Tuesday, October 06, 2020

Local digital startup offers some strategies for rebuilding our local news systems in the midst of chaos and change

By Constance Alexander

Since 2005, more than one-fourth of the country’s newspapers have disappeared. In our town of Murray, Kentucky, the Ledger & Times added an e-edition but goes to print five instead of six days a week, sometimes showing up at a svelte six pages.

As these trends continue, newspapers lose traction on investigative news coverage and stick to bare-bones basics out of necessity. The public becomes less enlightened, leading to less community engagement, resulting in a public that is less likely to vote, according to a study by the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina.

Jennifer P. Brown
So the free press may be fading away in some places, but if Jennifer P. Brown has anything to say about it, Hopkinsville will still be in the know when it comes to local news. Just a year ago, she created Hoptown Chronicle, an independent, nonprofit news outlet that, according to the mission statement, “explores what’s working, what’s not and what’s next in Hopkinsville’s downtown district.”

After 20 years as a reporter and editor at the Kentucky New Era, she sought a new direction for her life’s work, but not necessarily a new location. Her deep history with Hopkinsville, and the institutional knowledge garnered from years in the news business, helped to guide her to new horizons in her hometown.

After she left the paper in 2016, she took time to explore the possibilities. Traveling, teaching, and doing some photography led her to concentrate on capturing images of old Hopkinsville. For the first time in her career without a deadline looming, she had time to ponder her own future as she wandered downtown Hoptown.

“The aesthetic of decay attracted me,” she admitted.

Her vision of the future sharpened in the autumn of 2018 when a sign for a local auction announced the availability of several downtown properties owned by one of the last great merchant families of Hopkinsville.

“About 50 people were there,” she recalled, adding that some sales became complicated, with side deals happening around her.

“There were private conversations, but I was allowed to listen. And they knew I was taking notes. It was an exciting and exhilarating moment because I realized a lot of people trusted me.”

Inspired by that insight, she went home, wrote the story, and created a Facebook page that eventually sparked the creation of the Hoptown Chronicle website about eight months later.

“If you’re a journalist in a certain size community or neighborhood,” she reasoned, “you can home the community’s geography. You’re so close to the community, you have a relationship with it.”

While there is not a lot of detachment in that perspective, Ms. Brown pointed out, “Institutional knowledge of the community, its nuances and subtle connections” assist in the process.

The duality involved in producing Hoptown Chronicle, a non-profit, combines her role as a member of the community with her expertise as a reporter. “This is one of the most rewarding parts of journalism for me,” she declared.

Learning has been an on-the-job challenge, mitigated by help by a former colleague, Julia Hunter, membership and communications director of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association. “Julia’s got amazing skills,” Brown remarked. “She created the website and the non-profit organization, and she gives excellent advice.”

Creative thinking and flexibility have been key to the success of the Hoptown Chronicle. Partnerships with other Kentucky news outlets, including NPR affiliate WKMS-FM, and news contacts across the country have been helpful. The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, its Kentucky Health News, and The Daily Yonder provide further insight.

With close to 700 subscribers, she sees Hoptown Chronicle as a new community asset with a hyper-local focus, not as competition to the Kentucky New Era.

Lately, reporting on covid-19 has dominated her digital space. “We’ve concentrated on Christian County and Kentucky, interpreting data and visualizing it,” Brown said. “We update it every day, and that has brought in a lot of readers.” A survivor of the virus, she recently assigned herself the unique task of reporting on her own bout with the illness.

Today, Hoptown Chronicle is gearing up for the election and has produced a guide to inform voters of the various ways to vote, and the changes in local polling places. “We’ve developed the voters’ guide,” she said, “and we’re creating guides to city council, mayor, and state house races.”

This is National Newspaper Week, and stories like Jennifer Brown’s offer a positive strategy for rebuilding a local news system that better serves communities and democracy in the midst of chaos and change.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and president of INTEXCommunications in Murray, Kentucky. She can be reached at constancealexander@twc.com. She and Jennifer Brown are on the national advisory board of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog.

1 comment:

Ken Hedler said...

I worked briefly with Jennifer Brown at the Kentucky News Era. She made a bold move and am happy she found a new niche.