“News You Can Use:” Pragmatic Solidarity as a News Value in Online Community Journalism

By Ayleen Cabas-Mijares, Joy Jenkins, and Laura Nootbaar

[Citation: A. Cabas-Mijares, J. Jenkins, and L. Nootbaar (2023). “News You Can Use:” Pragmatic Solidarity as a News Value in Online Community Journalism #ISOJ Journal, 13(1), 9-31]

This research examines how a hyperlocal online news outlet deployed the news value of pragmatic solidarity to cover historically excluded communities. Through a case study of the Milwaukee-based Neighborhood News Service (NNS), we analyzed NNS’s most viewed and engaging news articles (N = 240) and semi-structured interviews with NNS staff members (N = 7). These data re- vealed that this news outlet exhibits the principles of pragmatic solidarity with a priority on identifying critical information needs and sharing actionable informa- tion with readers. NNS journalists enhanced value for marginalized communities through building trust with residents, social justice-oriented organizations, and individuals as a means of identifying sources and story ideas and promoting the perspectives of the community and stigmatized groups in coverage. A focus on pragmatic solidarity also involved leveraging technology to address the informa- tion needs of the community, with the NNS website functioning as a platform to connect residents with information and resources to meet these needs. Lastly, NNS staff members challenged the stereotypes and stigmatization evident in traditional local media through presenting the residents of these communities as problem-solvers who initiated solutions to issues that impact their communities.

Local news plays a vital role in communities, informing and equipping citizens to actively participate in civic life. In “communities of place,” local information is the core of community media, whether it consists of serious information, courageous editorials, or gossip (Reader & Hatcher, 2011). The presence of local journalists in a community can foster collective identity and a sense of connectedness, contributing to “the cohesion of local community life” (Harte et al., 2017, p. 161). Local journalists can also serve as community champions and advo- cates by bringing people together to discuss community and political issues or campaign for change (Hess & Waller, 2017). Studies of community journalism have grown and largely focus on relationships between journalists and the communities they serve (Reader, 2012).

As local news organizations have worked to adapt to trends resulting from the move to a digital-, mobile-, and platform-oriented media environment, disconnections have emerged between local journalists and their audiences. Franklin (2006) argued that the move toward larger, centralized newspaper offices has removed journalists from their communities. Similarly, Nielsen (2015) rein- forced that local journalists cannot assume that their work is valued but must constantly prove it is relevant and trustworthy. When there is a lack of relevant news coverage, some audiences may turn to interpersonal networks to meet their information needs and stay connected to their communities (McCollough et al., 2017).

Many local journalists are working to rebuild or strengthen these relationships, with some focused particularly on engaging with audiences who have been historically marginalized by legacy media outlets. Publishers of hyperlocal journalism focus on creating wide community benefit, citing community value as a primary motivation, including journalistic initiatives and “offline action that helped build local social capital, and strengthen communities in concrete ways” (Harte et al., 2017, p. 172). Local news organizations increasingly agree that they have a mandate to improve their community or support those who do (Ali et al., 2020).

This approach resonates with news value of solidarity, which focuses attention on the systemic failures that prevent communities — particularly minoritized ones — from enjoying equitable access to opportunity and safety (Varma, 2022). Solidarity, Varma argues, leads journalists to seek not just the testimonies of minoritized people but their social and political perspectives, which showcases their agency. Furthermore, solidarity-driven stories entice audiences to engage in transformative action, going beyond mere empathetic feelings toward marginalized individuals (Varma, 2020).

Varma’s pioneering work about solidarity has explored its philosophy and practices in the context of mainstream coverage of minoritized communities. We explore the news value of solidarity in a different context: hyperlocal online coverage for and by minoritized communities. Drawing from textual and inter- view data, we examine the online journalism practices of the Neighborhood News Service (NNS) and how it draws from the news value of solidarity to cover Black and Latinx Milwaukee neighborhoods. The observed journalism practices in this online and diverse local environment allow for theorizing a new news value within the umbrella of solidarity reporting — pragmatic solidarity — which prioritizes the sharing of actionable information with minoritized communities so that people can exercise their agency and address contingent problems without losing sight of the systemic nature of social injustices.

Shaping the News: News Values and Local Journalism

News values, or the criteria that shape news selection, play a key role in the production of news. Journalists are faced with more options for stories than their organizations have resources to cover, so they reduce phenomena to typifications that allow them to make decisions quickly (Tuchman, 1978). In determining story suitability, journalists look for stories that are important or interesting, and an ideal story carries both qualities (Gans, 1979). Gans found that stories for journalists became important based on factors such as the rank of the ac- tors, impact on the nation or national interest, impact on the greatest number of people, and significance for past and future. News values build on these assessments, functioning as a “shared shorthand operational understanding of what working journalists are required to produce to deadline” (Harcup & O’Neill, 2017, p. 1470). Parks (2019), in an analysis of the history of news values in the United States, found that they have remained consistent for a century, with news factors such as prominence, proximity, unusualness, magnitude, human interest and timeliness dating to the earliest textbooks and mirroring contemporary texts, with conflict the only addition.

