A view of Oakland (foreground) photographed from Joaquin Miller Park. Credit: Amir Aziz

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A few months ago, we introduced you to The Oaklandside’s first cohort of community advisors, seven long-time Oaklanders we recruited to share feedback on our journalism and how we’re living up to the values we set in collaboration with our community. 

We worked with this excellent group for two months starting in April. Each week, advisors read three stories published by our staff and shared their thoughts on each through a digital survey we created. They also told us which of our “mission metrics”—a set of criteria we use to measure how well our journalism is connecting back to our core newsroom values—they thought each story met, if any. This allowed us to get a sense of how people in Oakland see our journalism and whether or not they think it’s actually living up to our mission.

We also got a wealth of qualitative input from our advisors about how our journalism could better serve Oakland. We created two additional surveys that solicited their ideas for the news beats we cover and hosted two virtual meetings between advisors and our staff. 

After our community advisors wrapped up their work in mid-June, we took the time to synthesize all of their feedback to surface a set of recommendations for our journalism moving forward. Here are some of the key takeaways:

  • Include more resource lists, related links, and calls to action. Advisors wanted to know what they could do about particular issues, how they could help, and where they could learn more about the topics we cover. “I always appreciate when there are links that take you to another article with more information about a particular thing,” one advisor said. “It’s also helpful when there are clear ways people can take action and get involved.”
  • Make our writing more accessible. Advisors pointed out how some of our stories used words and terms that many people in Oakland may not be familiar with. We can be more mindful of the language we use, especially in policy-oriented stories, to ensure that our writing is easily understood. In response to a story we reported on illegal sublets, one advisor wrote: “It was difficult for me to really understand the story because of the words that were used that were very particular to a specific field, in this case housing. It felt like I needed to be an expert to know what was going on.”
  • Be clear about what’s next. After reading our stories, advisors routinely asked about what was happening next and when they might expect a follow-up story. Being more explicit about our intentions to follow the topic will help people know what they can expect from our coverage.
  • Incorporate more local history. Of all the Mission Metrics that advisors tagged on the stories they read, “Preserve Oakland history and legacies” was cited the least. At the same time, advisors spoke very highly of stories, like our piece on Oakland’s Black Liberation Walking Tour, that emphasized Oakland’s history. That challenged us to think about ways to more regularly incorporate history into our reporting. 
  • Highlight grassroots solutions to local problems. Advisors deeply appreciated our profiles of businesses, organizations, and community members who are finding new ways to help our communities thrive and respond to challenges. Commenting on our story about how a community organization, Street Level Health, supported Oaklanders during the pandemic, one advisor said: “Presenting stories like this and giving credit to the institutions and organizations that are part of the effort to provide much needed help, care, and support during this global crisis is not only uplifting but also inspiring.”
  • Explain our editorial decisions. Comments from advisors sometimes underscored how the choices we make on who to quote, what information to include or not to include, or why we chose to do a story in the first place aren’t always easily understood by readers. Practices and decisions that may be necessary for good journalism, they reminded us, aren’t always common knowledge for people who aren’t journalists.  
  • Examine how policies and programs affect communities differently. Equity is already a core focus in The Oaklandside’s work, and advisors often asked bigger questions about the implications of local programs and policy decisions and how specific communities are impacted. 
  • Do more visual storytelling. Advisors commented often about how much they liked the photos in our stories and suggested also producing videos as a way to get more people to see our work.
  • Elevate the perspectives of young people. We regularly heard advisors request more youth voices in our stories, and they praised us when we centered young people in our reporting, such as in our piece highlighting how students wanted to see the school year reimagined. “I loved that we heard from the students about what they want to see rather than solely from adults and board members about what they are planning to do,” one advisor said.
  • Convene community conversations. Advisors suggested that The Oaklandside could host and moderate events to bring people together from different communities, who aren’t normally in dialogue, to discuss big issues facing the city.

Clearly, our advisors gave us a wealth of ideas for how our journalism could be more in tune with the needs of Oaklanders. The next step is acting on these recommendations in concrete ways. 

To start, we shared the full list of recommendations with staff and together we voted on three to immediately prioritize: Produce more stories that elevate grassroots approaches to local issues, incorporate more history and context, and experiment more with visual storytelling.

In the coming weeks, our team will be taking steps to act on these recommendations—such as our new series exploring the history of residential buildings in Oakland and the people who have lived in them. 

Since this was a pilot program, we also asked advisors how they would improve the process for future cohorts. While most enjoyed the experience and the excuse to sit and read local journalism every week, they suggested a variety of ideas, including more time for advisors to talk with staff, more opportunities to share specific story ideas and to meet in person next time, something that we didn’t do this round because of the pandemic. 

We’re proud to share what we learned from this generous group, and hope these insights can be of use to other local newsrooms as well. 

We’re also curious to know what you think of this work and how our newsroom can better meet the needs of Oaklanders. Use the form below to share your input.

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.