A spate of recent dispatches — The New Yorker, the Pew Research Center and Nieman Reports — reminds us why local news matters. Even as we take beginner steps here in Rappahannock, this fact underpins Foothills Forum’s startup mission to be a catalyst for expanded local news coverage of the issues we care about. These highlights explain why:
- People crave local news
A study (“Local News in a Digital Age”) by Pew Research Center finds local news matters deeply in our lives. More than 9 in 10 people (from three different U.S. cities) follow local news closely. Two-thirds discuss local news a couple times each week or more in person. See the report at journalism.org/2015/03/05/local-news-in-a-digital-age.
- Local weeklies are increasingly important
Former reporter Barbara Selvin writes in Nieman Reports (http://bit.ly/1Jom8Jh) that local weeklies cover stories that aren’t on the radar of big mainstream media. They uniquely offer the connection people crave to where they live. Local newspapers, she says, “have grown in importance as regional papers have pulled back from covering outlying communities over the past 15 years.” Weeklies like our own Rappahannock News “bring communities together — or stir debate — over issues of great local import.”
- We have a supply and demand problem.
Much like what the USDA defines as a food desert — a neighborhood or town without ready access to healthy and affordable food — Rappahannock County is a local news desert. Now it’s true that anyone fortunate enough around here to have Internet access, wireless and a connected cell phone can easily find news far and wide. Folks without such connectivity here, and sadly there are many — no signal, slow speed, inability to afford it — are in effect second-class citizens.
Whether connected or not, neither group is getting a steady enough diet of local news.
There’s the Rappahannock News and its RappNews.com web site. For a while we had Jim Gannon’s Rappahannock Voice. We have the new online partnership between Businesses of Rappahannock and the News (visitrappahannockva.com). We have government websites from the county and the school board and the town. The Rappnet listserv is often a first-line source of observation and opinion. But the things that make the county so special — our splendid, rural, mountainous isolation and our talented but small population — are actually harmful factors here. No local radio station, no local television, no daily source of vetted and reported news.
- The more news, the better the citizen
That Pew study found civically engaged residents are more connected with their local news and are drawn to a more diverse set of news sources.
- What’s missing here
In the current New Yorker (http://nyr.kr/1Jon7ZT), Vauhini Vara validates the importance of local journalism in an age of disruption and opportunity. She quotes David Beers, a Canadian with deep experience with online news innovation. For local publications to succeed, Beers says their futures need to be linked to the pursuit of big, important stories (our emphasis).
- That’s where we come in
Foothills Forum is building momentum to develop a countywide survey in partnership with the University of Virginia’s esteemed Center for Survey Research. Rather than assume what the issues are, we believe the people deserve a seat at the table. We’re conducting focus groups next month with scores of county residents. This summer’s survey will ask all Rappahannock County citizens to weigh in on the issues that matter to them. The findings will provide a baseline of information for analysis and research. We’ll share the findings with the newspaper along with financial resources provided by the community itself. The News has committed to in-depth coverage and expanded space in its news columns. The papery pledges to focus on solutions available locally and elsewhere in this initial trial to deliver more in-depth news.
- What makes this unique
Foothills Forum and Rappahannock Media will cohost community forums where all of Rappahannock will be invited to the table to discuss the findings and consider ways to move to action and solutions. We think other community organizations and nonprofits will join in once the issues — say, housing, aging in place, our agricultural economy, our valued environment or our children’s futures — have been identified. We think you care enough about this vital, expanded coverage that you’ll help pay the freight through contributions and membership, not unlike NPR (more online at foothills-forum.org).
- Because of this unique characteristic of your local weekly
That Nieman Reports piece points out that “advocacy is often integral to the sense of mission at weekly newspapers.” Selvin quotes a community editor who says her newspaper “belongs to the community.” She adds: “Working on a national or international basis is not as personal as working in a community environment. Every single thing you say here has a ripple effect on your neighbors.”
- The good news
Even in a world of Twitter and Instagram, local weeklies remain viable.
Al Cross, who directs the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, says “the weekly newspaper business is the healthiest part of the American newspaper business.”
That’s the why of it.
You, the discerning citizens of Rappahannock, are the who.
Join us, watch this space, Like us on Facebook, fill out the survey and become part of the what.