Galtung and Ruge (1965) initiated the study of news values through proposing 12 factors shaping news selection. As summarized by O’Neill and Harcup (2019), the factors are: frequency (unfolding within the publication cycle of the outlet), threshold (the greater the intensity, the greater the impact), unambiguity (how easily an event can be interpreted or understood), meaningfulness (culturally familiar), consonance (predicting newsworthy events), unexpectedness, continuity, composition, reference to elite nations, reference to elite people, reference to persons, reference to something negative. Schulz (1982) built on this work, identifying six dimensions to news selection and 19 news factors: status (elite nation, elite institution, elite person); valence (aggression, controversy, values, success); relevance (consequence, concern); identification (proximity, ethnocentrism, personalization, emotions); consonance (theme, stereotype, predictability); and dynamics (timeliness, uncertainty, unexpectedness).

Golding and Elliott (1979, as cited in O’Neill & Harcup, 2019) suggested that news values emerge from occupational norms, and assumptions and could be reduced to audience, accessibility and fit. These considerations emphasize whether topics are important, interesting or relevant to the audience. Some outlets, however, are guided more by commercial values than civic values to achieve audience reach and popularity, with an emphasis on audience choice becoming even more prominent in the digital age (Harcup, 2019; Harcup & O’Neill, 2017).

News organizations now have social media and audience engagement managers who draw from audience metrics to influence news selection, often incorporating perspectives from outside traditional journalism (see Tandoc et al., 2021). Traditional journalists may also reconfigure their news values based less on content characteristics and more on the characteristics and biases of the journalists themselves. As Tandoc et al. (2021) wrote, “What might be odd for one editor might not be odd for another, so news values do not exclusively reside on news events and issues. They are internalized and deployed by journalists” (p. 87).

As personal background and bias inform perceptions and assessments of newsworthiness, news values play a role in (mis)representation. Ndlela (2005) argued that news values are “trained tendencies that shape the reported world while rendering invisible those people and events that do not meet explicit or implicit standards of newsworthiness” (p. 785). With American newsrooms being dominated by white cisgender heterosexual men and commercial interests (Usher, 2021), the standard of newsworthiness meets the point of view of the hegemonic majority, leaving the experiences of people outside those identifications more susceptible to misrepresentation.

Concerns about dominant conceptions of newsworthiness are evident in scholarly work on ideology, hegemony, gatekeeping, and other areas, with individuals and organizations working to challenge these conceptions through producing alternative or “counter-hegemonic” forms of journalism that “problematize the very concept of news values,” such as feminist magazines and investigative online news sites (Harcup, 2019, p. 6). The increasingly fragmented news market and interest in nontraditional and marginalized journalistic genres and discourses has led to a focus on “soft” and hybrid news, as well as interpretive approaches to journalism (Mast & Temmerman, 2021).

News Values in Local News

Scholars have suggested that local journalists embrace a distinctive set of news values that embrace human potential, emotions and problem-solving, prioritizing narrative appeal through telling stories that resonate with readers, featuring both national elites and locally prominent individuals, and using human-interest angles (Hess & Waller, 2017). Local media also distinguish between “low threshold” issues — those that people experience in their daily lives — and “high threshold” issues — those with which they have no experience (Hess & Waller, 2017). Hanusch (2015) found an emphasis among local journalists on strengthening political engagement in their communities and providing information people need to participate in political activity. Local print coverage also reflects elements of social cohesion in communities, including social networks, solidarity and helpfulness (Leupold et al., 2018).

Even as digital and mobile media are “changing the idea of what is local, near or proximate” (Schmitz Weiss, 2018, p. 47), audiences expect journalists to be personally engaged with and understand their community’s history (Pew Research Center, 2019). Heider et al. (2005) found that readers preferred their local newspapers to serve more as “good neighbors” than watchdogs, with a focus on providing a forum for community views, highlighting interesting people and groups in the community, and offering solutions to community problems. Achieving these aims can be difficult as the local sector grapples with dwindling circulation, shrinking newsrooms and increasingly consolidated owner- ship models, as well as fewer resources to invest in digital innovation (Ali et al., 2018; Hess & Waller, 2017; Jenkins & Nielsen, 2020). Research has found that declines in local news have contributed to decreased civic knowledge and engagement (Hayes & Lawless, 2015, 2018).

