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.”

Andy Alexander
Chair, Foothills Forum

Give Local Piedmont

Tuesday, May 3 is Give Local Piedmont, the annual one-day giving event sponsored by the Northern Piedmont Community Foundation in partnership with the PATH Foundation.

Every dollar contributed to registered nonprofits, including Foothills Forum, will be increased with “bonus” dollars provided by PATH and other area funders. It’s a source of pride that many of our friends in Rappahannock County contributed to Foothills last year with gifts both large and small. This support is greatly appreciated and an affirmation of the value you place on our place-based nonprofit journalism.

Please consider giving again on May 3rd to Give Local and encourage your friends and family to also support us with a gift.

Paula Wolferseder Yabar
Board Member and Chair of the Fundraising Committee

Deborah Charles, Editor

Debbie Charles Chisholm (whose official byline has been Deborah Charles for the past 30+ years) is the newest addition to the Foothills Forum editing team.

Debbie is a veteran foreign and White House correspondent who spent more than two decades reporting for the Reuters news agency. Living on four continents, and traveling to two more, she spent those years interviewing world leaders, covering coups, wars and the plight of refugees. As a White House correspondent, she covered the political developments of the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations and during her career reported on four U.S. presidential campaigns.

A highlight of Debbie’s career was being picked to travel to and report on six Olympic Games — allowing her to learn and write about sports ranging from curling to cycling to snowboarding and freestyle skiing.

After leaving Reuters, Debbie worked at the World Bank as a communications consultant then at the State Department as an editor. She is currently the senior managing editor for Devex, a news organization that publishes news about international development and humanitarian issues.

Bob Hurley, Foothills Reporter

Bob Hurley has been a member of the Foothills reporting team for several years. In addition to writing in-depth news articles, Bob regularly contributes Doer’s Profiles which feature stories about people who make important contributions to the Rappahannock community.

After graduating from college, Bob worked for several years at the ABC News bureau in Washington, D.C., and as a communications director for the National Wildlife Federation. Later, he spent over a decade in the United States Senate as a senior staff member working on major environmental laws including the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air, coastal, and wetlands protection legislation. Subsequently, he ran a government relations firm specializing in environment, energy and sustainability issues.

Bob and his wife, Heather, have had a home in Rappahannock since 2016. He enjoys being involved in a wide range of community activities including the RappFlow, RAAC Theatre, Starfish Mentoring Program, the Lions Club and Rapp at Home. He enjoys to fishing and gardening, and participates in Shaolin staff training, a form of Kung Fu.

Edie Tatel, Chair Judges Group for the RCPS Essay Contest 

This year nearly 50 middle and high school students submitted essays to the contest, which is sponsored by Foothills Forum and the Rappahannock News. Six judges considered each essay, agreeing on winners. Judges were impressed by the writing that expressed ideas the students felt passionate about—from the role of sports in their own lives to Rappahannock County’s dark skies. Winners will be recognized—and receive their Foothills Forum award checks—at the 8th Grade Graduation and the High School Honors Assembly.

After selecting winners, judges asked them for one final revision in order to prepare their essays for publication in the Rappahannock News. Students, busy as they are with their studies and activities, rose to the request. Guiding them to write with as much clarity as possible was Julia Shanahan, whose reporting position with the newspaper is partially underwritten by Foothills Forum.  After graduation in 2021 from the University of Iowa where she was a journalism major, Julia came to the Rappahannock News as part of the national Report for America service program that places young reporters in local newsrooms.  Happily, she is extending her job for another year and staying in Rappahannock.

As she met with each winner, Julia told students that this kind of re-working is typical in all journalism.  The students were open to suggestions, thought hard about changes, and made their own revisions. The entire Essay Contest Committee is grateful to Julia for all the time she spent with the students, and to the students themselves for working so diligently on their essays—even when they thought they were already finished!!