Media Seeds: Fresh News in an Appalachian Media Desert

What We Learned

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

The Southeast Ohio Media Seeds Project has completed its final phase, where the Journalism That Matters team along with the local project team are working with three communities to build capacity for news and information. This report discusses our learning from the second evaluation stage by focusing on the design and implementation of media experiments in rural, Appalachian media deserts. Media deserts are defined as communities that lack access to fresh, daily local news and information.

From our first phase of work, we identified three communities for interventions: McConnelsville and Chesterhill in Morgan County, Ohio and Pomeroy, located in Meigs County in Ohio. The second stage involved three experiments:
(1) an embedded, local journalist,
(2) postcards with local news sent directly to residents, and
(3) an online local news platform.

In this evaluation, we asked:

  1. How did we create and provide local news in a rural Appalachian media desert?
  2. How did we cultivate and support participation from potential partners?
  3. How did these activities dovetail with JTM principles and our insights from stage one?
  4. What else has emerged? How can these learnings inform the national conversation?

The Journalism That Matters team is using a process called Developmental Evaluation, which involves active, ongoing collaboration between project leaders, community members, project advisors, community innovators and evaluators. Journalism That Matters has used the developmental evaluation process, as designed by Michael Quinn Patton, on prior work on engagement, journalism and communities. Our overarching goal, through the developmental evaluation lens, is to help develop a programmatic model of community-based media innovation that could be shared with journalists and local leaders in similar communities.

As a whole, the Media Seeds Project operates with principles drawn from Journalism That Matters’ 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. We divided this evaluation into two stages, based on the design of the Media Seeds project. The first stage involved doing a deep ethnographic dive into the region and connecting with locals to better understand the communities (Media Seeds Developmental Evaluation Report (Stage 1)). In the first stage, we developed the insights: Consider Your Identity, Listen Deeply, Make the Invisible Visible, Embrace Serendipity, and Treat Every Community as Unique.

During the second stage of the evaluation, we developed five insights that may be applicable to other projects engaging local communities.

1. Design for the Realities of the Region: Assess the constraints and assets of local infrastructure, geography, and culture. Innovations should be designed to fit these realities.

2. Attend to Journalists’ Emotions and Inner Life: Working alone in a media desert can be isolating and emotionally difficult. Journalists need preparation and tools to manage emotional dynamics.

3. Recognize Limits and Public Perceptions of Existing Local Media: Local media are embedded in cultural and political institutions. Just because some local media exist, does not mean they necessarily serve the public.

4. Anticipate that Innovations May Disrupt Existing Power Structures: Change is difficult and can be threatening to local leaders, who may resist or challenge your work.

5. Enlist a Local Champion, Even if the Journalist is From the Community: Supportive local partners play an important role that is different from what journalists can do alone.

Some of the key lessons we draw from this work are that doing this work in rural media deserts means confronting some substantial challenges related to infrastructure, politics, and local cultures. The lack of regular internet and cell service are significant barriers to the distribution of local news, and this was evident during our project. Additionally, although we did not begin this project with the goal of disrupting local power systems, it became clear that media innovations were seen as disruptive. This led to some notable pushback against our project from local political leaders. Some keys to success in this kind of work are developing strong networks of collaborative relationships and creating a clear vision for the project that is mutually agreed upon. All three of our experiments had some successes, but the region faces substantial challenges and there is still a lot of work to be done. As one of the next steps, the Southeast Ohio Media Seeds Project team is involved in conversations with local health departments and other community partners about the continuation of ZipIt News. Our hope is that the project lives on beyond our implementation stage and can become an important part of the community fabric.

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Journalism matters most when it is of, by, and for the people. JTM supports the adventurers who are transforming relationships between communities and journalism for the common good.

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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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