Solidarity in Journalism: Centering the Marginalized

Solidarity has always informed reporting, even though it has been historically unacknowledged as a news value. Drawing from political philosophy, Varma (2020, p. 1706) defines solidarity as a categorical commitment to social justice, “when social justice is defined as dignity for everyone.” As a news value, solidarity refrains from traditional individualistic framing and elite focus to render the perspectives of marginalized communities newsworthy (Varma, 2022). Furthermore, solidarity requires reporters to develop non-extractive community relationships that uphold and enable the agency of minoritized audiences (Varma, 2022).

According to Varma (2022), solidarity in journalism can manifest as (a) intragroup solidarity, based on shared identities, heritage and/or experiences; (b) civic solidarity, when geographic proximity binds people together; (c) political solidarity, when people share commitments to certain principles, causes and goals; and (d) moral solidarity which, in the words of Scholz (2008, p. 42), calls for “responses to other humans in need based on our shared humanity.” In her study about local coverage of homelessness in San Francisco, Varma (2022) found that civic and political solidarity were most used among reporters as they centered the voices of local officials and organizations who sought to address systemic issues facing the homeless community. Moral and intragroup solidarity manifested the least. However, Varma argues, moral solidarity is the news value that yields the most transformative potential for journalism as it leads reporters to seek and place authority on the perspectives of marginalized people, not just their benefactors. As marginalized voices are given credence, their position as agentic humans deserving of rights and protection comes to the fore in solidarity reporting.

Varma’s pioneering studies about solidarity illuminate its use in local mainstream coverage about marginalized communities. As this study engages a hyperlocal news outlet composed mostly by minoritized reporters covering minoritized communities, distinct manifestations of solidarity emerge, namely pragmatic solidarity.

Within human rights studies, Farmer and Gastineau (2002, p. 657) defined pragmatic solidarity as the “rapid deployment of our tools and resources to improve the health and well-being of those who suffer [structural] violence.” The emphasis on timely responses to the needs of the marginalized anchors the concept of pragmatic solidarity. However, Farmer and Gastineau (2002, p. 659) underscore that pragmatic solidarity must go beyond prompt service delivery to seek “equality and justice” for the marginalized.

By centering justice in pragmatic solidarity, the needs and interests of the marginalized, as articulated by the marginalized, become a priority (Farmer, 2004; Farmer & Gastineau, 2002). Farmer and Gutiérrez (2013, p. 45) specify that, in working to address the needs of the poor, a focus on justice takes human rights workers to first, “seek the roots [sic] causes of the problem;” second, to “elicit the experiences and views of poor people;” and, third, to “incorporate these views into all observations, judgments, and actions.” The marginalized, then, become active partners in the execution of their own liberation.

Pragmatic solidarity as a news value, then, directs reporters’ attention to the perspectives of the marginalized to identify not only the root causes of their marginalization but also strategies to address contingent and systemic hard- ships. Stories shaped by pragmatic solidarity would prioritize the coverage of resources, tools and courses of action that are readily available to marginalized audiences and could improve their situation in the short term. These stories, then, simultaneously draw from and enable the agency of marginalized communities as the narratives push readers to action.

The approach to news making that pragmatic solidarity — and solidarity more broadly — enables is particularly relevant for minoritized communities who have been historically stigmatized in mainstream U.S. journalism (Wenzel, 2019). Studies have found that African American and Latinx residents in major U.S. cities have felt neglected and harmed by local news coverage (Wenzel et al., 2016). Mishandled interactions with reporters, stigmatizing story selection and framing, and a lack of newsroom diversity have compromised relationships with minoritized communities (Bui, 2018). Furthermore, Wenzel and Crittenden (2020) found that members of these communities perceived that journalists only covered crime stories, and prominent residents — including community leaders and business owners — said they had little contact with local reporters. These instances highlight how some journalistic practices have become extractive with reporters taking interest in minoritized communities only when their stories have shock value for other audiences (Yahr, 2019).

At NNS, reporters note that news production is designed to address the specific needs of their selected minoritized audiences. Editor-in-Chief Ron Smith notes that particularly since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic his newsroom has prioritized the production of “news you can use” (personal communication, November 5, 2021). That is, news that shares actionable information and resources for residents to solve or alleviate pressing problems, such as eviction, food insecurity and health care needs. This focus resonates with the principles of pragmatic solidarity and opens the door to investigate the following research questions in the context of hyperlocal online news production:

RQ1: How does pragmatic solidarity manifest in NNS coverage?
RQ2: How does pragmatic solidarity shape NNS journalistic practices?


To address these questions, we use an exploratory multi-method qualitative case study. A case-study approach allows us to obtain an in-depth, holistic understanding of a complex phenomenon (Haas, 2004). Case study uses detailed investigations to illuminate how behaviors and processes are influenced by and influence the real-life contexts in which they emerge (Cassell & Symon, 2004). Case study’s strength lies in the opportunity to evaluate a variety of types of evidence, in this case, documents, interviews, observations and artifacts (Yin, 2009). Here, we examine a unique case in the context of a specific issue or concern (Creswell & Poth, 2016), that is, the under-studied landscape of grassroots hyperlocal digital news.

