The Heights

Who tells the story? High Ground program trains Memphians to report their neighborhoods' news

High Ground's new Community Correspondents program takes passionate Memphians and gives them the skills to find and report stories that acknowledge their neighborhoods' struggles but focus on resilience.

Most media coverage of disinvested neighborhoods center problems like crime without exploring the causes or solutions neighborhood leaders are using to combat challenges.

The Community Correspondents program posits that the best people to craft neighborhood narratives are residents. They should be both quoted sources and the journalists citing them.

Related: "Video: When neighbors make the news"

Across the United States, journalism has a problem with representation. Newsrooms are dominated by white, college-educated men. With a lack of diversity among those who tell the stories comes a lack of nuanced narratives that fully and accurately reflect the lived experience of diverse communities.

"The news industry is at-risk in terms of trust and at the same time evolving to amplify voices from members of marginalized communities," said Micaela Watts, a full-time reporter with The Commercial Appeal.

Soon, eight Memphians from four different communities will submit their first story drafts as freelance, neighborhood-based reporters. A few members of this inaugural class came with previous writing experience. Most did not.

The cohort includes Monique Rials and Teddy King of Frayser, Ian Randolph and Leigh Tatum of The Heights, Alexandria Moore and Ashleigh Mayfield of Orange Mound, and Ramona Springfield and Ivy Arnold of South Memphis.

Their first stories spotlight a wide range of topic, including adaptive reuse of churches, access to life insurance in low-income communities, and an ode to corner stores.

Micaela Watts, reporter for The Commercial Appeal, served as trainer for the inaugural Community Correspondents program. The program included eight residents from four Memphis neighborhoods. (Cat Evans)

Randolph is the founder and president of the Holmes Street Neighborhood Association, which represents one of several distinct communities in The Heights. He's spent years in community development and neighborhood building. He pens a Holmes Street newsletter and has chaired the board of the Memphis Housing Authority. He's lived in affluent and low-income neighborhoods and has friends and colleagues from both. 

“What I found with my more affluent friends is that they typically did not understand people in low-income situations,” said Randolph. 

“I thought that the stories that I could tell would be interesting and expose people to what it’s like to be around a different set of people," he said of his motivation to become a community correspondent. “I would like people to have a better understanding of each other. For the people in The Heights, I want to encourage them to make the neighborhood better.”

The correspondents program launched with a four-week intensive course on the basics of storytelling and reporting. On November 23, the correspondent will wrap up two weeks of mentoring with seasoned reporters before submitting their first drafts.

The mentors are High Ground reporters Brandi Hunter and A.J. Dugger, Daily Memphian reporter Ellie Perry, and Watts. Watts also served as the course's trainer. 

"Being offered a chance to contribute what I could to this needed evolution in media was the easiest decision I’ve made," said Watts. "Empowering others, equipping them with tools to speak truth to and for their communities is a benefit that cannot be quantified."

The Community Correspondents program was funded by a grant from Facebook. In addition to paying the participants, trainer, and mentors for each session, correspondents are paid for their first published story and provided laptops that they will keep to continue their reporting work post-training. 

High Ground recently received a second grant to launch another Community Correspondents program in 2020 in North Memphis. North Memphis residents interested in applying should email [email protected].

After completing their first published stories, correspondents can continue working as freelance reporters for High Ground and pitch to other publications if they choose. 

"No matter your view—whether this is the end-times for the industry as we know it or a genesis for something better—community voices [and] resident- and solutions-focused reporting are finally being recognized as crucial to the changing tides ahead in mass media," said Watts.
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Read more articles by Cole Bradley.

Cole Bradley is a native Memphian and graduate of the University of Memphis. Cole's worked locally as a researcher and community engagement strategist and began contributing to High Ground in Jan 2017.