From a listening session we held in downtown Oakland in spring 2020. Credit: CB Smith-Dahl

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How do we build an outlet for local journalism that is rooted in, representative of, and responsive to communities in a city as diverse, complex, and powerful as Oakland?

That question was the North Star that guided months of work to build this newsroom. And finding the answer—a quest that will always, and should always, be a work in progress—requires a deep commitment to listening.

When the idea of Oaklandside was in its infancy, our team knew from day one that it was essential to invest in growing the newsroom through conversations with people across the city, ensuring that our decisions were in tune with the interests and needs of our neighbors. We believe this emphasis on listening and relationships is crucial for many reasons:

  1. First, in order to produce journalism that helps people navigate their lives and understand what’s happening in their city, we must fundamentally understand what people care about and need more information on. Oaklanside staff members are each informed by their own experiences, and we can’t assume we know what’s best for all communities. We need to intentionally seek input from Oaklanders to make our reporting more relevant, accessible, and indispensable. 
  1. Providing clear opportunities for people to get involved in our journalism will help support a more informed, engaged Oakland. Our newsroom staff alone can’t cover all the important issues, events, and perspectives in our city. We all play a role in sharing stories and knowledge that people need to thrive. We think it’s critical to provide a platform that elevates local voices while also supporting those who are already trusted sources of news.
  1. The sustainability of our organization fundamentally depends on being in deep relationship with our community. As a nonprofit newsroom, a core source of our funding will come from individual donations and contributions. If we want people to support our journalism, we need to demonstrate our value to Oakland through the service that we provide, keeping people informed and holding those in power accountable. Earning trust takes time, and we are committed to creating avenues for mutual accountability and exchange, building a broad base of constituents who can help support our work in a variety of ways—not just with money—as we grow. 
A listening and printmaking event at the 2019 Life is Living festival in West Oakland. Credit: Cole Goins

With these points firmly in mind, we have listened and learned from people across the city, gathering input to guide our newsroom’s growth and structure. We have drawn inspiration from a host of innovative and community-minded journalists in Oakland and across the country: El Tímpano’s two-way channels of reporting serving Oakland’s Spanish-speaking residents; City Bureau’s inclusive model of civic journalism; Oakland Voices’ storied program that trains residents to share the stories of their neighborhoods, and many more. 

Through conversations with dozens of people, a series of community listening events, and feedback we gathered online, we heard concrete recommendations from our neighbors on the issues The Oaklanside should cover, how we should cover them, and how our newsroom can best function with the needs and voices of Oaklanders at the center.

Elements of our community listening process

Starting in September 2019, we began reaching out to individual community leaders, organizers, and long-time Oaklanders, setting up one-on-one conversations to learn about their work and what they would want to see from a new local newsroom. We sought to hear from a variety of people who are advocates and resources for Oakland—not just the loudest and most influential voices.

Between September 2019 and our June 2020 launch, we had sit-down discussions (or in the recent pandemic era, video calls) with more than four dozen community stakeholders as part of our listening efforts. Our conversations between September 2019 and December 2019 informed the founding values that we published with our original newsroom announcement. 

Each conversation was an opportunity to build new connections and help us understand different needs, dynamics, and happenings throughout the city. We learned how Roots Community Health Center is supporting healthier neighborhoods and addressing structural inequities in East Oakland. Randolph Belle and Erica Wright-Belle told us how they’re working to build community amid changes in the Laurel District, supporting local artists and entrepreneurs through their business RBA Creative and their work with the Black Cultural Zone. We learned how Francis Calpotura and his organization In-a(d)vancé are leading collective, grassroots movements to address systemic racial disparities in Oakland.

We also hosted a series of community events in neighborhoods across the city as an open opportunity for anyone to share their input on how our journalism could best serve them and represent the stories of Oakland:

  • With leadership from CB Smith-Dahl, our contributing editor for community engagement, we hosted two community listening sessions: our first at the former StudioToBe in Old Oakland and another at the Fruitvale San-Antonio Senior Center, which was delivered in both English and Spanish. Both were interactive opportunities to share inspiration for our approach to community-centered journalism and invite dialogue with our neighbors. 

Unfortunately, we had to cut our listening tour short when COVID-19 hit in March, canceling an event we had scheduled at the 81st Avenue branch of the Oakland Public Library in East Oakland. But we’re continuing our conversations and are plotting new ways that we can gather safely and bring more community members into our work. 

We also created an online survey that we published with our initial announcement in December 2019 to gather input from anyone who wanted to share ideas and weigh in on the issues we should cover. As of launch, we’ve received nearly 300 responses to the survey, not to mention the dozens of emails, tweets, and direct messages our staff has received since we first announced the newsroom in December. 

A spring 2020 listening session held in Old Oakland. Credit: CB Smith-Dahl

What we learned, and how we’re applying those lessons

We read through every response to our online survey, documented all the ideas that folks shared during our events, and took thorough notes from our interviews. We synthesized everything we heard and created this document of insight statements for the key issues that emerged, including select excerpts from individual responses that reflect the rich feedback we received.

The most common topics we heard about formed the core areas of coverage that we are focusing on with our launch: housing and homelessness, education equity, City Hall and policing, health and environment, and arts and community.