Case Description

NNS launched in 2011 as a nonprofit online newsroom covering three historically Black Milwaukee neighborhoods. In the application for seed funds from the Zilber Family Foundation, journalist Sharon McGowan proposed NNS would “remedy Milwaukee mass media’s habit of ignoring the city’s neighborhoods except for stories about crime and decay” (Gunn as cited in Lowe, 2014, p. 53). The Diederich College of Communication at Marquette University provided office space, equipment, the editor-in-chief’s salary, and unpaid interns to support NNS.

Two years later, NNS had doubled its budget with grants from the Greater Milwaukee Foundation and the Knight Foundation, which allowed it to expand its coverage to 14 neighborhoods. Today, NNS Editor-in-Chief Ron Smith, an African American Pulitzer-prize winner and Marquette alumnus, leads the work of five journalists and three staff in 18 Milwaukee neighborhoods. By focusing on this newsroom, this study examines how pragmatic solidarity guides local online coverage in an urban environment.

Sample and Procedures

First, we conducted an inductive textual analysis of 240 news articles published on the NNS website between March 2020 and February 2022. For each month within that timeframe, the 10 articles with higher audience engagement metrics on NNS’s Facebook account were selected for analysis. We considered number of views, reactions, shares and comments to assess engagement in the social platform. Facebook was prioritized for data collection because it is the platform that generates the most audience engagement around NNS content, according to newsroom staff. Several NNS reporters also agreed that Facebook was central to NNS’s online news distribution strategy because most of their audiences got exposed to and shared NNS news using this platform. A Facebook-intensive strategy is not unique to NNS, as many other digital-only newsrooms have used the platform to better reach and expand targeted audiences at the local level (Weber et al., 2019). The stories selected covered several topics, including public safety, employment, housing, health and wellness, education and economic development.

Considering engagement in data collection is relevant in this study because a feature of pragmatic solidarity is the centering of audience’s information needs and the sharing of resources to address contingent problems. Articles that generate higher engagement not only are viewed more but are, potentially, more valued by NNS readers. For articles that share resources and solutions, this high engagement might signal that the content has indeed resonated with readers’ needs. While we recognize that these engagement metrics are not optimal, they provide the current study with an adequate proxy to the audience’s approach to and appreciation of NNS content. Future studies will examine the audience perception of NNS and its approach to online local journalism; however, an audience study is outside of the scope of this manuscript. The stories selected covered several topics, including public safety, employment, housing, health and wellness, education and economic development.

Second, we conducted semi-structured interviews with the NNS staff (N = 7), including the editor-in-chief, staff reporters, community engagement reporter, and others. The interviews lasted an average of approximately 50 minutes and were transcribed verbatim for analysis. Questions focused on asking participants to describe the mission of NNS, its coverage area and audience, approaches to developing story ideas and sourcing, editorial goals and perceived impact and community role, among others.

In the last phase of the research, we launched an online survey on NNS’s website to capture the perspectives of its readers. The survey, which remains open, addresses how often readers access content, their engagement with content, the perceived accuracy of neighborhood depictions, and areas for improvement. We will use the survey to recruit audience members for a series of focus groups, to be conducted in early spring, about their perspectives of the value of NNS news and their experiences with NNS journalists.

The three authors independently coded the NNS articles and interview transcripts. We engaged in an initial immersion in the data and then proceeded with line-by-line coding, comparing each line to the previous one (Tracy, 2013).

During secondary-cycle coding, we reorganized and condensed the first-cycle codes into categories and themes (Saldaña, 2009). We discussed and compared the themes we identified, which we describe below.


The analysis shows that the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service hyperlocal digital newsroom has adopted solidarity as a news value. Defined as a commitment to upholding everyone’s right to live with dignity, solidarity helps reporters seek stories that highlight systemic inequity and the perspectives of the oppressed (Varma, 2022). Pragmatic solidarity, as defined by Farmer and Gutiérrez (2013), narrows down the scope of news-making to focus on presenting the public with viable interventions or solutions to contingent problems. Furthermore, pragmatic solidarity requires reporters to identify and assess issues alongside the marginalized. In line with this value, NNS coverage intentionally highlighted the systemic nature of social issues, recognized the agency of residents of historically excluded neighborhoods, and prioritized sharing actionable information with readers.

This approach, NNS reporters noted, has allowed this outlet to build trust with residents and social justice-oriented organizations and activists serving in the targeted neighborhoods. By steering away from stigmatizing representations, leveraging digital technologies to identify information needs, and showcasing initiatives and perspectives from the community, NNS’s coverage also reflects the news values of helpfulness and problem-solving, which enable social cohesion in local communities (Leupold et. al, 2018).

