Commentary

Can A Nonprofit Oasis Defeat The News Desert?

With Google and Alexa, who needs local news? Or, more precisely, local journalism?

Internet searches and voice interface (Is Kylie really a billionaire?) are not substitutes for local journalism. Stress on local news has spawned an unwelcome pejorative: news desert.

The full societal reckoning of the effects of news deserts is yet to be fully calculated. But as Americans debate “fake news,” bias, and press freedom, virtually everyone agrees news deserts mean less accountability, less coverage of local important topics, and, ultimately, an undermining of democracy.

The demise of The Vindicator, the 150-year-old newspaper in Youngstown, Ohio, is a recent example of technology’s grinding disruption of for-profit print media paid for by advertising and circulation fees.

About 300 miles away — in the remote Virginia foothills — is a news oasis worthy of our attention, supported by private citizens. A tiny weekly in rural Rappahannock County (population 7,321) consistently publishes long-form enterprise journalism with engaging graphics on topics of high reader interest.

As nonprofits migrate into news, the local journalism oasis in rural Virginia is different. Instead of a public-interest entity producing journalism and selling content, the journalism nonprofit in Rappahannock County is sponsoring award-winning journalism and paying the local weekly to publish it.

For three consecutive years, the Rappahannock News won top honors from the Virginia Press Association for in-depth series on the local economy, healthcare and cellular/broadband service.

A local nonprofit called Foothills Forum was born several years ago, when residents complained that news they cared about wasn’t being covered. A first step was to pay for an independent survey conducted by University of Virginia’s Center for Survey Research. More than four of 10 households in the rural county responded, an unusually high rate for a mailed survey.

Top-rated issues of concern were Internet service and cell phone coverage, which are spotty. In 2016, Foothills Forum Chairman Larry “Bud” Meyer signed a clearly worded public agreement with the local weekly to create content and to pay for expanded print and online coverage.

The agreement grants Rappahannock Media “sole discretion” whether to publish content submitted by the nonprofit, based on the newspaper’s independent editorial judgment.

Not everyone applauded. Actor Ben Jones (Cooter on "The Dukes of Hazzard"), who lives in the county, called the survey a “clueless cultural insult.”

A cultural divide in Rappahannock County pits those who have “been here” versus those who “come here,” typically from Washington, D.C., and other urban centers.

Donors to Foothills Forum — natives and transplants — are transparent. Foothills Forum recently broke ground by becoming the first journalism nonprofit of its kind to be accepted as a member of the Institute for Nonprofit News, which requires transparency of donors, says Foothills Forum advisor Andy Alexander, former ombudsman at The Washington Post.

As America fights to overcome local news deserts, the Foothills Forum model taps talent from finance, philanthropy and journalism:

• Chairman Bud Meyer worked for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation (1995-2009)

• Cofounder and former board member William Dietel, a former executive at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund

• Vice Chair Beverly Jones is an author, executive coach and former energy executive

Lead writer of award-winning long-form content is Randy Rieland, who worked for Discovery. Rieland, Alexander, and Jones are alumni of Ohio University, along with an intern and a fellow at Rappahannock News.

Foothills Forum’s proposed annual budget exceeds $100,000; the group is now big enough to recruit a part-time director. The forum’s federal tax Form 990 said the group spent $60 in administrative support and bookkeeping expenses in 2017.

In the foothills of Virginia, volunteers/donors with robust resumes and a strong interest in local journalism are defeating the news desert.

Among the latest to visit — to learn more about this model — are private supporters of a struggling weekly newspaper in neighboring Fauquier County. One such visitor, former Washington Post publisher Bo Jones, took notes. 

Perhaps we all should.

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