Deep community engagement: A chat with Lyndsey Gilpin of Southerly

By Eric Frederick, NC Local Newsletter Editor

Lyndsey Gilpin is the founder and EIC of Southerly, a Durham-based, regional independent media organization reporting on ecology, justice and culture in the South. She’s also a Senior Community Impact Fellow in the John S. Knight program at Stanford University, with a focus on information access in rural Southern communities of color, continuing the work she began in an initial JSK fellowship starting in 2020.

Image of Lyndsey Gilpin
Lyndsey Gilpin

Gilpin has moved back to her hometown — Louisville, Kentucky — with her husband, who’s working a remote job based in Appalachia. It can be a challenge getting on her busy calendar, but she was gracious to share a half-hour on the phone with me this week to talk about what she’s learning through the fellowship and her work with Southerly. Here’s our chat, lightly edited for length and clarity:

Tell me about your initial JSK fellowship and the newsletter project you launched.

I wanted to focus on better ways to reach rural communities of color in the South, around environmental justice issues. And in our cohort there were people from all over the country doing similar work in urban areas and rural areas. Most of them were hyperlocal or state-based. And so we really dug in and collaborated with each other, giving feedback and kind of learning how to design systems that can help us create space for people to tell us what they need, and also learn from them and design projects that are centered on what community members need, and want, and would serve them better than how journalism traditionally serves them. 

And honestly, I spent so much of the last year or so just listening, and trying to unlearn a lot of what I had been taught in the journalism industry — and as a white person in the journalism industry — and making space for people of color, for rural folks, for low-wealth folks, and also community organizers and other community leaders in several different places throughout the South, talk about what they needed, what they lacked, what frustrated them with how media has treated them, and what they think would serve them better. 

The place that really came up for me, and where we had some momentum, was in northeastern North Carolina. So the last half of the fellowship, I really dug into five counties in North Carolina — Halifax, Northampton, Bertie, Hertford and Gates — because they’re all very similar in terms of not having many news sources or just being news deserts in general. And you know, a lot of farming, a lot of solar is cropping up there, a lot of industrial hog farming, things like that — and it’s very rural, predominantly Black. I had reported there when the Atlantic Coast Pipeline was slated to go through there, so I had already built up some relationships in Northampton and Halifax. 

So I did a lot of listening sessions over a few months with, you know, environmental justice organizers and community groups that had already organized themselves around particular issues, whether that was an industry coming in, or the pipeline, or other things related to COVID. There are so few news outlets there, and even the ones that are nearby don’t write about environmental issues consistently. We were trying to figure out how we combine COVID coverage, and vaccine stuff that people needed, with the kind of things that Southerly traditionally reports on. 

We ended up partnering with the Albemarle Regional Library System … because people were going there to use the internet in several counties, and they were sharing things on Facebook about COVID or community meetings, how to access YouTube, how to get city council meetings, things like that. And we just realized: What if we combine efforts here and distribute a newsletter, because so many people lack internet access or … don’t have great cell phone service in some of these areas? One of the ideas was something printed that they can distribute in their community centers. And so we came up with this newsletter idea, and monthly was how it started just because that seemed like the most we could do with the amount of resources that we had. 

And so I basically designed it with the help of the director of the library and then the guy who runs the Northampton County NAACP chapter, and they helped me figure out how to frame things — like what topics they really wanted in there. So we had some stuff about solar, we had some stuff about how to access meeting minutes, and things like that. It was kind of a prototype to be handed out and see what ideas it generated for people. So I went down there in the spring to a drive-up NAACP meeting — everyone was in their cars because of COVID — and handed them out, and from there people distributed them through churches, again through the library system, and it was really interesting. It’s a lot of work to put something like that together. And it’s community organizing — it’s a totally different skill set than what I was taught in journalism school, but it was what was most necessary at that moment.

Because COVID got bad again, it sort of got put on the back burner, but we’re working on it again. And people were really into having it generate a lot of ideas immediately — I have questions about this, or we should tell people about the food bank that’s coming next month — things that, a long time ago, they would see in the newspaper, right? Or things they’re having to search on Facebook. My goal eventually would be to use the idea as something that could be replicated in other rural communities and eventually have residents take ownership, and generate its own money … to fill a little bit of an information gap in places like northeastern North Carolina, where, in the foreseeable future, there’s not going to be a stronger news outlet for them … It’d be cool to print a lot of community newsletters for neighborhoods that have ads for local businesses that can help generate some money. We just want to make sure that if it continues, people get paid for their time and have ownership of it so they’re more invested in the community — and Southerly, or whoever else is involved in it, can help fact-check and get the information and make sure that people know how to get public records if they need it, or it’s covering issues that are coming up that might not get a lot of attention.

