What you wouldn’t know without Foothills Forum
As the demise of local news has grown to a national crisis, depressing numbers have helped sound the alarm. You’re familiar with many of them:
- More than 2,100 community newspapers, many in rural areas like ours, have closed over the past two decades.
- The number of newsroom reporters has declined by more than 55% nationwide during that same period.
- More than 1,000 publications, a high percentage serving rural communities, have lost more than half their staff in recent years.
You also may be familiar with the well-documented consequences. When local newspapers wither or die, voter turnout typically falls. Government spending and taxes often rise. Without robust local journalism, the public isn’t as aware of important issues. Less awareness means less civic oversight, discussion or debate.
The numbers and consequences are distressing.
But there’s another way to talk about the crisis that may be more persuasive. Instead of focusing on how many papers have faded or folded, urge citizens to think hard about what they wouldn’t know without their community’s most trusted news source.
As in most rural counties, our local newspaper is vital. If awards are a measure, the Rappahannock News is arguably the best weekly paper in Virginia. Its “staff” – Editor Ben Peters and reporter Julia Shanahan (partially underwritten by Foothills Forum) – is miniscule. Without them, the community wouldn’t be reliably informed about the workings of governmental bodies, schools, car crashes, house fires, Eagle Scout award ceremonies, political candidates, emergency services, Covid controversies, broadband debates and boundary battles.
Researchers tracking the decline of local news often focus on so-called “coverage density,” the number of reporters per 100,000 people. When financial challenges force news organizations to shed reporters, the remaining journalists are spread very thin. That often leads to what are known as “ghost newspapers” filled with stories recycled from outside news providers that have little relevance for local readers.
That’s not the case with the Rappahannock News. It’s challenging for two journalists to cover an expansive county of roughly 7,400. They do it well. But there’s little time left to tackle stories that can take weeks or even months to research.
That’s why Foothills Forum exists. Our small team of veteran reporters and editors provide the kinds of in-depth stories that the newspaper’s overworked journalists rarely have time to pursue.
Without Foothills, readers wouldn’t know about the ambitious expansion plans by the Inn at Little Washington, the county’s largest private employer. Most wouldn’t know about the growing shortage of volunteer drivers needed to take our infirm citizens to medical appointments. They wouldn’t be aware that Rappahannock may be the only county in the state that doesn’t provide modern-day GIS mapping to accurately show property lines or voting districts. They wouldn’t know that county real estate taxes are inequitable and comparatively high (yet vital to preserving the county’s scenic identity). They wouldn’t know about the hidden impacts of pandemic-induced isolation on our young people or elders. Or the Covid-related spike in local addiction. Or the inner workings of the Sheriff’s office.
All these deeply reported stories – and more – were published in the past year alone. Foothills was early to join the growing nonprofit journalism movement. It’s caught on across the country as the local journalism crisis has worsened. Steve Waldman, perhaps the nation’s leading evangelist for nonprofit news, wrote about its growth in a leading journalism review. “Right now,” he said, “there is probably about $100 million in philanthropic giving for local news.”
But then he quickly added a “scary thought.” Given the continued decline of long-established community news outlets, “it needs to be ten times higher.”
Chair, Foothills Forum