Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Nonprofit rural Va. news sponsor bucks odds with success, offers to help others follow suit, updates work

Rappahannock County in Virginia
(Wikipedia map)
The nonprofit Foothills Forum, funded mostly by donors, has been getting recognition for its in-depth enterprise reporting about small, rural Rappahannock County in Northern Virginia for the past few years, and now its founders want to expand.

"On top of its 2018 budget of $55,000, the nonprofit has raised an additional $40,000 to increase capacity over the next two years. One idea on the table: funding a full-time reporting position at the [weekly] Rappahannock News, which co-publishes the Forum’s projects," David Westphal reports for Columbia Journalism Review.

Retired newspaper and Knight Foundation executive Larry "Bud" Meyer, chairman of the Forum board, told Westphal that other communities of the same size might interested in copying their model.

Nonprofit local news isn't a new concept, but its success has been spotty. One of the most prominent, Voice of San Diego, has been around for a decade and has a budget of $1.64 million. Charlottesville Tomorrow and the New Haven Independent are also doing well, but only 30 of the Institute for Nonprofit News's 127 members are dedicated strictly to local news.

"The reasons are many and well reported—unpredictable foundation funding, dashed expectations for digital advertising, local markets too small to produce sufficient individual philanthropy," Westphal reports. "Many founders of local nonprofits also have waited too long to establish solid business operations."

But Foothills Forum has dodged the odds, and has a long list of possible projects it might tackle next, like the county's transportation issues, the need for new job opportunities for under-40 residents, and a package celebrating area residents' love of volunteering.

UPDATE, March 2019: The Rapp News and the forum published Rappahannock Snapshot, an update on the five reporting projects: broadband, land-use planning, the local economy, health care, fire and rescue services, and transportation. Tentative plans call for it to appear annually.

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