A screenshot of the Northeastern NC Newsletter
A screenshot of the Northeastern NC Newsletter

I was going to ask about the long-term vision. Anything else you’re thinking?

What I’ve realized more and more in the last two years is that there’s a difference between community engagement and deep community engagement, where you’re building trust, and being there consistently, and creating things that can help empower people or inform them or help them organize around something. Things that are truly helping build power in places that are historically oppressed, and underserved. And so, you know, trying to equip people, especially communities facing environmental injustices, with the journalism they need and the resources they need, the information they need. 

That is different in some ways from what we’ve been doing, just because we’re trying to think of those goals now for every story rather than just ad hoc trying to do it per project. Building it in the front end, when we’re partnering with other news outlets or getting a freelance story — really trying to make sure: OK, how is this getting out to people? How are we distributing it? Does it need to be online? Does it need to be offline? Should it take the form of a traditional news story, or does it need to be an event, or does it need to be, you know, just a quick hit thing with a PDF that people can share easily? And thinking more creatively about that. 

Because of this newsletter, and the ideas that it generated, in the fellowship this year we’re focusing a little more on digging deeper into the projects that we’re working on, but also using those to revisit our mission and our values and our audience. There’s four of us in the cohort now, and everyone’s starting their own news outlet or running their own news outlet. So it’s really interesting to try to figure out how to make that sustainable while keeping this community engagement piece at the forefront, at the center. So this coming year, we’re still doing the North Carolina stuff, but also working on a project to address disaster preparedness and recovery, which has a lot to do with North Carolina, and eastern North Carolina specifically. And so we’ve been … focusing on how to create resources and informational guides and spaces where people can connect to learn how to navigate these very cumbersome federal and state processes and better prepare and know what they need to ask and what they have a right to. 

You’re anticipating all of my questions. Keep talking.

We’re working longer term with other news outlets, with communities, organizations, civic institutions, places where we can kind of build some momentum around environmental justice — and, you know, making sure people have information. So I think this is shifting a little bit of what Southerly is doing because, you know, there are more and more climate reporting job openings these days, you know, than there ever have been, which is amazing. But the coverage in places like rural North Carolina — that is not going to exponentially change anything. The fact that there’s just more climate job openings or there’s two-year positions with Report for America — those are incredible, but we have to think more holistically. How do we make all of these work together? How can Report for America reporters and Southerly and Scalawag and, you know, places in western North Carolina work with Eastern North Carolina, how do we make that whole media ecosystem get stronger? Particularly around issues that are difficult to talk about and abstract and confusing and scary. So this has really shaped how I see using the work I’m doing with JSK, but also the work Southerly is doing with other organizations, to really radically change how the journalism industry is working and what that could potentially look like — although I do not know what that answer is.

You’ve also partnered with Enlace Latino NC. (Their partnership was a LION Awards finalist.) What’s the biggest challenge of a collaboration like that, particularly a multilingual collaboration?

Well, I think honestly, the biggest challenge with Enlace and Southerly is just that we’re both very small teams, and so it’s been a challenge to try to do the big visioning and ideas. But you know, thinking about audience has been a challenge in a good way. We have completely separate audiences. The Latinx population in the South is growing rapidly, and it’s a huge area we want to reach, and so the challenge of figuring out which stories are right for this project, and how do we reach both of the groups — like, if Southerly wants to focus on rural Latinx communities, how do we reach them, and also make sure it’s relevant to Enlace’s core audience? Or how do we cover the environment while also doing some political reporting, or more “general information that people need” reporting? 

I think that’s a challenge in any collaboration … to make sure your voices complement each other and you can really create a better story together, but especially with a multilingual collaboration. It’s making sure that we’re serving the people that we want to serve. A big part of it has been constant communication. We have meetings every week. We are constantly thinking of new story ideas, but also we have a community organizer who’s been helping us do this series of Zoom or Facebook Live events over the last couple months around the things we’ve reported in our stories, and we had some big visions for more offline stuff, but you know — the pandemic. But it’s been so awesome, because Paola (Enlace executive editor Paola Jaramillo) and Victoria (reporter Victoria Bouloubasis) are just amazing. I’ve just learned so much about the Latinx community in North Carolina and how to reach them, whether it’s through WhatsApp, or you know, Enlace is doing a lot of these events and trying to really build those relationships. 

