About Foothills Forum
Foothills Forum is a new type of community-supported journalism organization for a time of severe challenges to quality local news in Rappahannock, across Virginia, and around the country.
A Need for Independent Community Journalism
Over the past 15 years, many communities have watched with alarm as their local newspapers have vanished or become greatly diminished. During that period, more than 2,000 outlets – a quarter of the nation’s newspapers, many of them weeklies – have gone out of business. As they disappear, so does the fact-based journalism that provides a “shared truth” so essential to local civic engagement.
Democracy suffers in communities where newspapers die. Research has shown that voter participation declines. Government taxes, deficits, spending and wages increase. Political corruption thrives without local journalists to serve as watchdogs. And readers gravitate to ideologically driven national news outlets, further polarizing the citizenry.
Aware that newspapers in rural areas were being especially hard hit, a group of local Rappahannock citizens united to confront these realities. Beginning six years ago, these county leaders began discussions about what could be done to help the venerable Rappahannock News survive and thrive. Led by former newspaperman and Knight Foundation executive Larry “Bud” Meyer and longtime philanthropy executive Bill Dietel, these local residents worked closely with others and with the News to explore options.
A community news organization
Reasoning that local readers might provide financial support, they created Foothills Forum, a private, independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to researching and reporting the kinds of in-depth explanatory stories that could rarely be produced by the small, stretched staff of the News.
Foothills partnered the University of Virginia’s Center for Survey Research to conduct a countywide survey to identify and delve deeply into citizens’ priorities and concerns. Local focus groups helped identify the original topics of news coverage.
Foothills then brought on board respected freelance journalists to produce deeply reported stories on topics that people had identified as important. Among them are the county’s inadequate cell and broadband coverage, the availability and affordability of local housing, lack of transportation for the elderly and infirm, environmental quality, the opioid crisis, government spending and taxation, and the challenges of providing health care for an aging community.
Foothills Forum’s reports in the Rappahannock News have won top honors from the Virginia Press Association for in-depth/investigative journalism four years in a row, and Meyer and Dietel have been recognized by the Press Association as journalism innovators. In addition, the Foothills Forum model has been cited nationally as one that might be replicated in other communities.
Foothills continues to grow. Its funding, from individual contributions by more than 200 local citizens as well as from foundation grants, is increasing. As the 2020 pandemic worsened, Foothills and the Rappahannock News teamed to produce a free emailed newsletter – the C-19 Daily Update — that provides daily local coronavirus updates. Foothills and the News also launched a daily text service highlighting local COVID developments and other top stories.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the purpose of Foothills Forum?
Foothills has one overarching goal: journalism that is authoritative, fair, independent, nonpartisan and of service to our community.
How do we know that Foothills Forum is independent of outside individuals or groups?
From its start Foothills has committed to maximum transparency in its work. Foothills’ website discloses its volunteer board of directors, its financial donors, governmental filings, and its working agreement with the Rappahannock News. The board meetings of the Forum are open to the public.
How does Foothill Forum decide what to the write about?
Our aim is to report on matters of importance to the community. We are guided partly by the initial Foothills survey conducted by UVa in 2014-15. In addition, our reporters keep their ears close to the ground, as do members of Foothills’ board of directors. We also have a Research & Journalism Committee composed of supporters – many with journalism backgrounds – who meet periodically to provide guidance on topics and issues.
How does a reader know that Foothills Forum is responsible for a story in the Rappahannock News?
Foothills reporters are identified with bylines in the paper that make clear their association with the nonprofit. In addition, often when Foothills contributes to the newspaper a long or prominent article or feature, the newspaper will publish a separate statement that explains Foothills and its role.
Where do Foothills’ journalists come from? Are they paid?
Our reporters – many with long ties to Rappahannock – are professional, experienced journalists who have worked for prominent news organizations. They are either paid by the story or are on modest retainers. Foothills also helps pay for a graphics designer and a photographer.
Who edits the stories?
Editing Foothills’ stories is a highly collaborative effort involving Foothills’ experienced volunteers, its reporters, and Rappahannock News staff.
Is the Rappahannock News required to use stories that Foothills Forum produces?
No. The newspaper always makes its own decisions about what it publishes. The Forum’s stories appear in the News under a legal agreement stipulating that the newspaper is not obligated to publish them.
Is Foothills unique, or are there other nonprofit journalism outfits like it?
Foothills is part of a large and growing nonprofit journalism movement of so-called “community news organizations.” These independent, nonprofit groups fill the void left by local newspapers that have either disappeared or are greatly diminished. Foothills is distinct in that we exist to supplement an existing newspaper. Most other community news organizations serve to replace local news organizations that have been lost.