Our interview data and textual analysis reveal that NNS’ work resonates with pragmatic solidarity in three ways: (a) NNS news coverage uses context and history to reveal the systemic nature of community issues alongside the success of minoritized communities; (b) the perspectives and needs of community members guide coverage; and (c) NNS draws attention to the perspectives and initiatives of marginalized communities, going beyond their experiences of dispossession.

Context Matters: Showing the System’s Failures and Black and Brown Success

Pragmatic solidarity relies on nuanced knowledge about the root causes of social problems (Farmer & Gutiérrez, 2013). As solidarity insists on enabling transformational action (Varma, 2020), acknowledging the systemic nature of local issues becomes key for journalists to, on the one hand, hold the appropriate entities accountable for the continuance or exacerbation of problems and, on the other, to effectively assess responses to those problems. All journalists at NNS showcased a deep awareness about the power imbalances that have rendered Black and Latinx communities in Milwaukee particularly vulnerable to, for instance, poverty, food insecurity, eviction and subpar education. This awareness not only informed their reporting practices but also the content of their articles.

A baseline understanding of systemic discrimination allows NNS to start reporting from a place of nuance and empathy. NNS Managing Editor Ricardo Pimentel noted that NNS coverage is unique because it does not question the existence of social inequities, which opens up time and space to investigate these inequities’ impact on people’s lives. “We recognize all the pathogens that afflict our community as well as all the good things that are happening to it. But … the undercurrent are the pathogens, the challenges these communities face” (personal communication, November 4, 2022). Pimentel said that providing fair and accurate information about these social “pathogens” to residents is essential because information is power. The goal, he argued, is to give NNS audiences “the information they need on a grassroots level to be aware of the problems and find some solutions.”

For Senior Staff Reporter Edgar Mendez, the mark of an NNS story is the focus on context. “When we cover something, we are covering an issue, not a specific incident” (personal communication, September 30, 2021). All NNS reporters noted that, when considering the communities NNS serves, other outlets in Milwaukee tend to pay more attention to particular events, like shootings, than to the broader issues and catalysts of those incidents, like chronic disinvestment or over-policing. These testimonies suggest that NNS journalists favor thematic over episodic news frames or, at least, use a mix of these in individual news stories, which helps readers to appreciate how systems work and avoid blaming individuals for their misfortune (Boukes, 2022; Iyengar, 1991). In a story titled “An enduring system of disadvantage,” NNS reported on a study by the UW-Milwaukee Center for Economic Development that detailed patterns of systemic oppression in the infamous 53206 zip code in Milwaukee: “The study provides an in-depth look at over two decades worth of data on factors that significantly impact 53206 residents, including employment and poverty rates” (Mendez, 2019, para. 23).

A story by Ana Martinez-Ortiz covered the motivations and legacy of anti-racist youth-led movements in Milwaukee to situate the protests that took place in the city in response to George Floyd’s murder in 2020. Martinez-Ortiz emphasized the importance of learning this history to make a fair assessment of the present and provided readers with a list of resources to educate themselves:

Part of addressing the root of the problem is understanding how history has shaped the policies, practices and behaviors of today. Below is a list of critical and historical resources. The list is broken into several parts and has sections on Milwaukee’s history, educational resources, films/documentaries and books. (Martinez-Ortiz, 2020, para. 17)

NNS news stories, then, leveraged history and data to demonstrate that community issues were more outcomes of systemic inequities designed to imprint precarity on these neighborhoods than the result of residents’ incompetence or deviance. To achieve these narratives, NNS relied mostly on the voices of residents and activists who shared their perspectives and strategies for improvement. For example, in a profile of organizer Nate Hamilton, NNS reported on his work with the Milwaukee Police Department to improve police-community relations. In the story, Hamilton emphasized the importance of having residents, particularly Black people, involved in police reform. Black people “both as individuals and as a whole, have failed to acknowledge the importance of ourselves,” Hamilton said. “It has become my goal to encourage people to attach themselves to what they care about and fight for it” (Byers & Fogarty, 2020, para. 6).

The centering of community voices, which we will expand on in the next section, enabled nuanced news narratives in which the complexity and severity of systemic issues did not diminish residents’ ability to understand or address them. This resonates with the news value of solidarity, which calls journalists to seek the perspectives of people at the receiving end of oppression (Varma, 2022). Furthermore, in the spirit of pragmatic solidarity, these stories drew from the expertise of minoritized residents to explain discrimination systems and showcase effective community interventions.

Centering Community Needs: The “News You Can Use” Approach

Farmer and Gutiérrez (2013, p. 45) argue that within the framework of pragmatic solidarity, the views of the marginalized must guide “all observations, judgments, and actions” of those who attempt to empower them. As NNS advances its mission to serve minoritized communities in Milwaukee, the newsroom makes active efforts to learn these populations’ information needs and cater its coverage to fulfill them, an approach that challenges news decisions dictated by journalists’ individual characteristics and biases (Tandoc et al., 2021). Community engagement practices, according to all study participants, sit at the core of newsmaking in NNS, with reporters leveraging their own presence in these communities, the NNS platform, and mobile communication technologies to stay attuned to the demands of readers.

