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.