CHICAGO – As a college student living in this city’s Little Village (or “La Villita”) neighborhood, Jacqueline Serrato felt frustrated at the way news outlets didn’t seem to understand her community and its many Latinx residents.

So with some friends, she started a Facebook page as a way for neighbors to share information and updates. Employed as a social worker, Serrato didn’t consider herself a journalist. And she didn’t expect to make money. The friends she was collaborating with worked at blue-collar factory jobs.

Jacqueline Serrato, a bilingual reporter at Hoy, the Chicago Tribune’s Spanish- language news outlet, started out creating a Facebook page about her community. The site, La Villita Chicago, now has more than 127,000 followers. Photo by Andrew Conte.
Jacqueline Serrato, a bilingual reporter at Hoy, the Chicago Tribune’s Spanish- language news outlet, started out creating a Facebook page about her community. The site, La Villita Chicago, now has more than 127,000 followers. Photo by Andrew Conte.

“We decided to do this as an act of love, to create a safe space for the neighborhood,” Serrato, 30, told me. “We thought of ourselves just as community residents, trying to find common ground and trying to be neighborly.”

Eight years later, the Facebook page La Villita Chicago has more than 127,000 followers. And as Serrato watched the paid journalists covering her neighborhood, and often failing, she decided to train herself for the job. She now works as a multimedia journalist at Hoy, the Chicago Tribune’s Spanish-language news outlet.

Serrato and other citizen journalists like her stand at the leading edge of a revolution in the way that communities interact with local news and information. Traditionally, reporters often have worked in relative isolation, deciding along with their editors what stories to cover and who to interview. Although some are deeply involved in the communities they cover, that’s not always the case.

But now we’re seeing a growing range of engaged journalism that starts in — and with — the community.

So what does this have to do with Pittsburgh and Pittsburghers? Everything. As traditional journalism continues to shrink and new, smaller media outlets spring up, individual citizens can have a greater role — and maybe even a responsibility? — in shaping how the news looks.

The days are over when the public simply watched, heard or read the news, and perhaps felt left out. We all have an interest now in shaping how we get and share stories and information.

About 150 journalists and community activists recently gathered here for the People-Powered Publishing Conference at Columbia College of Chicago. Interestingly, Illinois Humanities, a government-funded nonprofit, sponsored the event.

No one is suggesting that professional journalists should stop doing their jobs. These people bring trained expertise to community reporting by asking difficult questions, providing an objective perspective and digging for information that can be hard for individual citizens to find on their own. But journalists also can work more closely with community residents to understand their concerns — especially in areas that rarely receive attention except for stories related to crimes and accidents.

Otherwise, journalists end up hearing mostly from other journalists, said Alicia Bell, an organizer with the Free Press Action Fund, a journalism accountability nonprofit with headquarters in Florence, Mass. and Washington, D.C.

“If journalists and other media makers are only existing in kind of this echo chamber, then they only hear from each other, and the people who are outside of that space are community members and residents who aren’t creating journalism on a regular basis,” she said.

“Those are the people who are reading it, interacting with it, being impacted by it. So if we want to think about the future of journalism, and how we transform journalism, how we fix journalism, what that looks like, then we have to have those people in on the conversation.”

For traditional media outlets such as TV and radio stations and newspapers, that can mean that the journalists, editors and producers spend more time in the community listening to what matters.

Max Resnik, a researcher connected to The City University of New York, seeks to have community journalists based at three libraries in the Bronx, New York. Photo by Andrew Conte.

Too often, in the past, journalists like me would sit in the newsroom, away from readers and the public, and make decisions about what stories to cover and where to spend scarce resources. Frequently, my stories won awards from other journalists, but often I felt frustrated by how few people read or cared about what I had created.

Perhaps people would have cared more if I had spent time at the start, meeting with readers and listening to what keeps them up at night or gets them excited. What if I had gone even a step further to include these people in the reporting process, to have them ask questions of their neighbors and share what they all know to be true?

“There’s a conversation that can only be had by having journalists and community residents and community members in it together,” Bell said. “That conversation will never happen so long as there’s only one or the other.”

For newer outlets, this change means starting out with the public in mind. As one business-minded consultant here put it: “If you build something and nobody wants it, it won’t work.” So for all of the journalism outlets springing up to serve niche subjects or neighborhoods, the process has to start with listening to the public to hear what people actually need and want.

Andrew Conte, founding director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University, writes the On Media column at NEXTpittsburgh with support from The Heinz Endowments.