One of our newest Listening Post Collective members, reporter Kenny Miles, has been deep in the weeds of listening to his Trenton, New Jersey community as he tries to meet growing local information needs. Despite wearing ALL the hats at his civic media outlet Trenton Journal, Kenny took the time to share some insights he’s learned while building a news conversation with his community. Take it away Kenny…
I thought I was done with journalism after being in the business for almost 30 years in various roles as a reporter, editor, fact-checker, and freelance contributor. After a period of time the journalism industry had lost some of its luster to me amidst widespread layoffs, I didn’t see journalism as being a sustainable path to my future and taking care of a family.
It wasn’t until my family and I moved to Trenton, New Jersey in 2021 that I began to change my mind about getting back into the media business. Fueled by the desire to strengthen community and the dire need to document stories that weren’t being told in a city designated as both a news and food desert, I created the Trenton Journal, a hyperlocal media company that produces original content via our website, weekly newsletter, and print magazine. Our editorial mission is dedicated to filling in the information gaps and highlighting the positive voices in the community.
A recent Pew Research Center report finds that 63% of Black Americans say news coverage about Black people is often more negative than news about other racial and ethnic groups. While few are optimistic that will change in the foreseeable future, many see ways in which that coverage could be improved.
I wanted to be a part of a shift in narrative around the Black community in Trenton, New Jersey. When I launched the Trenton Journal, there wasn’t any plan in place on who and what stories we would cover. Looking back, if I had considered more how much work creating a hyperlocal news source would be, I may have talked myself out of doing it. I was a one-man band with a civic media dream who was also holding down a full time job in commercial real estate.
Although Trenton has a rich legacy in American history, serving as the site of George Washington’s first victory during the Revolutionary War and also being the nation’s capital in 1784, the city has seen better days. My city is predominantly Black and Brown, has nearly 28% residents who live in poverty and recently received state oversight for “imminent and substantial endangerment” to more than 200,000 customers in and around the city involving the safety of its drinking water.
When I thought about meeting community information needs, it was a little overwhelming. There was and still is a lot of ground to cover. I used the Listening Post Collective Civic Media Playbook to guide my research, and discovered Trentonians wanted to read reliable information on local government, education, crime, and stories impacting the local environment. I also learned that part of filling in information gaps in Trenton’s Black community meant holding in-person community events.
In response to fulfilling the need to have more coverage geared toward municipal government the Trenton Journal held three forums at two local churches in the city and invited candidates running for elected office and the public to attend. The purpose of the forums was to help boost civic engagement. In the 2018 election only 22% of 39,0000 registered voters showed up to cast their ballots.
Producing the candidate forums was a lot harder than I imagined, because it involved finding a venue, coordinating the schedules of the candidates, designing promotional flyers and securing moderators. We held three separate forums over the course of three months leading up to the general election.
Our first event entailed candidates running for council seats in the north, south, west, and east wards in Trenton was not as well-attended as I would have liked. As I look back now I partly attribute the sparse attendance and some candidates backing out at the last minute to the Trenton Journal being a new media outlet with no prior history to holding a candidate forum.
The best move that I made was teaming the Trenton Branch NAACP president to produce one of the forums, because he had more experience and community trust in Trenton and was able to guide me along the process. We both had a shared interest in helping to increase a bigger turn out in the city than in previous elections and we used our shared motivation in planning and executing our forums.
We hit our stride on our second forum with all of the at-large candidates showing up to a packed house to explain to residents why they deserved their vote. Our last forum for mayoral candidates was live streamed on the Trenton Journal Facebook page and was well-received by residents for allowing them to get to know more about each candidate running for office.
As I look back, I view the candidate forums as a great learning experience and as a professional achievement in line with the Trenton Journal mission. My view of success is more about community impact than metrics. When people have the right information, they can empower themselves to build a stronger community for themselves and future generations.