Friday, August 25, 2017

Research group helps local newspaper dig deep into a rural Virginia county

Rappahannock County
(Wikipedia map)
Rural issues can be tricky to cover. The who, what, when and where of a story can easily fill column inches, but it's much harder to distill down the whythe complicated, interconnected factors that provide context for the news. That's what makes this ongoing series in the Rappahannock News so satisfying: it puts a rural northern Virginia county under a microscope and examines it from all angles: health and safety, environment, economy, culture, connectivity, everything. It's as complete a picture of a community as we've ever seen and a must-read.

The series is a partnership between Rappahannock Media newspapers and a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization called Foothills Forum, made up of local citizens who say they want to improve how journalists research and report local news. Foothills Forum started out the project by mailing a survey to every resident of Rappahannock County to ask them about themselves and what they care about. The survey was conducted by the Center for Survey Research at the University of Virginia and got a high response rate: 42 percent of the 3,258 households filled out the surveys.

The results found that respondents love the county's natural beauty, the privacy they enjoy as rural residents, and the way their neighbors help each other. And "while respondents are mostly satisfied with the quality of services and amenities in the county, they also are anxious about housing affordability, the dearth of jobs, the availability of services for elders, and preserving farms," Christopher Connell reports for the News. Larry "Bud" Meyer, a former newspaper editor who chairs the Foothills Forum, told Connell that "the survey backs up something many of us already felt: everyone loves this county of ours, but we’re aware there are some big challenges ahead."

Three other sets of stories in the series by Randy Rieland examine other community issues. The first discusses the need for better cell phone and internet connectivity, how it could benefit the community, and the obstacles that residents are having to deal with in making it happen. The second set of stories covers how the county plans to grow and update infrastructure in the future. And the fourth set looks at health care, poverty, and the county's aging community.

More stories are forthcoming, and Foothills Forum plans to host feedback forums and gather more research. Stay tuned.

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