Americans need accurate, contextual news and information to make decisions that help our communities thrive. It’s tempting to think that means news leaders need only focus on gathering and publishing facts. But local news has other essential roles that complement and enhance reporting.

Media should also be a force for social connection, a convener of people across differences and a facilitator for what to do after the facts are laid bare.

In some ways, local and community-based media have long served this role. Opinion sections, for instance, are one way legacy newspapers have created space for conversation about what people find important or necessary. Radio talk shows do this, too, as do the various in-person and online forums we’ve seen with the rise and growth of the internet.

The uncertainties and challenges of today’s world, however, make this role even more necessary and relevant. Now is the time to experiment as we reflect on the social isolation and other societal ills that were worsened or exposed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Too much digital social interaction and limited in-person connection come with substantial challenges. And facts alone don’t steer people away from misinformation and toward truth.

When we look at conversations about “news deserts,” perhaps the role local media can play as convener should be in the same breath as the importance of covering City Hall.

Many API partners and collaborators inspire us as conveners in their communities contributing to the public good. It happens when:

But you also see it when:

All of these add to or enhance how Americans use news and information to make decisions and thrive.

Yet we should be realistic about the challenges. Good convening requires strong facilitation skills, influential and empathic leadership skills, and different listening skills than an interview — things many journalists likely didn’t learn or anticipate when they signed up for the job. To be good conveners, local media need resources and opportunity to equip their journalists with these skills.

Imagine the payoff. More people could know a journalist, which could increase trust. Likewise, more could find opportunity to connect across difference, which could increase social cohesion. In-person events especially could open first, new opportunities for community relationships and second new forms of revenue for local media. And the very same skills that help news leaders convene and facilitate with their external community will empower them to lead with influence internally.

At the American Press Institute, we are placing significant energy into helping make that easier. This year we are helping news organizations experiment with live events to boost revenue. We are working with the National Equity Project to help news leaders learn how to facilitate meetings more inclusively. Our API Inclusion Index work in Pittsburgh is empowering news organizations to convene in order to listen. We train on the otherwise soft skills news leaders need internally that also impact external facilitation and gathering. We continue to explore what opinion sections should and can look like today as vehicles for problem-solving. Soon we will also focus on what convening looks like with the unique challenges of rural geography.

Embracing the role of convener will lead to more healthy, responsive and resilient news organizations.

If you are interested in helping your news organization embrace and expand its role as convener, please contact us to hear how we might help. And if you are interested in partnering or financially supporting such efforts to help local news become the local infrastructure for connection and problem-solving it can be, please let us know that, too.

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