Considering the existing news ecosystem in Milwaukee and the particularities of Black and Latinx neighborhoods, Editor-in-Chief Ron Smith (personal communication, November 5, 2021) decided that NNS would adopt a “news you can use” approach, which strives to “bring news to a ground level” so that audiences can know exactly what steps to take to either access resources or prevent problems. NNS, then, used journalism as a tool to support readers. Importantly, NNS coverage prioritized the voices of residents, showcasing the perspectives,agency, and resourcefulness of people who live in historically Black and Latinx neighborhoods, supporting local news’ emphasis on highlighting conflict-resolu-tion and human-interest stories (Hess & Waller, 2017).

This approach manifests as NNS’s articles are notably action- and solutions-oriented. Following pragmatic solidarity (Farmer & Gastineau, 2002), a significant portion of the coverage provided residents with resources to address issues that called for a rapid response. For example, NNS posts weekly an article titled “5 Things to Know,” which informs residents about events and resources. During the height of the pandemic, many of these articles became “COVID-19 Editions” in which reporters offered updates about vaccination sites, public health policies, mask distribution, webinars about health and budget management, and more. In the housing beat, Byers published an article titled “What Milwaukee homeowners (and those who want to be) should know” (Byers, 2021a) that shared a list of organizations and resources to support prospective and cur- rent homeowners. These resources were explicitly catered for Black and Latinx residents who, the article noted, must deal with the remnants of discriminatory systems like redlining. NNS, then, was intentional in adapting its coverage to the circumstances and needs of its main audiences, rather than privileging the power elite (Harcup & O’Neill, 2017).

NNS staff members asserted that the action orientation of their coverage is a newsroom priority. Reporter Sam Woods said NNS seeks to provide “information that illuminates what [residents] are going through… or helps them navigate what they’re going through on a day-to-day basis” (personal communication, October 21, 2021). For staff reporter Princess Safiya Byers (personal communication, September 30, 2021), service always trumps style:

Prior to NNS, and even in school, we learned about narrative writing, how to be a good writer, how to tell a good story, what words to use, all that cute stuff. And then, once I started at NNS, I learned very quickly that that’s cute and cool, but people who need things don’t care about how good of a writer you are. They don’t care about your performance.

Similarly, Woods focuses on how readers can use his reporting to improve their lives. He highlighted how, during the pandemic, he noticed other local outlets reporting on policy and administrative challenges, particularly with the rollout of economic stimulus and other social programs. Meanwhile, NNS devoted coverage to connecting residents with resources. “Our coverage of it was, ‘If you’ve gotten pushback from DHS about money you’re entitled to, you’re not alone … if you meet these criteria, you’re eligible for this money. Don’t let anyone tell you differently and keep calling this number’” (personal communication, October 21, 2021). This type of advocacy connects with the problem-solving orientation proposed by the news value of pragmatic solidarity.

NNS reporters also considered that establishing ethical and non-extractive relationships with neighborhood residents was key to fulfilling NNS’s mission. Reporter Matt Martinez argued that, when approaching minoritized communities, his interaction with the interviewee could be as important as the story. “If nothing else comes out of a story, I want somebody to feel like they were able to express what they were going through … and feel like somebody listened to them. I’m not just there to get a soundbite” (personal communication, September 30, 2021). This resonates with the principles Smith and Pimentel said they have established as editors, which require NNS journalists to earn the communities’ stories instead of feeling entitled to them. Good community relationships, Pimentel contended, are fundamental for NNS to gain trust and, thus, share information that readers will feel confident acting upon (personal communication, November 4, 2022).

NNS reporters actively participate in community engagement practices. Most of them live or grew up in the covered neighborhoods, which equips them with first-hand experiences that, they say, bring nuance and credibility to their reporting. It is normal practice for these journalists to be present in the neighborhoods and community events when they are not on assignment. “Even if I’m not covering things, I kind of show up if I have the time” (P. Byers, personal communication, September 30, 2021).

Additionally, journalists in NNS said that they dwell in the same digital spaces as their target audiences. Community Engagement Reporter Ana Martinez-Ortiz noted that Milwaukee is a “Facebook city,” with many Black and Latinx neighborhoods and organizations using the platform to voice concerns or announce events and initiatives that would be of interest for NNS (personal communication, October 8, 2021). Reporters said that they constantly monitor Facebook to get story ideas and share resources.

