JOURNALISM THAT GIVES LIGHT
by Andy Alexander, Chair, Foothills Forum
A century ago, long before it became today’s major media conglomerate, the Scripps newspaper chain adopted a motto that I’ve always loved: “Give light and the people will find their own way.”
That slogan applies to Foothills Forum. Our journalism, appearing mainly in the Rappahannock News, has no agenda. We’re independent, nonpartisan, fact-driven and fair. Our sole purpose: arm the community with quality news reports so citizens can become engaged and make informed decisions.
We did that last month when Foothills reporter Bob Hurley wrote about environmentalists’ concerns over new projects in the Town of Washington. The issue: will our international recognition as a “dark sky” oasis be endangered by lights and glare from the Rush River Commons development, the Inn at Little Washington’s major expansion and a possible new county courthouse? Reps for the Inn and Rush River said they are sensitive to concerns. Local environmentalists said they’re hopeful, but will closely monitor. And many citizens throughout the county, unaware before our story, are paying close attention.
“Watchdog journalism” isn’t just about revealing dishonesty or misconduct. It’s also about keeping citizens reliably informed so they can express their views and debate what’s best for the community.
Foothills stories prompt public discourse. An example is the recent article by reporter Randy Rieland that scrutinized the pros and cons of conservation easements, which cover more than 33,000 acres in Rappahannock. Several weeks earlier, he reported on how the county’s public schools are grappling with COVID-19’s impact on academic performance and whether we have sufficient mental health care options for children and teenagers. Before that, he detailed concerns about the future of volunteer fire and rescue services.
When the Board of Supervisors began preparing the county’s annual budget, Foothills journalist Tim Carrington, who spent much of his career reporting for The Wall Street Journal, provided extensive coverage. He revealed strong (and ultimately, successful) opposition by the local hospitality industry to a plan to hike meals and lodging taxes. And he detailed the difficult options being considered for making up a possible $1 million shortfall in school funding due to a legislative logjam in Richmond.
In the coming months, look for major Foothills stories on two important societal issues of intense local interest.
First, with underwriting from the PATH Foundation, we’re examining the problem of finding affordable, suitable housing in Rappahannock, Fauquier and Culpeper counties. Area social service agencies report an emerging housing crisis that has forced some to live out of their cars (yes, even in Rappahannock!) and others to live in tents away from the main thoroughfares in local communities.
Second, we’re exploring the plight of our aged and infirm citizens, many living alone and unable to care for themselves. Are we doing enough to help them?
All these Foothills stories give light to citizens, without opinion or advocacy. They tell Rappahannock residents important things they need to know. Ultimately, they make our community smarter and improve our quality of life.
As a nonprofit civic news provider, our journalism is made possible by grants and contributions from local foundations and hundreds of individuals. You can donate here: https://foothills-forum.org/contribute/
WASHINGTON POST HIGHLIGHTS FOOTHILLS
In case you missed it, Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank recently highlighted the work of Foothills in supporting the Rappahannock News and local journalism. Read it here.
In a key passage, Milbank notes research showing that when local news outlets wither or die, “voter turnout in local elections and other forms of civic participation decline, and local governments’ corruption and financial mismanagement worsen in the absence of watchdogs. Without a source of news on local matters of shared interest, people instead turn to the polarizing environment of national news, often filtered through social media or ideological outlets that churn out disinformation.”
Al Cross, director of the University of Kentucky’s respected Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, said of Milbank’s column: “I can’t think of another national piece that has brought home so well the value of community newspapers, not just to communities but to the nation.”
CAN SAVING LOCAL JOURNALISM ALSO SAVE TAXPAYERS MONEY?
Steve Waldman, a national leader in trying to save local news, recently made that argument in The Atlantic.
There’s growing exploration of ways to publicly fund local journalism. Waldman believes that by exposing local corruption or ill-conceived public expenditures, more money is saved than it would take to rescue community news. “Funding local news would more than pay for itself,” he wrote, adding “it would cost only about $1.5 billion a year to sustain 25,000 local-reporter positions, a rough estimate of the number that have disappeared nationwide over the past two decades.”
“If more public or philanthropic money were directed toward sustaining local news, it would most likely produce financial benefits many times greater than the cost,” he argued.
Waldman co-founded Report for America, the national service program that places emerging journalists in local newsrooms. Foothills and the Rappahannock News were the first in Virginia to receive a Report for America corps member (Rachel Needham in 2020). Julia Shanahan, now editor of the Rappahannock News, succeeded Needham. Foothills pays a large portion of the compensation for our Report for America journalists, with the Rappahannock News and national funders paying the rest.
Related. . .a bill was recently introduced in Congress, with initial bipartisan support, that would create advertising tax credits and payroll tax credits to aid endangered local news outlets. The legislation faces a long and uncertain journey. Here’s a good explanation of the bill. And here’s a website created by America’s Newspapers, the industry group promoting it.
A NONPROFIT JOURNALISM TREND TO WATCH
In the urgent search for ways to save endangered local news outlets, here’s something to watch. This past month, a private company that owns 22 newspapers in Maine agreed to sell them to the National Trust for Local News, a Denver-based nonprofit committed to helping them become more sustainable. The National Trust does this in part by not demanding huge returns on investment, and by achieving economies of scale when buying regionally-clustered news outlets.
The Trust already owns 24 local newspapers in Colorado. It has backing from some large philanthropic funders including the Knight Foundation, the Gates Family Foundation and the Google News Initiative.
MARY ANN KUHN JOINS THE FOOTHILLS TEAM
Veteran journalist Mary Ann Kuhn, a former editor of the Rappahannock News, has joined Foothills part-time as an editor and reporter. She fills two critical needs:
– A frontline “go-to” editor when Foothills journalists file their stories. We’ve been relying on a small corps of volunteer editors operating ad hoc. Under our new system, Mary Ann serves as the primary editor. All stories will continue to receive a “second read” by a Foothills volunteer editor before being released to the Rapp News or other outlets.
– Mary Ann is an accomplished reporter/writer who will be able to tackle some of the many stories we’ve been unable to pursue because we simply don’t have enough journalists.
Over her career, Mary Ann has worked in both print and broadcast for some of the nation’s leading news organizations (The Washington Star and CBS News, among them). She was editor of the Rappahannock News from 2003-2005 and, for many years, owned and operated the historic Middleton Inn in Little Washington. She has a deep knowledge of the county.
Separate from her position with Foothills Forum, Mary Ann has been hired by the Rappahannock News as an editor. She’s working Mondays, Tuesdays and up to Wednesday’s midday deadline. Her responsibilities include editing stories, coordinating graphics & photography, and playing a key role in putting the entire paper together.
FOOTHILLS SEEKS A FULL-TIME REPORTER
Foothills relies on a small stable of very capable veteran reporters who produce a steady flow of award-winning stories. Alas, they’re all part-time and we frequently find ourselves in need of additional reporting firepower to tackle a growing backlog of important stories.
To solve the problem, the Foothills board recently approved hiring a full-time reporter. We’ve just started advertising the job nationally.
Here’s the job posting, which we hope you’ll share with anyone you think might be interested.