and input, via in-person and virtual meetings, surveys, and town hall forums, has been key to improving relationships and reporting.
  • Gannett Co. and Santa Clara University created dashboards that measure the diversity, equity and inclusion in both geographic coverage and sources for stories. The dashboards offer never-before-visualized insights of how newsrooms are covering topics and who they’re interviewing for stories, exposing actionable strategy opportunities for more inclusive reporting.
  • Gray Television and Word In Black launched products and programs with a focus on social impact and sustainability. Solutions journalism reporting helped both news organizations unpack and offer proven alternatives to the issues facing their communities, such as racial equity and access to quality healthcare.

Here are the highlights and fundamental lessons from the virtual showcases and links to view the presentations.

Community projects that amplify diverse and traditionally marginalized voices

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Shaw Media created the Joliet Focus app, a locally-driven platform to share content from the underserved Black community of Joliet.

While the aim was to foster user-generated discussion through easy uploading of photos, stories and videos, Chief Product Officer Tom Shaw said the app unexpectedly became more of a marketplace to share and support local small businesses. Existing social media platforms were more effective at driving audience; however, town hall forums — both virtual and in-person — became a wealth of engaging dialogue, feedback and impactful story ideas.

“We conducted a series of town halls where we’re able to meet the community directly with our executives and our newsroom and folks in the community that are interested in making the community a better place to live,” Shaw said, adding that she success of these events inspired the team to take the town hall format to other markets.

Shaw Local worked with the local museum, Black artists and the community to develop a pop-up art gallery in Joliet.

Some content from the Joliet Focus app gets onto the local news website next to core news content, and is incorporated into deeper reporting. Based on what the team saw in the app, Shaw Local also planned a pop-up art gallery, in collaboration with the local art museum and Black artists, that continues to run installations for events such as Black History Month, and later this year, Juneteenth.

Qnotes provides an online platform for LGBTQ Carolinians to amplify the struggles and needs that are often underrepresented in mainstream press. Piloted in the Charlotte and Central North Carolina regions, it is a hub of online engagement, with a goal to be community-sourced, community-involved and hyperlocal.

Qnotes has conducted and analyzed an initial survey of 500 individuals to launch its “online community center” and continues to involve the LGBTQ community as it develops its site features and products. It uses diversified funding streams including donations, monthly membership contributions, display advertising, events, and even tipping for individual journalists.

Qnotes uses diversified funding streams to create community-centered sustainability.

“As we move forward, we’ve established a combined approach that focuses on user experience and relationship building to create sustainable funding,” said Chris Rudisill, digital and audience engagement editor. “There’s a direct tie here between our audience development and revenue, especially for community media like LGBTQ or focused neighborhood news outlets, and we’ve engaged the community member in every aspect of this project — from initial town halls to user testing and focus groups, creation of community editorial committees, and reporting workshops.”

These four questions asked at the pre-launch town hall continue to be used to guide Qnotes content and product strategy.

The team asked four key questions at a community town hall ahead of launch, which team members continue to use when surveying readers. The ongoing community engagement mindset led to the adoption of an open-sourced discussion forum, with built-in ability to set up topics based on news content and other important subjects, and also connects to the site’s commenting system.

Winnipeg Free Press launched its Reader Bridge, a specific space for readers to voice their questions and connect with journalists and editors more personally. A pitch portal creates an avenue to share stories, make comments, and open space for freelancers of color to pitch and submit ideas and be paid for their work.

Feedback from in-person meetings with community leaders gave the Winnipeg Free Press team insights on how people feel the media represents them and ways to improve.

“One of the best pieces of advice that someone gave me was, if I want to be successful in a project, that I need to be in community with the people I am trying to reach,” said Manager Shelley Cook. “What I needed to do was build relationships and trust, and I needed to learn to practice reciprocity with the people and communities I was trying to reach. So many people have seen journalists swoop into their communities to report on their trauma, and then leave without ever building a rapport or relationship, and without ever checking in, and I didn’t want us to be doing that.”

The Free Press brought in a respected Indigenous leader to share with the newsroom ways to humanize coverage and fairly report on communities of color and traditionally underreported or misreported populations. The Free Press also hosted a series of hourlong “Feeding the Conversation” lunches, inviting leaders from the Indigenous, Muslim, Black and Filipino communities of Manitoba to converse, and for journalists and staff to listen.

“These have been so important and so instrumental, not only in building relationships with people, but also understanding the work we do from a lens we do not have,” Cook said. “We were given a lot of great insight, and people shared a lot of their opinions and thoughts on our coverage, and just media coverage in general, and how it pertained to them.”

As with other products supported by the GNI Innovation Challenge, the Reader Bridge extends far beyond the tool itself to practicing deeper and more meaningful connections with unexplored audiences, amplifying their voices and strengthening the sustainability of each news organization through diversity.

Newsroom dashboards and tools that advance diversity, equity and inclusion

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Gannett Co. built the Content Diversity Dashboard to help local newsrooms avoid gaps in coverage and build trust within diverse communities. The internal analytics tool uses geo-location tied to local content, and provides journalists with data displayed in a dashboard — which includes a map of content at the neighborhood, county and state level, as well as author and content analysis.

Rachel Kilroy, project manager on Gannett’s content innovation team, said journalists and editors needed data to make informed decisions about content strategy in order to bring more equity in coverage and community representation, and to increase trust in community-based reporting.