In addition to the story-specific ideas we gathered, we also heard a wealth of recommendations for how our newsroom should operate, and how we should situate our journalism in this particular moment. Here are some of the core themes that emerged:

  • Cover systems, not just symptoms. We regularly heard a desire for more reporting and storytelling that illuminates what it would really take to fundamentally address complex issues such as homelessness and entrenched health disparities among communities of color. People don’t just want to know what is happening, but why things are happening, and what decisions have fueled our current circumstances. We aim to pursue journalism that takes a systems-level view and give folks the proper historical context to understand the drivers of current events, such as this piece from our managing editor Jacob Simas on the history of curfews in Oakland. 
  • Invest in opportunities for people to tell their own stories. How are we providing and supporting a platform for community voices? How can we democratize the practice of journalism and support a more informed public? How can we work with young people to learn reporting and storytelling skills? We are committed to elevating the voices of Oaklanders in their own words, such as this piece that highlights perspectives from Black activists in Oakland
  • Reshape narratives about Oakland’s underserved communities. Whenever we ask people their opinions on the news, we often hear a common answer: the media is too negative, and seems to show up most often when something goes wrong. People of color have routinely told us they’re eager for more stories of community leaders who are actively leading change in the city, such as this profile from Iris Crawford on how East Oakland Collective is feeding hundreds of residents during the pandemic. 
  • Make the decision-making process of local government more accessible. With all the development that’s happening across Oakland, people have told us that they don’t feel as though community members are aware of and included in the decision-making and planning processes that have a huge impact on local communities. As a newsroom, we’re interested in sparking more civic engagement in Oakland and helping people across the city better understand the mechanics of local government and how they can get involved.
  • Help people understand, preserve, and connect around Oakland’s diversity, legacies, and changes. Many people we talked with celebrated Oakland for its rich diversity and expressed concern about what is being lost amid rapid gentrification and displacement of the city’s Black and brown communities. We will look for ways that we can facilitate necessary discussions about how Oakland is changing, who is benefiting and who is losing out, how race and class play a role, and how we can seek more equitable futures for this city. 
  • Share practical “news you can use.” Oaklanders don’t just want news updates—they want information that can help them navigate their daily lives. We plan to focus on providing resources and reporting that you can do something with, such as our effort to find out which pharmacies in Oakland were open in light of the protests against police violence.
  • Hire staff that reflects Oakland’s diversity and partner with people who are already doing the work. People said they wanted a newsroom that was relatable and rooted in a spirit of collaboration and respect for others who have been here for years. We’re proud that the majority of our seven-person staff are people of color, and that half of our core team has lived in Oakland for ten years or more. We’ve begun establishing partnerships with other community-minded media organizations, such as El Tímpano and Youth Beat, that will bring immigrant, youth, and community perspectives to the forefront of our reporting while also helping us reach a broader swath of the community with important resource information and service journalism.
A spring 2020 listening session in the Fruitvale. Credit: CB Smith-Dahl

How you can continue to inform our journalism

The listening that we did ahead of our official launch wasn’t a one-time thing. It will be embedded in the core of what we do, and we’ll keep our ears open to ideas, feedback, and input on how our newsroom can keep our communities at the center of what we do. We need you to hold us accountable for our journalism, call us out when we misstep, and share our work when it resonates.

We aim to restart our in-person community listening sessions when it’s safe to do so, but that may not be for quite some time. In the meantime, we’re thinking about other ways to convene conversations with community members, including virtual events.

You’ll notice that we don’t include reader comments on our website. As many other local and national newsrooms have concluded, we feel it would irresponsible for us to host conversations that we cannot properly moderate. Unfortunately, we don’t have the staff resources to ensure informed, productive, respectful dialogue in comments sections here on our website. You can, however, find us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, where we encourage readers to share their perspectives on issues we cover.

You can get in touch with our editors anytime at editors@oaklandside.org, and you can find email addresses for individual staff members, including reporters, through our staff directory.

Lastly, we want to make it easy for you to share story ideas, questions, tips, critiques of our work, and anything else with The Oaklandside. Anything shared via this simple survey reaches our entire team, and at least one member of our staff will read everything shared there.

We look forward to hearing from you, and we’re grateful for all your time and attention.

Support our work

We believe all Oakland residents deserve more in-depth reporting, perspectives, and information resources to help us all better enjoy, understand, and impact our beautiful city.

If you find our work valuable, we hope you’ll show your support and keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of The Oaklandside.

Tasneem Raja

Tasneem Raja is the Editor-in-Chief of The Oaklandside. A pioneer in data journalism and local nonprofit news startups, she co-founded The Tyler Loop, a nationally recognized community news platform in East Texas. She was a senior editor at NPR's Code Switch and at Mother Jones, where the team she led helped built the first-ever database of mass shootings in America. She started her career as features reporter at The Chicago Reader and The Philadelphia Weekly, and lives in Oakland with her husband and two imperious terriers.

Cole Goins

Cole Goins is a contributing editor for community engagement to The Oaklandside. A media consultant, organizer and facilitator, he serves as the engagement lead for The New School's Journalism + Design program, and has led a variety of trainings, events and community-based journalism initiatives with organizations such as the American Press Institute, the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University, and the Poynter Institute. He spent a decade in nonprofit investigative journalism, first as the engagement editor at the Center for Public Integrity, and most recently as the director of community engagement at Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting.