June 3, 2021

On May 10, Alexya Brown tweeted … a request.

“fear factor forreal: i’m eating cicadas during a live event this week for @DCist. but first, i need to find them. if you have cicadas in your yard and wouldn’t mind me plucking a few, dm pls.”

She got a few direct messages and, after a trip to a friend’s house, collected several plastic baggies of bugs that she cleaned, put into the freezer and, eventually, consumed.

In May, WAMU/DCist held a virtual event that offered the community and the newsroom a break from a bruising news cycle, and “Cicadas: What’s the buzz?” had it all — science, trivia, music, food — timed for the hatching of periodical cicadas. (A cold snap slowed the bugs down, which is why Brown, an engagement producer for Washington D.C.’s public radio station and local news website, had to put out the call looking for early hatchers in time for the event.)

“Pardon the bug pun, but we were all quite literally swarming around how we lean into this,” said Kelsey Proud, managing editor of audience at WAMU. “This is public media gold.”

The bugs, 17 years in the making, hit a sweet spot for the newsroom, she said, with the intersection of curiosity, science and community.

Environment reporter Jacob Fenston hadn’t been thinking about those bugs for 17 years, but in 2017, he wrote about them when some cicadas hatched early, possibly due to climate change.

“I sort of had 2021 circled on my calendar since then,” he said.

In March, Fenston started on the cicada beat, and his reporting was a natural fit for a community event, which builds off coverage and reflects what the community is talking about, Brown said.

The team planned the cicada event, and then kept adding features to it — a trivia break, a musical performance by a bug rapper and a cooking segment with a local chef.

In all, it was an hour and 38 minutes of cicadas.

Nearly 1,200 people registered for the virtual event, said Yanlin Zhang, WAMU event coordinator, and 536 attended live. The event was free and attendees could donate (the suggested amount was, you guessed it, $17.) It brought in $1,538 from 74 donors, Zhang said.

But the goal wasn’t revenue, Proud said, but rather to show that the newsroom is part of the community.

“This is a little bit of joy,” she said. “This is a little bit of something other than a very challenging time that people have been experiencing.”

By the way, Fenston liked the cicada spring roll. With the mushrooms in the dish, he said, it was hard to taste the bug (which I will now use as a legitimate reason for not liking mushrooms).

Brown liked them, too.

“It was quite pleasant.”

This piece originally appeared in Local Edition, our newsletter devoted to the telling stories of local journalists

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Kristen Hare covers the people and business of local news and is the editor of Locally at Poynter. She previously worked as a staff writer…
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