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Community listening transforms story on Napa’s painful housing costs

Topics in Health: Lessons From The Field

Community listening transforms story on Napa’s painful housing costs

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Leslie Mullowney, who was contacted after responding to our call-out. Here she feeds the chickens at the Napa home she and her f
(Sean Scully/Napa Valley Register)

I only knew one way to report a story before this project: Find an interesting angle and seek sources who can speak on the subject. Those sources, more often than not, are reliable and familiar people who I could count on to return my call on deadline.

The stories I ultimately ended up reporting for my project were quite different than those that I had originally pitched to the Center for Health Journalism’s California Fellowship. The outreach and engagement work I undertook during this project made me realize there’s another (and in many ways, better) way to approach reporting: Let the community tell you what your story is.

I knew that I wanted to report on the nexus of housing and health. My outlet covers Napa County, part of the San Francisco Bay Area, and rents are ever-increasing and unbelievably high. Housing stock hasn’t kept up with demand. The Section 8 list is closed and affordable housing options are limited. I felt that we could tell powerful, informative stories of how people in our community are struggling to get by but it was hard to find people willing to open up and be vulnerable about housing — an issue that is so personal and emotional for people.

Ultimately, I found a handful of good sources who were willing to share their personal struggles because they wanted others to see the toll the housing crisis takes on people. But it took a lot more work than I expected to get there.

The Center provided support in crafting a call-out via Google Forms to ask people about their experiences with housing and promoted it heavily on our platforms. We asked them for basic contact information and questions like these: What is your monthly rent? In the past year, how stressed out have you felt about paying your rent? In the past year, have you had trouble paying for food, utilities, medical bills or other necessities because of high rent costs?

These questions helped us get a sense of what our community was dealing with, and many answers were heartbreaking. Parents struggled to feed kids, families shared bedrooms, lifelong residents abandoned their communities for cheaper places and patients struggled to afford treatment.

We emailed respondents and invited them to two community dinners/listening sessions, where we asked people to talk about their experiences with housing and tell us how our coverage on the subject could improve. This was extremely instructive. We realized that most renters were emotionally affected by the stress of making rent and had no clue how to even go about getting help. These sessions inspired a solutions story in our series that took a look at the top housing struggles renters endure, according to our local Fair Housing chapter, and encouraged us to host a town hall and resources fair on housing.

Even with all of these contacts, finding good characters for the series was really difficult and labor-intensive. Nine out of 10 calls I made to respondents went unreturned. That was disappointing but understandable since housing can be so personal and embarrassing for some. Still, it hurt a little bit when sources who seemed eager to help with the project and answer my questions stopped picking up, hung up, or stood me up for interviews. I had invested a lot of time with these people, but was back to square one.

I spent hours and hours trying to track down potential sources from our call-out list and with the help of local nonprofits. In all honesty, I really struggled to balance this with the demands of my cops-and-courts beat in our small, daily newsroom. But my efforts eventually paid off when I eventually found enthusiastic sources willing to work with me.

A good chunk of our engagement grant went toward purchasing audio equipment for a listening post that we stationed in the offices of a local nonprofit in a more rural part of the county. We set up a poster board with prompts translated into Spanish and received recordings of some really touching anecdotes. Though they spoke of things we had already heard in response to our call-out — struggling to feed kids, overcrowded housing, making sacrifices on a fixed income — it felt different to hear their pained and frustrated voices. I included edited-down versions of these recordings in our first story for the project on how the cost of living can affect health. This story also featured anecdotes from people we made contact with thanks to the call-out.

Our engagement work did lead to on-the-record sources who bolstered my reporting, but what mattered most to me was that this project gave me an opportunity to reach out to our readers and the broader community in a way that I would not have done before. I think many reporters are not always good at explaining to others how we do our jobs and why our work should be of value to them. Our community loved that we took the time to host events and wanted us to do so more often.

As an introvert, much of this stuff was exhausting but rewarding. I’m a better reporter for learning about new ways to hear my community and I definitely plan on incorporating these tools into reporting in the future. Call-outs, for example, are free and can take off quickly with regular social media promotion. I’ve come away from this project with the understanding that journalists don’t spend enough time listening to their communities, but there’s relatively easy steps we can take to change that. It’s mostly a matter of taking a little extra time to plan, in my experience.

While I came away from this project with a great respect and appreciation for community engagement, I will say that all of this work certainly isn’t something that our newsroom would have been able to afford its our own. It was difficult finding the time to pull off this work while dealing with the grind of a daily, community newspaper. Still, that’s all the more reason that reporters and newsrooms should take advantage of fellowship and grant opportunities such as these. 

Read the series:

Pricey housing in Napa County can cost more than your paycheck. It can affect your health

Housing costs cramp business in expensive communities

Renter’s handbook: Here’s how to navigate the top 6 tenant housing issues

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