January 30, 2019; Daily Yonder
Addressing the news deserts that exist in areas of this country is tricky from both a fiscal and political perspective. When the only newspaper is a weekly publication serving the entire county with a staff of one, taking it on may not engender friends and support for one’s journalistic ventures. And the purpose for the proposed Foothills Forum was not so much to report the weekly news but to do a deeper dive into the issues of the rural Virginia area sitting 65 miles west of Washington DC. It seemed ideal for nonprofit journalism when the idea was floated as a partnership with the existing weekly Rappahannock News in 2014.
When this venture was launched, it was done with great thought and respect for what was already in place, as well as with an understanding of who made up the 7,400 residents of Rappahannock County, Virginia. Some were farmers who had lived their entire lives on the land there, and others were newbies seeking a refuge from city life in DC. There were the environmentalists, and those just seeking quiet. Would they come together around issue journalism? Fortunately, Larry “Bud” Meyer, founding chair of Foothills Forum, and his colleagues moved thoughtfully and carefully so as not to ruffle any feathers along the way.
We grew into Foothills Forum following months of discussions between our directors and advisors and more than 100 current and past elected officials, been-here’s and come-here’s, clergy, fire hall heads, artists, journalists, authors, farmers, ranchers, nonprofits, funders, entrepreneurs, and educators.
Our mission has garnered praise as well as cautions to proceed with full transparency. Our agreement with Rappahannock Media is posted here on the website. We are building a network of partners, conveners and subject experts to share and discuss the issues of primary importance to county residents.
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Larry and his colleagues launched a survey that was developed with the Center for Survey Research at the University of Virginia. It went to 3,000 households in the county and garnered a 42 percent response (astonishing for survey research!). This provided the Foothills Forum with a ranking of the issues for the county as well as answers to questions about the quality of life and services in the county. The survey was the launch pad for the Forum, and it was then off and running.
But life in nonprofit journalism is not easy. As NPQ reported this week, funding for nonprofit journalism tends to be concentrated in a few, larger journalistic ventures. What seems to have worked for the Foothills Forum is its focus at staying true to its mission: “research and reporting about Rappahannock County matters.” And, it makes room for every voice at the table. Support for this venture is local because the issues are local and the solutions are local. So, whether the issue is broadband/internet, transportation, healthcare, or land usage, its focus is on how those issues impact Rappahannock County. For the supporters of the Forum, it’s personal.
It should be noted that the Forum works in partnership with the existing Rappahannock News and stays true to the mission of the Forum: “A four-page agreement with the paper’s owners protects the newsroom’s integrity, and we provide resources for reporting, research, information graphics, photography and design.”
The Foothills Forum, at age 5, has won awards and is being sought out for advice from others seeking to start similar nonprofit journalistic ventures. Their website provides a snapshot of both success and failure, as not everything worked perfectly. But perhaps the biggest takeaway here is the lesson of respect for what was already in place, both in the existing community paper and in the existing community itself, and the willingness to listen and go slow. In our frenetic society, we might do well to take this lesson to heart.—Carole Levine
This article has been altered to correct the physical location of Rappahannock County.