A man in California, Pa., used a red marker to draw a picture of someone with an axe sticking out of his head.
Another person from Kennedy drew a picture of a knife dripping with blood next to the flames of a fire.
And a third from Pittsburgh wrote, “It seems like when I look at the news, everything they show about Homewood is negative.”
These three people from different parts of the region all share the same perspective when they consider the news media — that many journalists, especially at traditional outlets, seem focused on negative stories rather than positive ones.
Across the Pittsburgh region, local journalists often think of ourselves in small, distinct groups, representing our particular community or neighborhood. A newly formed media project, however, seeks to connect with journalists and residents across these diverse areas by focusing on the concerns we all share.
The recently launched nonprofit Bridge Pittsburgh Media Partnership started out with the goal of bringing journalists together to work on collaborative reporting. At a time of massive disruption for news outlets, the members of this group are testing out the idea, like Ben Franklin suggested, that we’d better hang together before we hang alone.
Over the past eight months, more than one hundred journalists from more than three dozen media outlets and educators from several local universities have gathered multiple times to consider how the collaboration might work. The Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University, which I run, has been facilitating the discussion so far. The Heinz Endowments, which funds this column, has also provided financial support for Bridge Pittsburgh.
It’s important to remember that many of these journalists are used to competing with each other for scoops — and that some of the organizations they represent have a culture of trying to put other media outlets out of business.
We asked the participants to put aside those feelings for this project. Instead, we look at the issues and challenges that unite journalists at a time when disruption has led to layoffs, buyouts, closures and shrinking coverage areas.
The response has been humbling. Big, traditional media outlets including the Post-Gazette and Tribune-Review, KDKA-TV, WPXI, WQED and WESA-FM have been at the table.
Older, smaller outlets such as The New Pittsburgh Courier, the Northside Chronicle and South Pittsburgh Reporter have been present, as well. And newer online-only outlets such as PublicSource, NEXTpittsburgh, The Incline and Postindustrial have been involved, too.
The common theme from the beginning has been to see if we can produce solutions-oriented journalism that not only points out the region’s problems, but also starts a broader conversation and suggests ways of addressing them.
The question is this: What problems to focus on?
When we first started, journalists had no problem coming up with a long list of the kinds of things they want to cover. That’s the way journalists typically have decided what to investigate and write about: They sit in their newsrooms, listen for tips from sources and the public, look across the communities and decide what to cover.
We wanted to do something different. From the beginning, the journalists who joined the project wondered what the public might say. What issues are important to residents? What would it be like to talk with viewers, listeners and readers to hear what they want?
That can be an intimidating process. Journalism for so long has been a one-way process in which reporters tell the news to citizens who consume it.
The business no longer works only this way — not when everyone has the power to publish and broadcast from their smartphones, when fewer journalists are available to ask difficult questions and when residents find themselves overwhelmed with everything from raw news to information written with an agenda.
So we organized a series of community outreach events.
One meet-up focused on people who have disabilities. Participants talked about the need for better access to medications and about how the media often portrays them as caricatures rather than as people.
Another took place at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh with young people from a half-dozen schools as different from one another as Pittsburgh Obama Academy and Hampton High School. There, teenagers talked about the lack of equity in education and about police violence and racism.
We held three community meetings in McKees Rocks, California, Pa. and Homewood.
Often, the people in these areas focus on their differences from other people in the region. As Pittsburghers, we root for the same sports teams but rarely seem to agree on much else, such as politics, music, religion and culture.
Every person in the region who voted for President Trump also knows someone in their circle who voted for Hillary Clinton. And the Tree of Life shooter lived so close to his victims that he had to drive less than a half-hour to reach them from his home — and yet he metaphorically lived so far away from them that hatred could well up.
Still, we all live here together. It turns out that when residents start talking about the issues that matter to them, a lot of the same topics come up no matter which neighborhoods they call home.
They want economic opportunities for their young people. They worry about the devastating effects of drugs and crime. They hate that local governments often seem to operate with little accountability.
They see that a lot of news stories focus on negative things that happen — murders, fires, disasters — rather than the people and groups trying to do good.
Bridge Pittsburgh will decide in the coming weeks on a direction for a collaborative reporting project that will involve media outlets, journalists and residents across the region, tackling one or more of these difficult topics.
Yet, even now, as the group just gets started, we can see how much all of us share in common — rather than the differences that keep us apart.
Participants in the Bridge Pittsburgh community meetings created the images below to show how they feel the news media covers their community:
Andrew Conte, director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University, writes the On Media column at NEXTpittsburgh with support from The Heinz Endowments. The Endowments also provides funding for the Bridge Pittsburgh Media Partnership. You may find all of his columns here, and you may reach him at PittsburghPublicEditor@gmail.com.