By Vania André
When I was in the eighth grade I learned about Nellie Bly. She was an American journalist whose expose on the conditions women faced in a New York City asylum during the late 1800s, led to reforms that would forever change the mental health system in the city and ensure patients’ rights in asylums.
At 13, what stood out to me was the power information had to transform not only lives, but an entire system. When I think about the work we’re doing at Haitian Times, there’s one guiding principle that directs who, what and why we cover what we do. We share stories that elevate the voices of marginalized people in our communities, while simultaneously covering issues that move our collective consciousness forward and spur meaningful change in Haiti and abroad.
However, covering stories wasn’t enough. We took it a step further and brought the conversations that were taking place in the newsroom to our readers. What transpired after was beyond what we anticipated would take place. A series of WhatsApp group chats organized by our editors started to become a place for community organizing. Disturbed by the recent events taking place in Haiti, several members of our chat groups organized meetups to discuss action plans on how to leverage the Diaspora’s resources in Haiti and steer the country’s direction over the next several decades.
We saw the transition from news gathering and sharing, to conversations rooted in readers’ quest to find a deep understanding of issues plaguing their community, to plans for offline engagement meant to inspire civic engagement and action.
One of the things public engagement practitioners struggle with in this coalition-building space, is the lack of awareness that people have on what being an active, civic-minded, member of society actually looks like. What we see happening here is a telling micro-example of the role journalism plays in democracy, but also the impact that new technologies have had in easing how we create “community” across physical and virtual boundaries.
We’re an outlier because we’ve managed to bring together a participatory, online and offline community around our reporting through the relationships we’ve built with our audience that extends past the typical transactional nature between news producers and readers. Plans for regional town halls, rallies and awareness campaigns have emerged from the conversations taking place in Haitian Times’ WhatsApp groups, as a result of our reporting and interaction with our readers.
When done right, local news builds community, effectively serves its audience and creates a bridge between information and action. It tells us what our readers care about, while also giving them a sense of ownership and understanding that they have a voice and impact on the news coming out of their communities.
Join us in the conversation.