It begins with fun: Playing with the green screen, experimenting with microphones and cameras. Then the San Antonio teenagers move to weightier topics: elections, their take on the news, their stories.
Their instructors are college interns, under the direction of longtime journalist Charlotte-Anne Lucas. Lucas runs NOWCastSA, which she describes as a sort of independent C-SPAN for America’s fifth biggest city.
Her job: “Amplify the voices of the people in the community, and give them access to the community.” In short, help teens and other residents become questioners, people with both a stake in their place and the ability to seek what’s best for it.
Her venue: San Antonio’s majestic Central Library. While several journalism outlets have partnered with local libraries on book fairs, educational programs or occasional talks, NOWCastSA’s studio and staff has been housed in two offices in the library since 2010. Lucas runs a cadre of a half-dozen or so college interns who film everything from mayoral debates to high school graduations, helping San Antonio learn about itself.
This longtime partnership may provide a model as journalists and libraries find common cause and look for deeper ways to collaborate. Last month, the American Library Association and the Center for News Literacy announced grants to five libraries to train library workers and adult patrons to be better news consumers. A fact-checking program developed with journalists, Checkology, is being rolled out to libraries. Journalists from many sites, including The Lens in New Orleans and the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, have gone to libraries to show how to obtain public records or determine if a “news story” is legitimate.
In San Antonio, library director Ramiro Salazar calls the arrangement with NOWCastSA the perfect fit. The library covers the estimated $1,000 monthly rent, and NOWCastSA provides programming for the library amid its other assignments. “For both entities,’’ Salazar says, “it’s about empowering the community with information, enlightening the community with knowledge, so that members of our community can make their decisions, smart decisions, for themselves.”
Lucas, who worked for newspapers in Philadelphia, Dallas, Phoenix and San Francisco, says she has editorial independence; plus, she can call upon the library’s expertise in the history of the city and in resources. The library also has a powerful convening authority, she says, with a wide variety of events at the library’s auditorium.
“Having the address of Central Library in San Antonio is a big gift of credibility and faith,” says Lucas, the daughter of a librarian.
Libraries are popular. Nationwide, polls show Americans trust librarians at a percentage roughly double that of journalists. And numerous: In 30 years, industrialist Andrew Carnegie helped fund the construction of 1,689 public free libraries nationwide. While many have expanded into new digs, 911 of those sites are still working libraries.
As local newspapers shrink or move to out-of-town ownership, and some digital local news operations encounter turbulence, libraries may play a bigger role in informing Americans.
“Libraries and journalists have a lot of the same issues at stake,” says Thomas Huang, assistant managing editor for features and community engagement at the Dallas Morning News. “We both stand for the free flow of information and accurate and credible information. We’re also both endangered, in some way.”
Huang, who has spearheaded several projects with area libraries, is well aware of the benefits of collaboration. “Generally, libraries are trusted places,’’ he says. “When we’ve been working with Hispanic families, we find they’re already using the library, for GED and ESL classes.”
For San Antonio’s library, the studio provides relevance and a resource for its citizens, particularly the young, says Jennifer Velásquez , the system’s teen services director. Velásquez has written NOWCastSA into grants, including the one for teen storytelling classes, funded by the foundation of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs.
“It’s wonderful seeing that happen, the way teens respond to that,” Velásquez says of the storytelling classes. “You’re talking about teens who may not see themselves reflected in a positive way in mainstream media or television shows. … It’s crucial that they feel represented.’’
NOWCastSA and library have partnered for years on Crap Detection 101, Lucas’ most popular workshop series, about digital literacy. That work led to a Google Fiber Grant to teach digital media literacy to families in public housing. NowCastSA has worked on StoryCorps-style community oral history projects as well.
Most recently, Lucas and Velásquez are co-hosting the city’s Mini-Maker Faire, where teens can be talking about a crochet guild, building code for robots, or creating a calendar that tells you when to take out the garbage. NOWCastSA has become a key for teens “to tell stories in a virtual space that’s then shared with the community,” says Velásquez .
NOWCastSA also plays a key role in the city’s news ecosystem, covering hyperlocal news that other outlets don’t get, says Shelley Kofler, former news director of Texas Public Radio in San Antonio. In April, a debate it live-streamed led to a moment that may have helped decide the city’s mayoral race, says Kofler, now engagement editor at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
The then-mayor faced widespread criticism after saying that one reason for generational poverty was “people not being in relationship with their Creator.” The video attracted nationwide attention.
“NowCastSA was the only journalism organization covering that event, and it shared the taped comments with the public and other media organizations,’’ Kofler said. “It helped voters gain an awareness of the candidate’s values, which allowed them to make a more informed decision.”
Kofler adds that Lucas places the highest values on fact-checking and balance, with strong editorial standards for her interns and storytelling students. The efforts, such as the storytelling and journalism partnerships, are just a part of Velázquez’s dream for her library system.
She hopes San Antonio’s library can become as vital to her community — and to democracy — as a library she has studied in Denmark’s second city, Aarhus.
“You go there — the library is everything," Velásquez says. “You can get your passport there, your birth certificate there.”
Huang said Dallas’s library is partway there.
“The Office of Vital Statistics just moved into the library downtown,’’ he says, “so I guess you can get a birth certificate there, too.”
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Editor's note: A previous version misspelled the last name of the director of teen services of the San Antonio library system. It is Velásquez.