November 8, 2021

Supporting Equitable Access to Local News

We are thrilled to announce a new collaboration with coalition partners Albany Public Library and the news facilitation team at Hearken. Over the next few months, Library Futures and our partners will work with library users, library professionals, and local news bureaus to provide access to local news content through sustainable solutions that emphasize ownership of digital materials and building community around access to resources.

Through this project, we will prototype solutions for digital access to local news content, educate patrons on Albany's local news landscape, and provide a roadmap and toolkit for other libraries looking to provide more equitable local news access to their users.

In order to get a better understanding of the project and its local context, we asked Deanna DiCarlo, Head of West Branches at Albany Public Library and the team at Hearken (Turiya Autry, Jennifer Brandel, and Aria Joughin) for their thoughts.

Thank you to the Google News Initiative for making this work possible through grant support.

Deanna, tell us about local news in Albany and how the library has approached local news access historically. What is the role of libraries in collecting, promoting, and making local news accessible?

Albany, NY has a rich, vibrant history of print news dating back to the 18th century with competing dailies like the Albany Gazette, Albany Evening Journal, Albany Argus, Knickerbocker News, and several others. We also had a number of independently produced papers like the Albany Liberator (1967-1971), a local civil rights publication; The South End Scene (1977-1985), an inner city community paper; and Capital Neighbors (1995-2019), a quarterly collaboration between several neighborhood associations. Albany Public Library’s Local History Room has collected and retained issues of many historical Albany newspapers on microfilm for decades, and we are a destination site for genealogy and New York State history research. And, because we are the state capital, New York metro papers like the Wall Street Journal and New York Times employ Albany-based reporters covering state government.

It is important to note that Albany is unique among upstate cities like Buffalo, Syracuse, and Rochester in that Albany is one of 4 separately chartered by culturally interrelated metro areas in the Capital Region: Schenectady and Troy are both within 20 minutes of here, and Saratoga Springs is just 40 minutes. As such, the Schenectady Gazette, Troy Record, and Saratogian are also considered local news. The longstanding Albany Times Union covers news in these cities and surrounding suburbs, as well as the slightly more downstate regions of the Hudson Valley.

When I first moved to Albany in the mid-1990s, we had two primary papers that had a specific Albany identity: The daily Albany Times Union (1891-present) and the alternative weekly Metroland (1978-2015). At APL, all seven of our branches subscribe to the TU and make it available to our patrons. We also recently began subscribing to digital access to the TU via NewsBank, which gives us full-page, full-image access since 2018, and text access from 1986-2017. The text access is also searchable, so a researcher can cross reference the text they find with microfilm to retrieve any photo coverage that was included in the original paper. 

You’d be surprised how many folks still come to the library daily to read the papers--we have to limit folks to one paper at a time because they are so popular. As a public institution that manages information as its raison d'être, it is imperative that we provide equitable access to local news. It is neither physically nor financially possible for APL to house all regional newspapers dating back centuries, but what we are responsible for is knowing how to refer folks to what is available, where. For example, the New York State Library has a very robust newspaper collection, and will work with public libraries to use interlibrary loan for the microfilm. 

That being said, in many ways, the increased access to information over the internet has made reliable local news more challenging to find, not less. I am not a luddite--I love technology and was an early ebook adapter when many librarians were (and still are) resistant. In 1977, the founder of the South End Scene, Alice Green, stated in the first issue’s editorial:

Today, in a complex world, the communication of information is of paramount importance. We find that there are more laws, rules, programs, new words, philosophies, etc. than most of us can handle. But, they all affect the kinds of lives we lead. We want to make sure all people are informed as well as possible in order to be equipped to make good decisions that will affect the quality of their lives.

This still really resonates nearly 25 years later--when we think about regional Black Lives Matter coverage, many “news” sources are citizen journalists filming video that speaks for itself and sheds light on policing…if you know where to look. It is often hard to find coverage of local environmental impact studies, school district reforms, ballot propositions, planning commission meetings, and many other issues that affect our daily quality of life.

Public librarians have a responsibility to vet information sources and navigate what is an ever-changing news landscape. Along with our peers in academic and school libraries, we have a responsibility to promote critical thinking and information literacy. We also have a responsibility to assure equitable access to information across what we in Library Land refer to as the Digital Divide: If most local news is behind an online paywall, how can we assure that our most economically challenged community members have access to it? 

With database access like NewsBank, we are certainly meeting some of the demand, but not most. I think this project is at the right place and time to take a deeper dive into how our community's relationship to local news is still evolving in these uncertain times, and how we can help strategically respond to, and not merely react to, these changes. 

For Hearken – how have you worked with library communities in the past? What are some of the accessibility ideas you’ve considered in your experience working with communities of all sizes and types? How do you bridge the needs of newsrooms and communities in a way that is mutually beneficial to both?

Hearken is a company that was born out of trying to help people get the information they need to make informed decisions. The word “hearken” means “to listen” and our roots are in helping journalists better listen to what questions the public has that they are in the best position to answer. I sometimes dream of a world of an über-reference desk whereby if someone has a need for information that is already produced, a librarian helps them find it. And if someone has a need for information that isn’t yet publicly available, or not yet determined, a journalist helps them learn answers, or where they can go to look, and what they can do to help achieve some degree of understanding. 

Since this isn’t the world we live in now (or perhaps, yet?) Hearken has been excited to partner with newsrooms and libraries to approximate some experiments that combine their tremendous powers and responsibilities.  

