Background on, and an interview with the director of, the Center for Community News

This Q&A follows an article on The Rural Blog about the new center and is related to a roundup on higher-education partnerships discussed at the National Summit on Journalism in Rural America.

By Buck Ryan
Associate Professor of Journalism, University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media

A new center with national ambitions, dedicated to “connecting students and citizen reporters with community media,” follows a three-year effort by Richard Watts, a senior lecturer at the University of Vermont, to cast rural community newspapers a lifeline.

Richard Watts
Watts is director of the university's Center for Community News, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that opened June 22. On his advisory board is Associate Professor Teri Finneman of the University of Kansas, who lit up the rustic meeting room at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill in Kentucky on June 4, the second day of the National Summit on Journalism in Rural America, with the question: "Where the hell has the ivory tower been the last 20 years?"

The new center, which comes as one answer to that question, will bolster Watts's help for community newspapers and aspire to document and encourage university partnerships with rural journalists around the country.

Three years ago, Watts created the Community News Service, which matched student reporters with community newspapers across Vermont with the help of professional editors, including retired and volunteer former journalists, as guides for the students.

“The help has been vital whether directly covering stories we would not have otherwise covered or freeing up another reporter to do so,” said Alex Nuti-de Biasi, managing editor of the Journal Opinion, an independently owned 157-year-old weekly in Bradford, Vt.

“All reporters/photographers, save for me, are freelancers,” Nuti-de Biasi said of the staff for the newspaper, whose circulation is 4,000. “We cover New Hampshire communities as well, and our CNS reporters have covered stories there, too.”

Tim Calabro, editor and publisher of The White River Valley Heralda weekly in Randolph, Vt., serving valley communities since 1874, also praises contributions from the news service and sees a bigger picture: “More importantly, they're getting more young people involved in newspapers, and that value is inestimable.”

The Community News Service grew from a few students interested in writing to journalism classes of 20 to 30 students, whose work has been published in 40 newspapers, Watts said.

He called the service “both a newsroom and a laboratory for experimentation in creative ways to address the challenges facing local news.”

Watts’ faculty position is in the College of Arts and Sciences; the university does not have a journalism school. He teaches courses in journalism and public policy, fitting his professional experience. He is a former journalist who managed the successful gubernatorial campaign of Howard Dean.

He is taking a sabbatical to devote full time to achieving the center’s projects. He now serves as co-director of the Reporting and Documentary Storytelling Program, directs the Center for Research on Vermont and coordinates internships for the college.

These days, Watts said, the Community News Service works actively with 18 or so newspapers. Those include the Waterbury Roundabout (mostly online) and the Hinesburg Record (mostly print).

The Roundabout was launched in May 2020 as a volunteer effort in collaboration with the Reporting and Documentary Storytelling program. It was created to provide local news coverage for Waterbury, Vt., after the local weekly paper, the Waterbury Record, folded in late March 2020.

The Roundabout’s fiscal sponsor is the Vermont Journalism Trust, the parent of VTDigger, Vermont’s leading nonprofit online news organization.

The Hinesburg Record, a monthly founded in 1987, is a non-profit run by volunteers and mailed to 2,100 households in Hinesburg, Vt., a town chartered in 1762. The Record has 50 paid subscribers.

Watts, who attended high school in Wilton, N.H., a stone’s throw from Keene, was the subject of a “local boy makes good” story in The Keene Sentinel. Terry Williams, the Sentinel’s president and COO, addressed the national summit in a panel discussion.

Beyond connections to Harvard University and the ACLU of Massachusetts, other members of the new center’s advisory board include Barbara Allen, director of college programming for the Poynter Institute, a mid-career school for journalists; Scott Finn, CEO of Vermont Public (radio and TV); and Duc Luu, director of sustainability initiatives/journalism for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Knight is providing half of the $400,000 in startup funds for the center. The other half comes from donors to the College of Arts and Sciences.

Collaborators include the Community Journalism Group of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication and the Future of Media Project at Harvard.

In a Q&A designed to bring Watts up to speed on the summit and hear more about his plans for the new center, he agreed to answer several questions exclusively for The Rural Blog:

Question 1: "How can rural communities sustain local journalism that supports local democracy?" That was the research question that organizer Al Cross posed for two days of deliberation at the National Summit on Journalism in Rural America, held June 3-4 by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and the College of Communication and Information at the University of Kentucky. What say you, given your background in community development and applied economics, your graduate journalism degree from Syracuse University, your work as a reporter for a community newspaper and your political campaign experience?

Democracy requires local media. In rural areas we need local news to safeguard democracy and provide citizens the information they need to make decisions and to engage in their communities. Research has found that having a local news source increases trust in government and other civic institutions, makes for a healthier and more vibrant local economy, and produces more competitive elections.

So how do we do that in rural areas when the local news economic model is challenged because of declines in advertising revenues? Four ways come to mind: 1) leverage resources from colleges and universities, 2) help rural journalists to diversify their revenue streams, 3) train citizen reporters and 4) encourage local ownership.

Our project is based, first, on the idea that colleges and universities need to take leadership here and provide resources and expertise with a particular focus on rural areas. College students can play a role to provide local reporting while learning applied skills. This has the added benefit of connecting students with these communities while building their writing, reporting and interviewing skills.

Second, local news sources need to diversify their funding streams to take local donations, grants and sponsorships as well as local advertising. Terry Williams from The Keene Sentinel is an excellent example of a paper that is doing just that, funding reporters through collaborative projects with foundations.