In the initial tests of Gannett’s Diversity Dashboard, it discovered sample findings across newsrooms.

“Through these insights, we were able to identify that [a particular] newsroom’s neighborhood coverage was focused on the same 10 percent of neighborhoods, indicating the need to diversify the content and cover more diverse communities,” she said. “… Only covering crime or breaking news misrepresents the community and the people who live there.”

The newsrooms use tagging within the CMS to refine the area in which a story is based. Kilroy said the most challenging aspect of the project was getting started, including identifying agreed-upon neighborhood names and their geographic boundaries.

“The hardest part is getting started and getting that buy-in from your newsroom,” she said. “When newsrooms are able to see leadership put an emphasis on [diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives] then that helps lead to success.”

Santa Clara University created a Source Diversity Dashboard WordPress plugin for newsrooms to view source-diversity proportions in real-time for both draft stories and published articles. The tools offer near on-demand feedback to ease barriers to assessing stories’ representativeness, and provide immediate opportunities to fix inequitable reporting.

Subbu Vincent, director, journalism and media ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, said the tool pulls out the names of sources, as well as their titles and organizations, gender, and a community representation category —which is race or ethnicity based — and visualizes source-diversity proportions.

The diagram depicts how the Source Diversity Dashboard produces DEI data from quoted sources.

“The actual accuracy with which a quoted speaker can be detected is approximately 80-85 percent,” he said. “For gender, given that you’ve detected a name, the detection accuracy is 87 to 92 percent on a binary scale.”

Once a user clicks the Get Source Diversity button from within the WordPress post, the response time to visualize source diversity is 5-10 seconds up to a few minutes for a long article, Vincent said.

The WordPress plugin can process the data in the background while a user still types or works in the CMS.

Yi Fang, associate professor in the department of computer science and engineering, outlined the task of predicting race and ethnicity based on the name of the quoted speaker. A brute force approach would be to create a database of existing names and corresponding ethnicities — which is not scalable, generalizable, or able to utilize contextual information. Therefore, the team used machine learning to understand name patterns and adopt sequence modeling.

“Using machine learning we can provide a lot of so-called training data, a lot of pairs of input and output, and the model can automatically learn the parameters in the model,” he said, adding that the training data came from various sources including the U.S. Census, voter registrations, and Wikipedia.

As part of human review of machine annotations, users can manually override the system’s suggestions for quoted speakers (names), gender, and ethnicity. This makes the system more accurate. Vincent said newsrooms will be able to adopt the WordPress plugin after meeting with the team at Santa Clara University for onboarding.

Societal impacts and sustainability in local media

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Gray Television launched an app to help people in the demographically diverse Appalachia and Mississippi Delta regions to access health information and resources to improve quality of life.

Gray pooled resources from across the company, including its national investigative team of journalists, 32 local TV stations, a health vertical sales team, corporate digital and news teams for content, operations and development support, as well as Solutions Journalism Network training. They held interactive meetings with stations to help staff understand what was expected and get buy-in for the project.

The series of coverage from Gray TV focused on bridging the health divide in the demographically diverse Appalachia and Mississippi Delta regions.

“A big part of this project, and what [GNI] had set out parameters for, was to create a sustainable model. We realized we couldn’t do that without the sales team’s help,” said Glen Hale, vice president of digital content and audience development. “We do have a health vertical sales team that we put toward this and that both contributed ideas and ways we could monetize what we could do.”

Hale said other media organizations can similarly tap into their own corporate resources and free training from organizations like Solutions Journalism Network to more comprehensively and sustainably cover ingrained societal issues.

“This was primarily focused in rural areas, and the same sort of issues come up in other areas,” he said. “Whether it’s this topic or other serious issues that have gone on for a long time that aren’t really being addressed in a cohesive way, there’s a lot of opportunity out there.”

Word In Black launched a national news brand in 2021, which has grown to include a modern Newspack website, national newsletter with more than 35,000 subscribers, and individual, foundation and corporate support totaling $2 million in funding. The collaborative is a successful testing ground for business transformation in audience and revenue among its ten founding legacy news publishers.

The timeline of Word In Black spans back to 2020, with its core digital products — a website and newsletter with membership drive — going live in 2021.

Larry Lee, publisher of the Sacramento Observer and founding member of Word In Black, said the publication and Word In Black have gone through training in solutions journalism reporting, similar to Gray TV. He said there’s now more awareness of ways to fund solutions reporting, which makes a more viable pathway to sustainability.

“We always feel the Black press has been pushing to advocate and make changes for the betterment of the communities we serve,” he said. “Finding these different ways to help our newsrooms do the work of our communities is really important, and solutions journalism reporting is an integral part of being able to document and show the impact and value that our work is having in the communities we serve.”

Lee said being a part of the collaborative has uplifted publishers with the training, tools and resources to experiment in different revenue areas including fundraising and reader revenue. He said Black newspapers are institutions in their communities and should be the first place funders turn when aiming to make a difference in racial equity.

“The reality is, and has been, that digital transformation for newsrooms is very challenging — particularly for small publications like ours that are so dependent on print advertising for sustainability. … We were getting left behind,” Lee said. “We have been able to work together, learn from each other, and there have been some resources that allow us to do some things that we’ve never done before. So this has been a watershed season for the Observer and those at Word In Black.”