When you talked about big vision in a small organization, it made me curious — and this is a tactical question. When you have a vision that’s not fully formed, but it’s something that you really want to do, and you’re not in a room full of people — is there something you do to bring it into focus?

That’s a good question.

Again, this is something the JSK fellowship has just been incredible at, is sort of figuring out how to design a project, and how to make sure that it has the most impact. And so, the thing that I’ve really found myself doing is mapping out — if I have a big vision — who do I want it to be for? What do I want it to achieve? Or how do I want it to impact people? And then, you know, coming up with how that could possibly happen. I always list out the many things that I would never in a million years have time to do, and have everything on a page, or sometimes it’s Post-its, or sometimes it’s a whiteboard, but kind of look at the whole thing and say, “OK, this is the vision. This is what we want to get to. What pieces can be broken off that are actually doable? How do I feel accomplished, week to week, in achieving parts of that vision, and how can we have the most impact in the most efficient way?” And so that’s been really helpful because I’m very much a type of person that’s always thinking about giant ideas, like how to fix journalism, and you can’t solve that.

The other thing, I think, is really talking to people … and not just journalism people. These listening sessions that we were doing for these projects were so much more important than just serving that particular project. It was really telling in how people outside of our industry look at it, and understand it. You know, people know the place that they live best. I’m learning from so many other people in journalism and outside of it that are doing this work — how to make space for people and use that to kind of iterate on a project and evolve. And I think the one thing I’m most proud of about Southerly is that I do feel like we’re constantly evolving to better serve the people we’re trying to reach, and that is very difficult. 

So you always start with the people you’re trying to serve.

Yeah. And I think that wasn’t always the case. I tried to do that when I started Southerly three years ago, but, you know, it kind of gets away from you in the rush of the industry. And so really coming back to that is starting with the people, and who you want to impact, and why. And then trying to find smaller ways to do that, rather than just upending the whole thing — do a pilot project, or serve a particular population, so that we can show that this works and then hopefully replicate it.

What will the LION Facebook Revenue Growth Fellowship do for Southerly?

We have funding to make our first revenue hire (apply here), which is incredible, because I have been doing the fundraising for the last three years, and I’m very ready for someone who knows more about what they’re doing to do it — and to really dig into telling the story of our mission and our vision for funders. And hopefully this will help us reach funders outside of journalism, too, because, you know, we cover the environment — which is such a big space for fundraising in the South, and in North Carolina. And then other things like civic engagement or a democracy-focused initiative. They also offer training — the business training that you don’t get when you just randomly decide to start a nonprofit organization. So that’s been really, really awesome.

Speaking of which, let’s say I want to start an independent nonprofit newsroom, or I’m in the early stages of one and trying to sustain it. Give me your elevator pitch for what I should be thinking about, or what I should be doing.

My number one piece of advice is to find someone to do it with, because doing it alone is very difficult. It’s amazing to see, just in the few years that Southerly has been around, how many nonprofit and other types of news organizations have cropped up, and how many different populations and places that they’re serving. The problem is thinking more long term into how to make that sustainable. That’s the hardest part. And oftentimes, as journalists — like me, I just wanted to do the reporting and the journalism and the editing and, you know, we’re having to kind of figure all this stuff out as we go. And so really thinking hard about who you’re trying to serve, how you would make money, and, you know, what’s the impact you want to have? And as we move more and more into a world in journalism where it’s more focused on community-powered reporting and information access, it makes it that much more important to think about that at the forefront. Also, you know Southerly started as a newsletter, just to gauge what people were thinking, and that changed over a couple of years before we launched into a news organization. So I really think starting pilot projects, whether it’s a newsletter or a collaboration or an event or whatever it looks like, to really build the trust before launching.

Is there anything else you’d like people to know?

Yeah. Being in Kentucky now … it’s just really amazing to look at the media infrastructure in North Carolina and see how amazing it is. The collaborations that are happening, and the support that outlets and founders and everyone else in the industry are giving each other … I really hope that eventually we can see that replicated in other parts of the South.