Rural newsrooms don’t have to struggle in solitude

Rural newsrooms in the American West should resist the tendency to work within silos, and instead work more like an open-source partner with their colleagues and with their communities. As a 2017 John S. Knight Fellow, Dustin Bleizeffer examined how rural journalism might also benefit from an interdisciplinary team approach — one assembled around the nexus of journalism, science, and technology. (photo by Dustin Bleizeffer)

Newspaper closures and consolidation over the past 15 years have created “news deserts” where there are inadequate journalism resources to properly cover local governments. The trend threatens the bond between news organizations and their communities, University of North Carolina researchers warned in 2016.

This is of particular concern to myself and to my journalism colleagues who wish to continue practicing journalism in rural areas of the American West.

Ten months ago, I came to Stanford University as a John S. Knight Fellow to explore how to help rural newsrooms thrive in the age of declining advertising revenue and increasing digital connectedness. I came to this particular challenge based on nearly two decades working as a reporter and an editor in Wyoming. It is a state so sparsely populated that, post-consolidation, media corporations are not motivated to adequately fund newsrooms here.

A rapidly expanding array of digital tools can enable small-budget newsrooms to punch above their weight by plugging into vast amounts of data and taking advantage of new ways to tell and distribute stories. Technology alone will not necessarily ensure long-term sustainability, however. Harnessing that technology in ways that allow for collaboration may give rural newsrooms a much better shot at long-term survival.

This idea inspired me to focus on two particular strategies: to build upon the growing network of newsroom-to-newsroom collaboration, and to create interdisciplinary response teams that focus on issue-specific challenges in ways that enable communities to take civic action.

But first, a little background about how I got here.

In 2010, I took a calculated risk to leave my position as energy reporter for Wyoming’s largest newspaper after 10 years to become editor of WyoFile. The fledgling nonprofit online news organization was founded in 2008 on two basic principles: Provide quality in-depth journalism for free republication among Wyoming news outlets, and to provide a sort of sanctuary for Wyoming journalists wishing to continue their craft in the Equality State amid declining newsroom budgets.

The combination of relying on Wyoming-experienced journalists and producing quality in-depth reporting paid off. WyoFile plugged into an audience engaged in civic matters, and it helped raise expectations for all news organizations in the state. Loyal readers helped support the organization with enough donations to supplement a portfolio of journalism-based foundation grants to help demonstrate the demand for WyoFile’s brand of nonprofit journalism in Wyoming — albeit at what might be considered startup scale.

Expanding WyoFile’s resources for even more impact and civil engagement, while maintaining a sustainable revenue strategy, has been a challenge. It’s a challenge for many newsrooms in the rural American West, including community-based legacy newspapers.

With few exceptions, no longer is quality community-based journalism alone enough to sustain rural newsrooms. The journalistic craft of connecting with one’s audience now relies on a digital and marketing sophistication that harnesses tools to enable newsrooms to discover stories, analyze data, visualize information and tell stories in ways that engage readers.

And, I believe, it requires more collaboration among journalists and research institutions that specialize in issues of the American West.

This past fall, Stanford students and instructors in my Human Society and Environmental Change class spoke eloquently and emotionally about the inhumane attacks against protesters at Standing Rock, as well as the environmental consequences of the Dakota Access Pipeline. By November, the whole world was watching. But why hadn’t there been more substantive national-level media attention in the year leading up to the conflict?

The presidential election was consequential in my thinking, too. The weeks and months following the election here were grim, to put it mildly, yet there was also resolve. The Bay Area was among the coastal urban centers scratching its head and wondering what the hell was happening in “middle” and rural America. Suddenly, my journalism challenge — helping newsrooms in the rural West — gained a lot more interest on campus and throughout Silicon Valley.

Experts in politics, academia and tech held dozens of forums. Matters of shrinking newsroom budgets, growing news deserts and confounding rural politics were analyzed everyday and everywhere, it seemed, to ad nauseum, and to new understanding. I drew insights from current and past JSK fellows, and particularly from Stanford Department of Communication’s inaugural course, Exploring Computational Journalism. I also drew inspiration from Stanford students; I met grad students in earth sciences and in law who see journalism as their calling, intent on helping the communities and landscapes they love.

I believe that journalism, science and community all share a mutual interest in seeking truth and solutions. So I envisioned how response team reporting might work, and I began developing a concept I call WestNext.

Rural health care is a good example of an issue a WestNext reporting team might tackle. It was the subject of the Fifth Annual Eccles Family Rural West Conference in Santa Fe, N.M., this past March. Stanford’s Bill Lane Center for the American West, which hosted the conference, is home to experts in American West history, culture and science. These are experts who can provide not only context for the forces that challenge health care in the West’s rural communities but expertise in gathering, analyzing and visualizing this data. The Lane Center, along with select health care experts from NGOs, could be paired with journalists in rural western communities most prone to a health crisis for a time-structured examination of the challenges and potential solutions.

This convergence of expertise can serve as a technology and data-analysis skills training ground for budget-strapped rural newsrooms. In return, research institutions see their work put to use in the communities they seek to serve, and in ways that will inform them about what research is most worth pursuing in the future.

The modern American West faces many challenges that journalism can respond to with an interdisciplinary team approach — one assembled around the nexus of journalism, science, and technology — from wildfires and habitat fragmentation, to energy boom-and-bust towns and aging rural communities. (More about WestNext in future posts.)

Key in being able to curate team reporting is to grow and maintain a strong network of newsroom-to-newsroom collaboration. There’s already good work happening in this arena.

One example is Solution Journalism Network and its 2016 Small Towns Big Change collaboration in the southwest. SJN is now working with 12 newsrooms throughout New Mexico on a collaboration called State of Change, while it also works to expand a newsroom-to-newsroom network to encompass the Rocky Mountain Region. SJN also offers workshops, consulting, and travel grants for reporters and newsrooms interested in community engagement on “solutions-oriented” journalism on rural issues.

Another source of inspiration is my John S. Knight Fellowships colleague, Heather Bryant, who learned to embrace collaboration while working as a journalist in Alaska, where it is an absolute necessity. She developed, and continues to build upon Facet, a platform designed to facilitate newsroom-to-newsroom collaboration.

For many longtime editors and publishers, collaboration still seems counterintuitive after decades of fierce local and regional competition. But rural newsrooms don’t have to struggle alone. I’m convinced that not only will more newsrooms across the West find value in collaboration, but that it will result in better journalism — the type of journalism that readers are eager to engage with and to reward with their support.

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