Creating a Learning Community Through Community Journalism

September 1, 2016

EJ Academy


Neighborhood News Bureau reporter Samantha Sotos (left) interviews Winnie Foster (right) for a "Telling Tampa Bay Stories: Midtown" event last February.
Photo by Bernardo H. Motta

Four tables were arranged in each corner of the main hall of the Carter G. Woodson African American Museum in Midtown St. Petersburg, Fla. A community member sat at each one, sharing a story with a student-reporter in a style similar to “Story Corps.” Nearby, a journalist from WUSF Radio operated a sound recorder.

The event, a partnership between WUSF Public Media and the University of South Florida St. Petersburg’s Neighborhood News Bureau, or NNB, resulted in two special broadcasts for WUSF Radio’s show “Florida Matters.”

What’s surprising is that the great majority of the students who work with NNB had never heard of Midtown before taking the class in their senior year. Even students who had lived in St. Petersburg for most of their lives had no or very little knowledge of this historic African-American community in the south side of town. The ones that did had a distorted impression of the area.

Yet in a couple of months, these same students were producing mini-documentaries, conducting long interviews, building relationships with sources, searching for public records and historical artifacts in the libraries and community centers, covering businesses and events, and teaching the next generation of journalists in the local schools.

They were not just covering the community; they had become part of it.

An embedded newsroom with environmental interests

NNB is a newsroom and classroom embedded in the Midtown community. The initiative was founded in 2006 by the late Bob Dardenne, who believed that having students embedded in the Midtown community was the best learning experience the department of journalism and media studies at University of South Florida St. Petersburg, or USFSP, could provide to its students.

NNB’s mission is to fill the information gap about the Midtown communities, which have been historically underserved and underreported, to bring relevant and useful information to the local residents, and to provide a complete learning experience for our future journalists.

The students who work in this embedded community newsroom learn a combination of specific content and hands-on application of skills. Students learn about history, culture, politics, social justice, economics, environmental science, public affairs law and many other topics that matter to the community.

On the skills side, they report for audio, video, print and multimedia, research public records, aggregate data, conduct opinion polls and work on long-form features and investigative projects. A few students also help with outreach and educational efforts in local K-12 schools.

Local media outlets publish or broadcast the stories produced by the students. NNB also has its own website,

When I joined USFSP in the fall of 2015, my task was to plan the expansion of NNB, add multimedia reporting, secure funding, develop long-term partnerships and continue improving the service NNB provides to both the Midtown community and to our students.

I also wanted to make sure that this project had something to do with environmental journalism. In my first semester I invited fellow SEJers Craig Pittman and Cynthia Barnett (I think I still owe them coffee or lunch) to talk about environmental issues in St. Petersburg and in Florida.

At the same time, I identify students who want to work on an environment-related story and help them produce it. In my two semesters here, NNB students produced stories about a local referendum question about sea grass in Tampa Bay; a longtime volunteer in the Boyd Hill Natural Preserve, located immediately south of Midtown; the giant brownfield that covers most of south St. Petersburg; and many stories related to food and environmental justice.

I am also planning to work with local schools to test tap water in Midtown; look for the effects of local sea-level rise and ocean acidification in Pinellas County; test air quality and compare environmental health markers in Midtown with the rest of the county, among other ideas.

Outsiders in the community

“One word defined St. Petersburg’s historic African American neighborhoods: connectivity,” Rosalie Peck and Jon Wilson wrote as the very first line of “St. Petersburg’s Historic African American Neighborhoods.” My students have to read it in the first two weeks of class.

I see my job as mostly facilitating this connectivity between my students and the people, culture, history and daily life of Midtown.

As I try to connect students who are not from the area or simply oblivious to it, I use my own experiences to guide me. I am asstranger here myself. Besides being an actual foreigner from Brazil, I arrived in St. Petersburg only in July 2015, after living for years in a small town in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and, before then, in a fast-growing city in Tennessee.

I am a greenish white guy with a noticeable accent when I speak. I can’t walk unnoticed through the neighborhood. Being an outsider is an obstacle most journalists have to overcome at one point or another in their careers and NNB is a good testing ground for students to learn the necessary skills.

The way I teach my students to overcome this barrier is through basic reporting and community journalism techniques.

First, listen, observe, research and learn. Pay attention to the details and don’t make assumptions. Learn the formalities and the cultural localisms. Learn as much as possible about the people in the community and how things work. It’s similar to ethnography.

