Local media provide sizable solutions to global crises

Editor’s note: This column was first published in Poynter.org. You can find the original column here:

NEW YORK — When Kavita Devi read the mission of her local media platform Khabar Lahariya, which translates as “News Wave,” it was the first time she had ever spoken English publicly.

Then she followed up in her native tongue, Hindi, working across two languages and striking a deep chord among the audience at the International Press Institute World Congress in New York held in September at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Devi’s simple gesture of speaking to the crisis in local news and the need to protect a free press in both languages embodied the spirit of a new generation of media that are reporting locally and thinking globally.

“Putting women like me in positions of power, so we can decide which stories to cover in our communities — it is the only way the rest of the people can know what is happening in different corners of the country and the world. It is the only way we can achieve progress at all levels,” said Devi, co-founder of Khabar Lahariya. Her words resonated across discussions at the IPI Congress, which marked its 50th anniversary with a return to Columbia, the very place it was born.

That there is a crisis for journalism worldwide needs little proof. As journalists from every continent presented their respective realities during the congress, it was abundantly clear that the global free press is both under direct attack and drowned out by disinformation.

Speaking at the opening of the event, Nobel laureate Dmitry Muratov, editor-in-chief of the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, said that the elimination of independent journalism in Russia had effectively “concluded,” and his co-recipient of the Nobel prize, Maria Ressa, CEO of Rappler in the Philippines, described the current levels of disinformation as “death by a thousand cuts of press freedoms.”

When viewed together on a global scale, these issues appear insurmountable. But when they are distilled to local, actionable levels, they can create audience engagement. This was the leading message that Kavita and five other local news leaders from Indonesia, South Africa and the United States shared in a panel that I had the privilege to moderate at the international gathering.

As these leaders described how they took their organizations from inception to evolution, despite the current challenges, we could see how solution-focused local media can turn overwhelming crises like climate change, food supply and migration into actionable issues. Here are some of their takeaways.

Local beat reporting helps galvanize issues at different levels.

Nwabisa Makunga, editor at The Sowetan, explained how the South African outlet became a formidable voice in communities in Soweto and Johannesburg, which were reeling under the impact of apartheid.

“As a platform agitating for social justice, our leading phrase is to ‘know our place’ — in our communities but also at the head of the table,” said Makunga.

While becoming one of South Africa’s largest independent media outlets, Sowetan has maintained strong community-focused beats that link movements and help galvanize communities across the country.

Local media create civic engagement and positive action.

Meera K, the founder of Citizen Matters, a platform focused on urban centers across India, created an information exchange platform where citizens contribute their views on how to improve their cities — from infrastructure to security.

“At the local level, as a reporter or as a citizen, you actually have a chance to engage, influence and make a difference. So this bears huge implications for global events,” said Meera K.

She found that when residents felt that they could trigger positive changes in their neighborhoods, they actively participated in demanding reforms, and they strengthened local democracies.

Media platforms covering specific communities create cross-border links.

Garry Pierre-Pierre, a Pulitzer-winning Haitian American journalist, talked about The Haitian Times, which he founded to serve the diaspora living in New York. Over time, he saw the value of connecting the experiences of Haitians across the U.S., with those living in Haiti and other parts of the world. The publication has transformed from a community outlet into a cross-border initiative.

“Our aim is to be wherever Haitians are, whether here in Brooklyn or following migrants when they are crossing borders, so we can report local-global stories that are different from how large media cover the community,” Pierre explained.

Journalists that cover their communities bring greater representation and context.

The former managing editor of Jakarta Post, Evi Mariani, shared her journey of founding Project Multatuli after realizing that her work at the national paper did not do justice to underserved communities in Indonesia.

“We grew tired of the few-hundred-word pieces about these communities with single sources and started to look at specific demographics — religious minorities, women, adolescents — and their needs,” explained Mariani.

To counter the “tokenistic” coverage, she and a group of other journalists started the platform to foster homegrown, community reporting with more depth and context.

Local media more effectively fight disinformation and stereotypes.

At peak points of the COVID-19 pandemic, local media became sources of lifesaving information for underserved communities. For hyper-local outlets like Sahan Journal, which serves immigrant and diaspora communities in Minnesota, the need for providing accurate information about COVID-19 vaccines was vital. Its founder, Mukhtar Ibrahim, explained that the outlet’s fight against dis- and misinformation was feasible because of trust, access to the communities at risk and their relatively small size.

“I also wanted to counter the trend where stories come out of these communities only when something big happens, like the killing of George Floyd or when some youth are arrested for trying to join a terrorist group,” Ibrahim said.

Local beat reporting enables journalists to foster accountability.

In line with what these niche media have proven, our team at The GroundTruth Project has understood that while the crisis in journalism is global, the solutions must be local. Report for the World is our latest response in support of local, service-minded newsrooms to maintain full-time reporters who can best relay the realities in their communities.

As Report for the World expands to 17 newsrooms in eight countries this September, we see local media of different geographies and specializations producing stories that resonate with diverse audiences. The program enables journalists and newsrooms to report consistently about critical issues such as the environment, criminal justice, education, health care and civil liberties while providing them with editorial and professional development support.

Our dream scenario is for the journalists we support to collaborate across continents and form local-global connections on the world’s most pressing issues.