Lessons from working in a rural Appalachian media desert

A summary of what learned learned from the first phase of the Media Seeds Project is below. The full report is here.

For the latest on the Media Seeds Project, see When “Junk Mail” is Used for Good by Michelle Ferrier

Report by Laura W. Black
Based on collaboration with Michelle Ferrier, Peggy Holman, and members of the Southeast Ohio Media Seeds planning team

The Southeast Ohio Media Seeds Project is using a process called Developmental Evaluation, which involves active, ongoing collaboration between project leaders and evaluators. Our overarching goal is to help develop a programmatic model of community-based media innovation that could be shared with journalists and local leaders in similar communities. Through consistent reflection and learning, we have used developmental evaluation to capture what we are learning and use those insights to make adjustments in real time.

As a whole, the Media Seeds Project operates with engagement principles drawn from the work of Journalism That Matters into engagement work in building community: Nothing About Us Without Us, Speak Truth to Empower, and Listening is Our Superpower. These principles guide our project activity and are central to the evaluation of our success: helping communities to thrive with the design of new communication tools with and by communities. We divided this evaluation into two stages, based on the design of the Media Seeds project. This learning conversation discusses our learning from the first evaluation stage by focusing on the project’s early work in a rural, Appalachian media desert. This includes what we did to understand the region, select communities for deeper engagement work, and build relationships within those communities. During this evaluation stage, we focused on the questions:

  1. How did we enter a media desert in rural Appalachia?
  2. How did we gain local support and begin to build collaborative partnerships?
  3. How did these activities dovetail with the principles guiding our work?
  4. What else has emerged that is not part of the principles?

In our work, we used a variety of methods, both online and face-to-face, to learn about the communities and build collaborative partnerships. We encountered challenges related to culture, geography, and technology that are central to understanding and working in rural environments. This report details what shifted in our work and what we learned from the process. Based on this work, we offer the following insights about entering rural media deserts, which we believe can be relevant to other projects engaging rural communities.

#1 Consider your identity: Reflect on who are you and what that means for your relationship to the community. What can you offer? What are your limits?

#2 Listen deeply: Use a variety of methods to learn about community assets and needs.

#3 Make the invisible visible: Discover the factors that affect the capacity for community members to connect to themselves and others.

#4 Embrace serendipity: Be willing to let go of plans to work with the unexpected.

#5 Treat every community as unique: Design specifically from what you learn about each community.




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Co-founder and director, Journalism That Matters. Author, Engaging Emergence & The Change Handbook. Hosting conversations for addressing complex challenges.

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