How a Community Engagement Editor Can Transform Your Newsroom’s Work

Derrick Cain on building trust, and why newsrooms need journalists who come from the communities they cover

Derrick Cain, Community Engagement Editor, Resolve Philadelphia. (Photo: Kriston Bethel)

Resolve Philadelphia is an organization that develops and advances journalism built on equity, collaboration, and the elevation of community voices and solutions. It produces projects such as Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on economic mobility. We had the chance to speak with Derrick Cain about his role there, as community engagement editor.

Opening the News Gathering Process

Q: Can you tell us about your role at Resolve Philadelphia?

Derrick Cain: Resolve Philly is a collaborative of over 20 media outlets in Philadelphia. My job as community engagement editor is to expand the ability of the community to interact with journalists, to build a strong relationship with community members. This will deepen relationships with journalists from one or multiple newsrooms and encourage the community to talk about stories they would like to see more coverage of and share their expertise and experience. By opening the news gathering process, the outlets can better respond to the needs of the community and uncover underreported stories.

I started in June [2019]. There really isn’t a blueprint for [this role]. For me, the best way of approaching it is: help the community to understand, first, the process by which reporters work. And second, to help journalists understand that effective community engagement is collaborative—it requires the contributions of people from the community and organizational partners for diversity of thought with varied opinions. It is important to identify the players and people who will play a role and help shape authentic, untold stories.

Q: Can you tell me a little more about that, and how you’re helping journalists think about forming a different relationship with the community?

Traditional journalism is saying, “We have a story, and we want to tell the story.” When you bring community into that, especially when we talk about some form of partnership, most traditional journalists will argue “objectivity”. It’s important to get traditional journalism organizations to understand that you’re not siding with them. You’re creating a relationship to build better, more authentic stories moving forward. And if a community feels they can trust you, then those stories will lead to more collaboration.

What Building Trust Looks Like

Q: You started in this role in June—and have you already had meetings with community members?

Yes, I had an event October 26th in the Strawberry Mansion section of North Philadelphia. We called it Sound Off…community members came out to speak on the things that they feel are dear to them, what they love about their community, what things they want to see in the media’s reporting on their communities.

Q: How did you approach designing that meeting?

The first meeting was about being transparent. Explain to the community what our nonprofit is doing, and say we really want to hear from you. I organized it, and at the very beginning of the event, I let everybody know who I am. I come from the same background that they do. A lot of layers of mistrust peel back when they feel that we can relate. We need more diversity in newsrooms, whether it’s through a staff role or a fellowship.

I Needed to Change the Narrative”

Q: Can you tell us more about that background, and what led you to Resolve?

I was a part of the news before I was working in it. I was incarcerated in a federal prison from 2009 to 2017. The Philadelphia Daily News did an article called “How the Mandatory Minimums are Leading a Surge in Federal Inmates,” and they used my story as an example. I was a first-time offender, and because of the mandatory minimum, I received a 10-year sentence. When they profiled my story a week later, in the comment section, a gentlemen wrote back and just basically said that I was nothing—I was just a drug dealer. I didn’t matter. Basically saying that I will always be a drug dealer no matter what.

I kept his comment. I have been carrying it around since 2011, and during that time period I really felt like, wow, if this is how this man felt, how would the rest of America feel?

So I felt like I needed to change the narrative, coming home… I got into a criminal justice journalism fellowship, and during that time period, I met Jean [Friedman-Rudovsky] from Resolve. She was doing a workshop, and she talked about Solutions Journalism and what they were doing at Resolve. I really was interested in that because I think in journalism, there should be some solutions component to it. It’s like we’re not just saying, I have a headache, I have a headache. Well, if I have a headache, what solutions do you have to help get rid of the headache? What’s the solution component of it? We often say, gun violence, gun violence, but what solutions are out there to help solve the problem?

Q: Can you tell us more about the workshop you held with community members?

First we talked about: What do you love about your community? Where do you get news from? And, besides news organizations, who do you trust to get news from? Some of the followup questions were, how do you make decisions about your news sources? Where do you think the community at large gets their news from?

Q: Were there any other practical details about the gathering that you can share, that others can learn from?

It was child-friendly. We provided lunch. We actually reimbursed them for their bus fare. We held it on a Saturday in the middle of the day, so no one had to get up early in the morning or stay out late at night. Another thing that’s important: go to where they’re comfortable. We went to their neighborhood, the neighborhood library. They were comfortable there. They’ve been there before.

Uncovering the News People Need

Q: And what were some of your big takeaways from gathering community members for Sound Off?

They were really excited that somebody came and actually listened. They weren’t talked at. They were allowed to voice their opinions. And two, people really want the media to get it right when they report a story. For instance, when six cops were shot on Erie Avenue in North Philadelphia, it was national news. Anyone familiar with North Philadelphia knows it’s a big area—yet people from other states were given the impression that, “wow, North Philadelphia is crazy.” That incident happened in the Nicetown-Tioga sections of North Philly, and residents felt the media should specify exactly where the incident happened. The other takeaway was that people need information about housing, especially what’s happening with gentrification. They feel like they don’t understand how to buy homes, maintain homes, or keep homes when homes are given to them after a family member passes away. They don’t really know how to do deed transfers and stuff like that; residents want more information.

Q: So interesting—we’ve heard from folks (especially at places like Hearken’s Engagement Innovation Summit) that journalism needs to think about itself more as an information service, when engaging with audiences. And so you need to know what information your community needs.

It’s really about information flow. Sharing information is critical to communities in Philadelphia. Get the information to flow, then you start to gain the trust. Then you start to build relationships.

Learn more in an essay by Derrick Cain, on WHYY.



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