National Summit Sparks a Continuing Effort for Innovation and Sustainability in Rural Journalism

National Summit Sparks a Continuing Effort for Innovation and Sustainability in Rural Journalism

Here’s an initial report.

By Al Cross
Director and Professor, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

“I leave hopeful for community newspapers,” one attendee said as she left the National Summit on Journalism in Rural America, which concluded Saturday. And there were reasons to have hope.

At a time when newspapers must get more revenue from their audiences, who won’t pay good money for bad journalism, there’s plenty of evidence that good journalism is good business, even if you’re not the only paper in your market. “It’s still possible to run a successful small-town newspaper, if you do it right,” said Marshall Helmberger, co-publisher of the Timberjay in Tower, Minn.

His co-presenter, Sharon Burton, won applause when she said “I wish people in this business would stop writing our obituary.” Burton publishes the Adair County Community Voice in Columbia, Ky. She said the county’s top elected official told her that she keeps the official from doing wrong.

That fit a statement from the Summit’s first presenter, Penny Abernathy of Northwestern University: “A strong news organization build democracy and it builds community.” To sustain such organizations, “There’s not going to be one business model, there are going to be many,” Abernathy said. “It just depends on what kind of community you’re in.”

The Summit had a research question: How do rural communities sustain local journalism that supports local democracy? The question was based on the increased need for community support for newspapers or any other form of news media, in an environment where people are “bombarded with information,” as Burton described it.

Many local news media are getting more support from their communities with membership models that give subscribers extra benefits, but many publishers are reluctant to ask their readers for more. At least in the Great Plains, that attitude is off base, said Teri Finneman of the University of Kansas, reporting on her team’s recent survey of publishers and readers in Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas.
Finneman found that 40 percent of readers said they are likely or very likely to donate to their local paper to keep it going. She and Kansas Publishing Ventures, which publishes four weeklies, are testing that by implementing such a model later this month. “This is live, ongoing research,” which should produce its first report this fall, she said.
At the close of the Summit, I observed that we are in a fast-moving environment in which news publishers and people who want to help them need to remain in contact, so the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues will create a platform for Summit attendees and others to share information, questions and answers. And we will hold another Summit via Zoom in a few months, again focused on innovation and sustainability.
The Summit was held at the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill in Kentucky, where the first summit was held 15 years ago. “It was a once-thriving community that faced oblivion only to be saved by a collaborative effort. Shaker Village, now Kentucky’s largest National Historic Landmark, was a fitting setting for the rural journalism question that we need to keep asking,” wrote Tom Silvestri of The Relevance Project of the Newspaper Association Managers. “A jam-packed agenda covered a lot of ground, from the state of community journalism, to groups working to uplift the industry, to the roles of philanthropy and national funders, to newspapers being run as non-profit organizations, to examples of journalism adapting to change, innovating and responding to coverage needs, to the research needed to help community journalism, and to new business models that can be viable options based on dynamic data.”
Watch The Rural Blog for more details on discussions, questions and answers from the Summit.