We’ve written about our firm belief that “newsrooms and libraries should have babies” and fostered multiple collaborations between newsrooms and libraries including at WBEZ Chicago and Chicago Collections / Chicago Public Libraries, the Dallas Morning News and the Dallas Public Libraries and the Kansas City Star and the Kansas City Public Library, which I’ll describe more now. 

In 2018, we partnered with Arizona State University’s News Co/Lab to support path-breaking collaborations between the Kansas City Star, a premiere newspaper serving Kansas City, Missouri, and the Kansas City Public Library.  We helped them launch an editorial collaboration called, “What’s Your KCQ” in which the newsroom and library partnered on answering the public’s questions about Kansas City. The process was built to create more transparency in the journalistic process and share editorial insight and content between the library and newsroom. You can read more about this collaboration here, and find the News Co/Lab Cookbook (their version of a shared best practices resource), which also features Hearken. 

Overall, I see libraries and newsrooms as bedrock institutions for all manner of information needs, and that journalists could take a lot of inspiration from reference librarians, and start from a place of “how can I help you?” rather than “here’s what I think is important for you to know” — given that people’s information needs are so personal and diverse. 

Given that the American public’s trust in news is at perilously low levels, but trust in libraries remains high, I have hopes that newsrooms and libraries will find more ways to collaborate to support informed communities, and innovate their services in the process. 

Regarding the question of how Hearken has helped newsrooms make information more accessible to communities and create ways to benefit them, there are too many examples to name! We do our best to help reporters, editors, producers and other newsroom staff to think outside the box of whatever their typical formats are, and ask themselves “who could most use this information you’re producing? What formats would be most useful to those communities? Where do they get their information from, if not from your newsroom?” Asking those kinds of questions have led newsroom partners of ours to experiment with live events (with puppets), partnerships with community and religious organizations, and town halls that feature translation into multiple languages that a newsroom doesn’t traditionally serve. 

To us, having information exist and be available is just the starting point for accessibility. The hard work is in coming to an understanding about who might need it, how they look for and find information, and how to find them to ensure they know it’s there for them. And even then, people still may not choose to consume or act on that information. So for both librarians and journalists, there’s a need to ensure they are constantly building and reinforcing positive relationships with individuals and community groups, so that they remain relevant, trusted and useful.  

What are some of the aspects of this project that you all are most excited about?

[DD] As I am writing this, we are collecting responses to a community survey about local news, and we have had over 350 responses so far (which is really successful for us!). I am excited to learn about not only how our community accesses local news, but also what challenges and barriers they face. I am curious about how folks approach news--do they read multiple accounts and opposing viewpoints, or in this age of cable news, do they tend to stick with coverage that enforces their own positions? And, if they desire to seek alternative perspectives, are they able to find them? Are folks unsatisfied with local news access now that the TU has widened its coverage to the Hudson Valley and we no longer have a credible alternative weekly? Are older folks and younger folks similarly or differently satisfied/unsatisfied with local coverage? How can we assure our senior citizens and our vulnerable populations learn about important actions like the COVID-19 vaccine boosters? I’m also very interested to learn about our staff perceptions from the front lines of library service. I love how we took some precious time to learn from our patrons and staff, and that the precise next steps are yet to be determined--that is creatively very exciting for me, especially because we have a unique opportunity to listen to our community on a very specific, important topic like equitable access to news and information. 

[JB] I’m thrilled that APL and Library Futures are starting from a place of curiosity, and not from pre-determining a solution for what APL patrons need most when it comes to local news. Oftentimes the most difficult part of creating a new service is coming to the right framing around your goal. And without input from the people you’re trying to help, it’s far more likely that you’ll be wrong about what it is they need.

I can imagine the survey data we’re collecting will point to numerous ways we can move forward, and the creativity and fun then comes in dreaming up those ideas that are backed by data and lived experience, and then testing solutions again with the people APL is looking to serve. This is the foundational process for co-creation and collaborative solutions, which we know is the most effective way to develop services. At Hearken, we try to always remind ourselves “we don’t know what we don’t know” and the only way to know is to involve others who do! We’re so grateful that our partners at APL and Library Futures are similarly open and eager to co-design the solutions with the communities APL serves. 

Many of us live in towns or cities that have been affected by the demise of local news sources. How will this project be a model for other libraries to help make local news and news literacy more available in their communities?

[DD] A lot of this remains to be seen, but I think beginning with an attempt to really listen to our community is the heart of this project and it aligns with our mission. The American Library Association has a program called “Libraries Transform Communities” that focuses on libraries becoming community leaders by turning outward and really listening to our community’s aspirations, not for the library, but for our very lives in this place and time. Finding reliable information to help us make decisions about our lives is really threatened today--I am hopeful when we listen to the challenges folks in Albany have obtaining local news, we will find a pathway to make a real difference in a meaningful way that is collaborative and sustainable. 

[JB] Everything we do at Hearken, we think about “how might this insight be applicable elsewhere?” Oftentimes those insights are rooted in process, and not the specifics of an institution or the people they’re serving, since every place and collection of people have their own unique combination of needs. So we’re hopeful that the process we’re collectively undertaking can create a roadmap for other libraries and newsrooms to follow or adapt based on their needs and circumstances. If you think of it like a recipe — I hope at the end of this experiment we can share a clear picture of what we made, the steps we took and in what sequence, the ingredients and what we learned along the way. Then others can hopefully be inspired to follow some of the steps, but make it their own. 

Continue reading

A graphic of a person holding a smartphone and discovering books inside
Subscribe to our list

Join the community!

Join the community fighting for digital equity and a better future for libraries.