Nonprofit news outlet The Trace has produced countless stories documenting gun violence in America. Reaching the people who need those stories the most is an entirely different challenge.
“We have recognized at The Trace that we as a nonprofit news organization — while doing a lot of, we think, very valuable reporting, having a lot of impact — did have one shortcoming,” editorial director James Burnett said, “which is that our work was not often enough engaging, reaching and serving the communities most disproportionately impacted by gun violence.”
Its new project, Up the Block, is a bid to change that. The initiative will connect Philadelphia residents with resources for coping with gun violence.
The project will ultimately have three parts. The first is a collaboration with local news site Billy Penn at WHYY, in which The Trace will expand upon Billy Penn’s collection of resources for shooting survivors. The second part will focus on resources for keeping kids safe from gun violence. The third will highlight ways Philadelphians can ensure their voices are heard by local government leaders.
Community outreach editor Sabrina Iglesias is heading the project and is a large part of the reason why The Trace chose to focus on Philadelphia. The Trace had considered basing the project in one of the cities where they already had reporters. But when they expanded their search for an editor to lead the project nationwide, they found Iglesias, who made a compelling case for Philadelphia, according to managing editor Kaitlyn Jakola. The city had a gun violence problem and community groups working to address the issue, but it struggled to get people information about those resources.
“It was sort of a perfect storm combination of the right person with passion for the project, a city that really had a need and a place where this work was already happening,” Jakola said. “It really is service journalism, connecting people to the infrastructure that does exist.”
Iglesias said she was drawn to the project because of her experience growing up in Philadelphia surrounded by gun violence.
“I know what it’s like to feel like there aren’t resources for you. I know what it’s like to feel ultimately numb to the shootings and come to expect them,” Iglesias said. “I feel really lucky to be in a position now where I can better understand what trauma is and how to heal and to have gotten to a point in my life where I’m able to get the information out to people that I needed.”
As of March 21, there have been 348 nonfatal and 86 fatal shooting victims in Philadelphia, according to the city Controller’s Office. Those people aren’t just statistics, Iglesias said: “They’re real people. They’re my neighbors.”
Listening to people affected
Iglesias has spent the past several months listening to the people affected by gun violence. She has followed local radio stations, sat in on virtual city council town hall meetings and tracked social media conversations. In those conversations, three main questions emerged — What do we do? How do we keep our kids safe? How do we hold local government figures accountable? — and became the basis for Up The Block’s three parts.
When the website launches this summer, it will include a more comprehensive and accessible version of Billy Penn’s original list of resources, which was compiled in 2019 after a gun violence summit in Philadelphia. Iglesias said the other two parts of the project will also take the form of resource lists instead of a more traditional article format.
“When I was living in Kensington and I was witnessing gun violence on a daily basis pretty much, and I was commuting to work and going through everyday life, I didn’t have much time to just like sit and read an article,” Iglesias said. “I know that probably most people don’t have a lot of time in their day-to-day life to figure out the best ways to help themselves throughout the traumas of gun violence.”
To ensure that the resource guides reach communities affected by gun violence, The Trace plans to partner with local organizations and leaders to distribute flyers that advertise the guides. Many Philadelphians get information about their community from Instagram, Iglesias said, so The Trace will also use Instagram to share resources.
The Trace is also considering advertising on local bulletin boards, partnering with community fridges and other hunger-based initiatives and collaborating with a local publication to set up a text hotline. Those offline distribution methods will be important to reach people who do not have easy access to the internet, Jakola said.
Ideally, Iglesias said, she would also host events to meet with community members in-person and help spread the word. But the pandemic has put those plans on hold.
“My biggest regret with this is not being able to be face-to-face with people because this is really the best way to get this information out,” Iglesias said.
Once all three parts of the project are complete. The Trace will continue to regularly update the guides, adding new organizations and resources as needed.
The Last Mile
The Trace originally came up with Up the Block when a funder, the Emerson Collective, offered a grant to solve their last mile problem — a term originating from transportation planning to describe the last step before something reaches its final destination.
It had become clear to The Trace that they had a last-mile problem of their own, Burnett said. Though they regularly partner with news organizations to ensure their stories have greater reach, those stories weren’t necessarily being read by people who have been affected by gun violence.
In 2017, New York University professor Rodney Benson told Nieman Lab, “I think what a lot of foundation-supported media are doing is providing quality news to audiences that are already getting a lot of quality news,” in an interview about his paper “Can foundations solve the journalism crisis?”
Burnett referenced that critique, saying The Trace had noticed the same issue in its own reporting. In 2018, the outlet published a feature about the Victims of Crime Act, a federal program that supports state and local organizations that work with crime victims. One of the issues they identified in the story was that the government hadn’t done enough to ensure that people know about the program’s existence.
“And then we sort of sat back and said, ‘Wait, hang on. We are also, as a nonprofit news organization, kind of in the information business,’” Burnett said. “If the problem we’ve identified through our enterprise feature … is that there’s a problem with information, maybe we should try to more directly address that with some service journalism.”
The Trace published a follow-up story with step-by-step instructions on applying for victims’ compensation. A year later, the newsroom applied for the Emerson Collective grant to start Up the Block.
Editors at The Trace view the Philadelphia project as an experiment and a potential model for additional reporting in other cities. Burnett said he also hopes to share what they learn with other news organizations that can then apply similar strategies to their own reporting.
For newsrooms seeking to engage in similarly hyperlocal service journalism, Jakola advised first spending time talking to people on the ground who are already familiar with local communities.
“There are going to be people who are already doing this work, and you have to acknowledge that and recognize their work,” Jakola said. “You can build on it, but there is a lot to be learned from people who are already in these cities, especially if you’re coming from another place.”