Pimentel also highlighted the News 414 joint initiative between NNS and Wisconsin Watch (another non-profit digital newsroom in Madison), which allows residents to provide news tips to or request information from NNS directly via text message. Through the News 414 service, NNS reporters can assist residents in finding content — by NNS or other outlets and organizations — that would help them address problems. “A brutal truth about our audience is that they have a lot on their plate,” said Pimentel, so “making news digestible and accessible and helpful is vital for us and for them … Their questions and problems guide us (personal communication, November 4, 2022).”

These community engagement and news distribution practices resonate with pragmatic solidarity in that they center the perspectives and needs of the marginalized at all stages of news production. Editor-in-Chief Ron Smith (personal communication, November 5, 2021) argued that grounding coverage in the community’s wisdom serves multiple purposes for NNS, as it dispels stigmatizing representations of urban Black and Latinx communities, provides action- able information for residents to either help themselves or their neighbors, and restores trust between the community and journalists.

Communities in Action: Minoritized People as the Solution

Research has found that local news in the United States still struggles to disrupt extractive news practices and harmful narratives about minoritized communities (Bui, 2018; Wenzel & Crittenden, 2020; Wenzel et al., 2016). The focus on episodic coverage and the over-reliance on official local sources have been some of the elements that contribute to marginalized communities feeling unheard.

In contrast, NNS stories favor the voices of diverse neighborhood residents over authority figures, such as politicians or police officers, evident in traditional news values (Schulz, 1982). The perspectives of community members not only shaped story selection but also the news narratives themselves, as residents and members of grassroots organizations comprised the majority of the quoted sources. Moreover, in the “Community Voices” section, residents are given a space to publish opinion pieces on the NNS website.

In alignment with the news value of solidarity, NNS coverage rendered newsworthy the perspectives and projects of the communities. Beyond showing hardship and oppression as the main features of life in Milwaukee’s north and south sides, NNS consistently portrayed Black and Latinx residents as problem-solvers and innovators whose initiatives contribute to the community’s well-being. For example, a profile of Jeremy Walton, an African American teacher, highlights how his work defies negative stereotypes and contributes to the incorporation of more Black men in early childhood education (Martinez, 2021a). Another story covered the Zen Den, a space that two northside residents created in partnership with Peace Garden Project MKE and Mental Health America of Wisconsin to provide healing and wellness tools to the surrounding community (Martinez, 2022).

This focus on the agency of residents was salient in NNS content and part of staff members’ efforts to show a fuller and more accurate picture of these neighborhoods. Smith (personal communication, November 5, 2021) insisted that NNS’s goal is to “educate, illuminate, and celebrate,” which brings to the fore important issues as well as small and big victories in the community. A story about Bellies and Babees, a nonprofit that assists local mothers in need, illustrates this as it showcases the impact of an organization founded by Milwaukee southside residents (Martinez, 2021b). The services this nonprofit reportedly provides help minoritized mothers navigate a wide range of issues, from housing to childcare and employment. The article, then, shows community members as active agents alleviating community issues.

The consistent coverage of residents’ initiatives has recontextualized the neighborhoods for NNS reporters, including those who were born and raised in the city. “I grew up in Milwaukee — in one of the neighborhoods we cover — so then you’re like, ‘I didn’t even know all these cool people lived here’” (P. Byers, personal communication, September 30, 2021). This comment, anecdotally, speaks of how stigmatizing and issue-oriented coverage of central city neighborhoods of Milwaukee has obscured the fact that many people living in these marginalized areas manage to not just survive but also thrive against the odds.

Uplifting and humanizing representation of minoritized people is, then, part of the NNS brand. A significant number of stories highlighted the initiatives of youth. To illustrate, one article profiled Que El-Amin, a young resident who “has combined his passion for architecture with his need to serve by creating affordable housing for some of Milwaukee’s most economically challenged neighbor- hoods” (Byers, 2021b, para. 4). Stories like this are relevant for Editor-in-Chief Ron Smith because “Black and Brown people need to see themselves winning, contributing. That’s our story, too” (personal communication, November 5, 2021).


This study examined pragmatic solidarity as a local news value present in the editorial philosophies and work of the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service (NNS). As a news value, pragmatic solidarity emphasizes the perspectives of the marginalized, illuminating the systemic factors contributing to their marginalization as well as solutions for addressing the hardships they face. Pragmatic solidarity builds on traditional functions of community media, including providing a forum for community views, highlighting interesting people and groups in the community, and offering solutions to community problems (Heider et al., 2005). Pragmatic solidarity is, however, distinct in that it draws almost exclusively from the perspectives of historically excluded publics to establish newsworthiness, framing, community engagement and news distribution strategies, and a problem-solving orientation in news. This approach differs significantly from news-selection practices based on traditional news values reflecting established professional norms and assumptions (Golding & Elliott, 1979), including prominence, proximity, unusualness, magnitude, human interest, timeliness and conflict (Parks, 2019).

