Sinking Ships and Solar-Powered Planes

July 23, 2020

This is how Dawaune Lamont Hayes describes the journalism industry these days:

"We're on a sinking ship trying to build a solar-powered airplane."

For the past couple of years, Hayes has been using all of the tools he can find to create that "solar-powered airplane" as founder and director of NOISE (North Omaha Information Support Everyone), which is a community-led news organization focused on informing the people of North Omaha.

For Hayes, that means thinking outside the box in an effort to push journalism forward. Take his project with the Omaha Star, for example. As Hayes explained it in 2018 during a talk at West Virginia University, the partnership was to try to find ways to utilize visual art to get a younger audience engaged with print again. His vision for that project was bold -- something he strives for every day.

"Don't be afraid to be too creative," Hayes said. "That's what we need right now. Journalism is an awesome field, but what it has lacked for a long time is creativity."

Hayes learned a lot from his collaboration with the Star, and that led NOISE to try experimenting with a magazine format to get important topics -- like the history of redlining in Omaha -- to a generation that normally may not pick up a newspaper.

NOISE's next 'zine will be published in August both in print and online. The focus will be on Omaha's Black civil rights history, which is extensive, considering that Malcolm X was born there.

Hayes said he's a big fan of the 'zine culture and small publications that encapsulate a variety of ideas.  And, he said the idea of creating a printed product is still important. "I recognize that something tangible and tactile can be just as, if not more, effective" than an online-only publication, Hayes said.

But at the same time, he knows that print is a finite product. So the online version of a Black civil rights history timeline will take on a life of its own. NOISE will invite the community to submit their own images and stories to the timeline, especially from the uprising during the late '60s.

That kind of interaction is key to NOISE's success, Hayes said.

"News needs to be inviting," he said. "It's not just that we are going to tell you what's happening. But we are an ecosystem. The readers who engage with our content are just as, if not more, knowledgable about things."

Listening is just as important as telling for NOISE, and that stems from the organization's early work with the Listening Post Collective. The knowledge learned from listening to the community has stuck with Hayes throughout his tenure at NOISE.

"I go back to that (Listening Post Collective) document often," Hayes said. "It's rooted in honesty."

"There's simplicity in that," he continued. "Sometimes we felt ourselves get away from that. But you really have to come back and say, 'What's up?' and have a real conversation about it. The benefit that NOISE has is because of our relationship and direct personal contacts. We are just as affected by the news as anyone else. ... It's a grounding and you're always trying to keep doing better. Find entry opportunities for people to come into your space, but also ask to be in their space to share information."

Hayes stressed that NOISE is the platform for the news. NOISE is not dictating what's news or what's not.

"As someone who studied journalism and teaches it to others, the No. 1 principle is listening and listen well," he said. 

Hayes and NOISE continue to listen and learn, not just from the public, but from the American Journalism Project cohort they are a part of, which includes the likes of City Bureau in Chicago. In fact, NOISE is working to create a documenters program in conjunction with the Heartland Workers Center in the spirit of City Bureau. That will enable people in North Omaha who are interested in bettering their community to expand NOISE's reach by attending local meetings.

"There are a ton of public boards and commissions that gather with little attendance or oversight," Hayes said. "When someone from the public is just there, the conversation changes."

Because of all of the events NOISE has been a part of the past couple of years, they have accumulated a broad network of people (about 700 in total) interested in helping their community.  The challenge is finding ways to turn that energy into something actionable. NOISE has asked this group what they think their strengths are. If they said they are good storytellers, they will be invited to documenter training, with a goal of having them attend community meetings.

Not everything they document will be turned into stories, but it helps an outlet like NOISE so it doesn't overextend itself. At the same time it empowers others and creates an effective way to hold people accountable.

That matches up well with two of NOISE's three primary pillars (civics, community and culture) and it also helps NOISE plan out its roadmap for growth and sustainability.

And, of course, it's the right thing to do -- empowering the community to become more involved and help each other. 

As Hayes says: "You have the power to tell your story, so do it -- by any means necessary and that's available to you"

Suddenly, that solar-powered airplane doesn't seem that far off now, does it?