Third, there may be a role for citizen reporters, with some training in journalism standards and values, to help write local stories.

Last, local ownership may be important, whether it is a cooperative model, non-profit or other model, but the goal is to keep the news source locally owned.

Question 2: On diversifying revenue streams, I’m impressed with the range of your grant writing success and profitable partnerships in getting the Community News Service up and running. What lessons can you share?

Go where the money is in local foundations and look for companies that have an interest in seeing local news continue. Companies that believe in democracy and cultural and civic institutions can provide sponsorships to underwrite coverage.

We have an advantage in that the university has nonprofit status, which most foundations require just like donors seeking tax deductions. Papers do not have to be a nonprofit to set up a way to accept this money. For example, The Keene Sentinel works with the Nackey Loeb School of Communications, a private, nonprofit school founded in 1999, to provide nonprofit status for specific projects.

We have been successful in raising funds from organizations that would like to see more articles written in a certain thematic area. For example, we won a grant from AARP for the Community News Service to cover more issues related to “livable communities.”

Efficiency Vermont, an electric utility in Vermont, gave us a $10,000 grant to seed more articles about energy. They don’t tell us what to write, just to write more energy-related stories. The Vermont Humanities Council gave us a similar amount to write more stories about the arts. An organization focused on Lake Champlain gave us funding to seed more stories about the lake region.

Our biggest success, however, has come from individual donors who care about local news, democracy and involving young people. Together we have raised more than $200,000 in the last few years to support community news from individuals.

For rural community newspapers, the “individual donors” might be subscribers willing to pay more each year to join a membership program that offers access to special events, for example. Or they simply may want to support local news, like a public radio station or their Rotary Club or church.

Question 3: Now on to your latest project, the Center for Community News. You will take a year-long sabbatical to build its foundation for the future. What’s your action plan?

Our first step is to identify as many academic-news partnerships as possible. There are all sorts of these around the country, from one faculty member in one class to a team providing the largest corps of reporters covering a statehouse. But these partnerships have not been collected in one place. Our intention is for this database to be an inspiration to colleges and faculty, who can learn from one another and foster even more partnerships.

The Center for Community News can provide a blueprint to encourage more colleges to start community news partnerships by developing a series of case studies with input collected from programs around the country.

The second step will be to provide existing partnerships with additional resources and training and support. I am happy to travel almost anywhere to see if we can grow these partnerships and create new initiatives.

Question 4: With 40 years of teaching experience, I can say that turning journalism students loose on assignments and helping them craft publishable, professional-quality work can be a hair-pulling, time-consuming exercise. How do you do it?

I think about this in a few ways. First, there is so much local news that is not being covered, anything our students do may be better than nothing. Second, we have been able to hire—or offer volunteer opportunities for—former reporters, or in some cases current reporters, to provide editing support and liaison with the local papers. So we write the stories they want covered, then edit them to ensure they meet journalistic values and standards.

In general we are not writing the deep investigate pieces that can be so difficult for a new journalist. But we are writing the stories that no one else is. Our students may not go on to be journalists, but they are learning essential life skills that they will take with them forever.

There’s so much talk in higher education about the importance of “critical thinking,” but not so much on teaching methods. When one of our student reporters covers a city council meeting, often on Zoom, and comes back with a four-page summary, one of our editors asks, “What’s the lede?” That’s critical thinking for you.

Question No. 5: You’re practicing an art, not a science, but even in science mistakes can lead to valuable discoveries. Are there any epic fails, either with students or rural community newspaper editors, that gave you pause, then led to more successful approaches?

The biggest challenge we have, and it relates to your previous question, is the constant turnover of our students. For that reason, we tend to write the stories that the paper wants covered but are not essential, so if the story doesn’t emerge it’s OK. We are working with bright, talented and motivated liberal-arts students who are learning to think and write, but they don’t have much training, if any, in some of the nuts and bolts of journalism. So mistakes happen, and articles falling through are our biggest fails.

Our first goal is a rich educational experience for the students, so even when they fail, they are learning. That is the luxury that we have. And all these real-life experiences—from turning a three-hour meeting into a 600-word story to interviewing a source—are learning experiences. We’ve had a few complaints about our stories, but that means people are reading them!

Question 6: In managing change in newsrooms where I introduced the Maestro Concept for story planning, we created a “Bravo! Board” to celebrate successes. The bulletin board with lessons learned was a teaching tool for staff to get up to speed on something new. What are the Top 3 lessons from your “Bravo! Board”?

Great question. Here are three:
  • No. 1: Know that students like doing this kind of work even though they may not see themselves as going into journalism. Find ways to give them academic credit, locate learning opportunities for them and support them every step of the way. This means getting a class number so the news partnership experience can appear in the school’s schedule of courses.
  • No. 2: Find a champion within the university. It doesn’t have to be someone with a journalism background. For us it has been the college’s dean, William Falls, whose research is focused on the neurobiology of fear and anxiety for mental health. Dean Falls has given us the support to run with this new center.
  • No. 3: Raise some money. That makes the university take your work more seriously. Fundraising provides the resources to hire the editors to mentor the students and liaison with the local news sources, ensuring the student work meets the quality they need.
We have a local news crisis, and colleges and universities have a role to play in addressing it. The approach to academic-news partnerships can be win-win-win.

The university benefits by providing applied learning experiences that students crave, the students benefit from gaining important life skills, and the local news provider benefits by providing its citizens in a democracy with local news stories that otherwise would go missing.

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