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Oakland Local demonstrates the power of community-centered journalism

Erin Roberts

Oakland Local is a hyper-local news and information website that has brought a new community-driven voice to Bay Area news since its launch in October 2009. While Oakland Local has a dedicated staff of volunteers, the site has also partnered with 35 non-profit and community organizations in Oakland to ground its coverage in what truly matters to local residents. Each of Oakland Local's partners contributes news, information, and event listings to the site, and is provided informal training in news literacy and the use of social media. As founder Susan Mernit noted in a recent conversation, “We have non-profits [that now have their blog] on the front page of their…website, because we trained them how to blog and use social media . . . [Our mission is] about building capacity, not just about journalism.” Oakland Local's unique approach has led to early success – with a minimal budget and a volunteer staff, the site has already had over 150,000 unique visitors and more than 600,000 page views to date.

While Oakland Local has measured its success in part through web and social media analytics, the site is also deeply interested in both supporting and representing the local community. “[Oakland Local's] writers live here or they work here, and they're very close to the issues, even if they're reporting on them,” notes Mernit. The staff is also “somewhat unique in Oakland in that [it is] intensely multicultural . . . we wanted to have a staff that optimally would look like Oakland and . . . contribute diverse voices and multiple perspectives.” Oakland Local's audience reflects this community-centered approach, with 98% of the site's visitors coming from the immediate Oakland area. This is of particular importance because, according to Mernit, “we want to be sure [the] people we're reaching are from Oakland . . . people who are close to our issues, not people who've moved away or who live somewhere else.” This connection between Oakland Local and the community that it covers has led the site to a different approach than most in reporting local news. “We don’t believe in the traditional view of objectivity,” says Mernit, “but we do believe in standards of thoroughness and accuracy, and we. . .enforce those.”

This personal approach to reporting on local issues can be clearly seen in Oakland Local's coverage of the fatal shooting of unarmed civilian Oscar Grant by Bay Area Rapid Transit officer Johannes Mehserle. The site was founded, in part, as a reaction to local news coverage of the event. As Susan Mernit writes in an article on the site, “I’d always thought many people in Oakland lacked a media outlet—blog or news site—that reflected who they were and what they cared about—but I’d always felt like starting one myself was more than I wanted to take on. But then, as the information about Oscar Grant’s death unfolded...it became clear...that a lot of voices were being left out of the media conversation.” In the months since its founding, Oakland Local has remained committed to the Grant story, creating a memorial tribute on the site, which features the voices of community leaders, ordinary citizens, and local artists reflecting on and reacting to Grant's death.

In all of its work, Oakland Local prides itself on being a part of the community that it covers. “[We support] events that other non-profits are doing in Oakland,” says Mernit, “by going to them, or covering them, or being a media sponsor.” In one recent addition to the site, a staff writer regularly lists causes and fundraising events that visitors to the site can support.

The community has responded in kind, providing one of the key metrics that Oakland Local uses to judge its effectiveness – direct feedback. As Mernit explains, “[Oakland Local is] quoted by people, we get 15-17 comments on a story on a Facebook page, we hear from people out in the community how great it was that we covered x and nobody else does.” At its core, Oakland Local is a website of, as well as for, the community. As Mernit puts it, “One of the big sayings in Oakland Local is there is no them.” As the site continues to grow, and gain more partners and traction in Oakland, it moves closer to its ultimate goal, to “empower non-profits and community members to be able to tell their own stories." Says Mernit, "At the end of the day, we’d like to be able to say that we helped move the needle, in terms of more people starting to take action around issues and problems in Oakland.”