What a community journalism evolution might look like

The demise of rural newspapers will not mean the loss of community journalism.

There’s just too much as stake. People need credible information on community news and events.

The goal of The Rural Data Journalism project is to determine if there is a cost-effective way to deliver more relevant, detailed and timely data-driven journalism to rural audiences. We are open-minded on how that needs to happen.

The initial model for the project is analogous to the rural electric cooperative movement of the 1930s and 1940s. Cooperative members will contribute to the costs of processing and visualizing relevant datasets. The members prioritize what topics, datasets and stories are pursued.

For communities today, knowledge is power. Data is more available than ever, but the ability of journalists to harness these advances for their audiences is declining. Creating a cooperative will allow community news organizations to share the overhead of acquiring, analyzing and writing about hundreds of datasets that can provide context to their audiences.

There is great work being done in rural journalism. The Daily Yonder provides the perspective increasingly lacking as media consolidation has decreased the number of rural journalists. What a national approach to rural issues cannot provide, however, is the local context for how issues affect our family and neighbors.

The Rural Data Journalism project provides data analysis at a county level that can serve as a basis for more fact-driven local reporting. The processing and visualization of data has become increasingly difficult for news organizations as their staffs decrease.

It is hard, if not impossible, for small newspapers or sites to look at the immigration issues from the perspective of their communities with more than an anecdotal approach. Introduce readily available data and the challenge is manageable.

H-2A visas are used to hire foreign nationals to perform temporary or seasonal farm work. A national dataset exists that lists the number of H-2A visa applications by farm at the county level. This data can be processed once and given a map visualization layer, and then made available to be called using a specific county filter. Any cooperative member can get a detailed local view of immigrant labor to inform a story or serve as a stand-alone interactive for its own county.

The approach combines the unique perspective of journalists who understand their communities with a pooled set of resources that can provide more depth and context to their reporting.

This builds credibility and provides value to the community. The ability of community journalists to use this type of data as a starting point allows them to show whether local perceptions are grounded in reality or skewed by non-credible sources.

On the editorial side, the cooperative is open to newspapers, broadcasters, digital startups, libraries or other groups that adhere to journalistic principles. On the data science side, contributions will come from a small team of data developers as well as a broader team of part-time contributors and open-data practitioners.

Looking forward, we need to define journalism clearly and  be open to what that means in its broadest form.

Merriam-Webster defines journalism as “writing designed for publication in a newspaper or magazine.”  An alternate definition cited is more relevant today: “Writing characterized by a direct presentation of facts or description of events without an attempt at interpretation.”

A better overview of what true journalism should be is outlined by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel in their book, The Elements of Journalism.  Important characteristics include a “first loyalty” to citizens and “a discipline of verification.”

There are no requirements that mention paper or ink.

Many newspapers are gone, but the journalists who worked for them are still around. There also are community groups, volunteers, librarians, public officials and others who have begun to fill the journalistic void, even if they don’t know it.

There is considerable focus on finding new business models and attracting start-up financing.

About 500 digital outlets have appeared that are part of the Local Independent Online News (LION) association, which includes both non-profit and for-profit sites. About two-thirds of those sites provide information analogous to a typical community newspaper, according to a University of North Carolina 2018 study called The Expanding News Desert.

Most of these efforts are struggling.

The UNC study cited a 2016 Knight Foundation analysis of 153 online news sites in 56 markets that concluded that only one in five of these news sites attracted enough visitors and funding to be self-sufficient. Two-thirds were located in the seven largest metro areas in the country.

“Most of these experiments are centered in and around our largest cities and metro areas,” the study by Penelope Muse Abernathy noted. “This means many areas of the country still are at risk of becoming news deserts.”

Efforts of legacy newspaper companies to adapt their own operations to address the challenges of covering rural audiences are largely ignored in the discussion of what the new media landscape will look like. This is a mistake.

The practitioners of newspaper nostalgia have heaped scorn on Gannett, GateHouse and other newspaper chains for buying up independent publications and consolidating services to cut costs. These newspapers were for sale for a reason. While consolidation certainly erodes the community-centric culture of a publication, it doesn’t mean these companies don’t employ hundreds of dedicated journalists who want community journalism to return to viability.

Industry leaders have been exploring a range of options to try to figure out what the next community journalism model looks like. Their jobs depend on it. Granted, those inside the industry at publically traded companies might not be the best equipped to re-imagine the business. But they have a role.

Like many of today’s experiments, this approach will evolve.

If it is one step that moves us closer to a revised and viable model that better informs citizens in rural parts of the country, it will prove its worth.

As Abernathy’s study points out, if a community news organization can make it in rural America, it can make it anywhere.

 “If we can figure out how to craft and implement sustainable news business models in our smallest, poorest markets, we can then empower journalistic entrepreneurs to revive and restore trust in media from the grassroots level up, in whatever form – print, broadcast or digital.”

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