Second, talk with people, not to people. Every interaction is a learning experience. We are not parachuting into the community just to take their stories and run back to the safety of a distant newsroom.We are embedded in the community to learn and share their experiences. In other words, we must care about the people whom we cover.

Finally, as community journalists, we are there to serve the community. We cannot detach ourselves from the consequences of our stories. We have to report truthfully, thoroughly, but also thoughtfully.

Midtown has gone from a bustling and prospering African American Main Street to an economically depressed neighborhood. Even if Midtown is currently in the middle of a turnaround, failing schools, teenagers being shot and killed, closing businesses and a myriad of problems take center stage in the news.

Lost in the overall narrative are stories about the people who invest, heal, beautify, build, teach, play, share, feed, protect, succeed, learn, help and connect with each other in Midtown.

These are not just personal interest stories. In NNB, we try to discard the lens that portrays Midtown’s residents as powerless victims and replace it with the lens that captures Midtown for what it really is, a place where people do both harm and good. A place where people suffer from the actions of others, but also act to address issues, fix problems and learn from each other.

I am now building tools to measure the impact of NNB, but the anecdotal evidence from the past 10 years is telling. Students publish their stories in professional news outlets, they build their portfolio and they get jobs and internships because of their experience with NNB. In my opinion, though, the most important is that they become wiser, more courageous, knowledgeable, prepared and empathetic human beings. That, ultimately, is the stuff that makes the best journalists.

A classroom and a laboratory

NNB is a newsroom, but it is also a classroom, a laboratory, a community service office, a showroom for my academic institution and much more. Networking, creating and managing partnerships, promoting and planning events, managing graduate assistants, conducting research for NNB, and searching for and securing funding are all part of the job.

I recruit the help of my peers and delegate functions to the best students I have. I ask local journalists and partners to talk about photojournalism, investigative techniques, audio storytelling, videoediting or how to research public records and historic artifacts. It saves me prep time.

I also count on people in the community to give tours, provide some background information or point students to good sources. I see my job as managing the students’ learning experiences, provoking critical thinking, and reinforcing good practices and skills.

If you’re interested in starting your own community newsroom and have nobody to help, my suggestion is to start small. The important thing is how the students can learn to think and learn on the go. Students can learn new technical skills very quickly with online tutorials, and if needed, so can you.

Learning business management or technical skills is easy nowadays. Your institution may have many resources available, but never forget that there are many associations (ahem, SEJ) and organizations that offer specialized workshops on almost every topic. I’m always taking online courses and attending workshops at conferences, even on topics that I feel confident, just to see if there is anything new I think might benefit my students.

Tips on building your own community-based bureau

Every institution and location will have its own limitations and advantages, but this list of the things you need to succeed should help.

  1. You. Just make sure this counts as part of your job description, either as an actual class or a course-load reduction. If you are a tenured or tenure-track faculty you can also make it part of your service and research agenda.
  2. Students. NNB is a mandatory class, so I have it easy. I am also using grants to fund graduate assistants and interns through partnerships. If your class is not mandatory, you will need to proactively recruit students.
  3. Location. It’s not an embedded community newsroom if it is not embedded in the community. Our old newsroom became too small for the students. While we were looking for a new one, we had to meet on campus. That had an impact on productivity and unfairly penalized commuter students with jobs. We managed it, but it works better when students can simply walk around the community they are covering.
  4. Time. If your newsroom starts as a class like NNB, the time of the class matters. In my first semester, we started class at 8:00 a.m. Not many newsworthy things happen at 8:00 a.m. I moved the class to Wednesdays from 11:00 a.m. to 1:45 p.m. People are way more talkative during lunchtime.
  5. Partners and projects. The best thing about NNB is that my students are constantly working with experienced journalists and editors. We do special projects with local media outlets and have their reporters and editors either lead the project or help with training.
  6. Money. Another advantage of working with good partners is that they can also help you with grants and funding. A project that has real impact in the community in collaboration with a respected media partner is better for both the granter and the students. Partners can also help with other needs in case your institution is not very helpful. Office space, computers, etc. can be easily negotiated with a partner that shares your vision.
  7. Outcomes. Make collecting data part of your research agenda to gauge the impact the initiative has on students and in the community. This will also help with funding and, I hope, with promotion.

Bernardo Motta is a former environmental communicator and lawyer, and is now an assistant professor of community journalism and media theory at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.


* From the Fall 2016 SEJournal.

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