Rather, NNS journalists identify resources, tools and actions that readers can take to improve their situation, whether they are reporting on organizations assisting the unemployed, resources to find affordable housing, access to healthcare and banking services or others. This shows an emphasis on “low threshold” issues (Hess & Waller, 2017) as well as efforts to create alternative or “counter-hegemonic” forms of journalism that problematize established news values (Harcup, 2019). These stories also serve local information needs in that they are original, focused on the local community, and addressing critical information needs, such as health, transportation and education (Napoli et al., 2017).

The “news you can use” approach outlines the steps readers should take to access resources or prevent problems, particularly in times of crisis. NNS coverage is solutions-oriented, reflecting the turn in local journalism to identify problems as well as examine ways to solve them (Ali et al., 2020; Wenzel et al., 2016). This practice broadly reflects the news value of solidarity — particularly moral solidarity (Varma, 2022) — in its emphasis on enabling responses to systemic issues. However, as this hyperlocal nonprofit is comprised mostly by staff of minoritized backgrounds serving audiences who are often ignored and stigmatized by news media, NNS’s deployment of solidarity has distinct characteristics that prioritize not only service and fair representation, but the explicit recognition of the contributions of minoritized people, challenging stereotypes that can accompany traditional news values (Ndlela, 2005).

This coverage, therefore, illuminates the work that people in marginalized neighborhoods are doing to enhance social cohesion. NNS staff members emphasized that their editorial decision-making is driven by the perspectives and needs of community members, following Farmer and Gutiérrez’s (2013) call that decisions and actions in pragmatic solidarity be guided by the views of the oppressed. Pragmatic solidarity, as applied in journalism, reflects a transformational rather than extractive approach to reporting that listens to sources, builds relationships over time, and returns to communities for follow-up reporting or to identify opportunities for improvement (Heider et al., 2005; Yahr, 2019).

NNS’s community-engaged approach leverages the experiences of community members in ways that go beyond stereotypes or traumatic experiences, instead featuring stories of community uplift. This challenges traditional news coverage that can leave African American and Latinx audiences feeling neglected and harmed (Wenzel et al., 2016). Rather, NNS’s editorial framing aims to offer a sense of agency to readers and make clear how they can take part in transformational action (Varma, 2020). It also allows journalists to build trust with their readers and enhance their reporting with first-hand experiences. NNS seeks to repair the negative interactions with reporters, editorial stigmatization, and lack of newsroom diversity prevalent in the news industry (Bui, 2018).

NNS’s coverage, as evident in the interviews and textual analysis, also goes deeper, addressing the systemic nature of social issues, offering historical context, and acknowledging how these issues have disproportionately imprinted precarity on marginalized groups. In doing so, it functions as a form of “mediated social capital” (Hess, 2015), specifically in its emphasis on bonding (foster- ing community), bridging (sharing information with people), and linking (connecting people with decision makers). Rather than favoring topics like crime and privileging the voices of elite sources (Wenzel & Crittenden, 2020), these stories prioritize the voices of neighborhood residents.

This case study opens opportunities to continue exploring the impact of solidarity as a news value on journalism epistemologies, practices and content. More studies are necessary to critically examine the circumstances that enable the centering of social justice and human dignity in news reporting at local, regional, national and international levels. Furthermore, audience studies must complement such research to help elucidate to what extent the embrace of solidarity as a news value contributes to journalists’ efforts to ethically engage communi- ties in news making and (re)build trust with minoritized constituencies. Such research would enable serious assessments of the potentialities and pitfalls of solidarity that could lead to creative strategies that maximize its potential to improve journalism practice and restore the institution’s credibility.


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About the authors:

Ayleen Cabas-Mijares is an assistant professor of journalism and media studies at Marquette University. She graduated from the Missouri School of Journalism with a PhD in Journalism and a graduate minor in Women’s and Gender Studies. Dr. Cabas-Mijares is a critical/cultural scholar whose research investigates how social movements shape journalism and media epistemologies and practices. Her research focuses on the Latin American region and Latinx diaspora. Dr. Cabas-Mijares has conducted studies on media activism by multiple social movements, such as the indigenous environmental movement in Honduras, the feminist movement in Argentina, and the Undocuqueer movement in the United States.

Joy Jenkins is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, School of Journalism and Electronic Media. Her research uses a sociological approach to examine changing organizational identities and practices in newsrooms, with a particular focus on local journalism and gender and media. Dr. Jenkins is also a research associate at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, U.K. Before entering academia, Jenkins served as senior editor at TulsaPeople magazine in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and copy editor at the Oklahoma Gazette in Oklahoma City.

Laura Nootbaar is a graduate student at Marquette University earning a master’s degree in communications. She received a bachelor’s degree in public relations and a minor in writing-intensive English from Marquette University. She is the founder of Nootbaar Communications, LLC, and is a corporate communications partner at Carle Health in Champaign, Illinois.