Five years after launching Foothills Forum, a small-scale venture in nonprofit journalism serving rural Rappahannock County, Virginia., I can look back and ask: What the heck were we thinking?
Well, we felt we were responding to the wishes of a remote oasis of 7,400 residents tucked up against the morning side of Shenandoah National Park. No stoplights, no superhighways, no big box stores. Privacy rules.
But my colleagues and I heard ample demand for a deeper understanding of the underlying issues in a place that’s home to both “been-here’s” – many of them seventh- and eighth-generation farm families, and more recent “come-here’s” – most with ties to greater Washington, D.C., 65 miles east. From both you hear: We love life here, followed by an earful about what’s not known about an uncertain future. And the only game in town in this local news desert, the weekly Rappahannock News, admitted it lacked the wherewithal to meet that demand. Newsroom staff now: One full-time editor.
So, after a year of listening – interviews and focus groups with more than 100 citizens – we promised to commission high-quality explanatory journalism in conjunction with the weekly. We believed the community would support an independent, nonpartisan nonprofit by opening their wallets, even if they were skeptical about what they’d be getting. Foothills also pledged to live up to the “forum” part of the name by bringing folks together in our fire halls and churches to discuss the issues as reported and what could be done about them.
Rather than assume we knew what the issues to be covered should be, we asked first. We mailed a baseline survey, developed with the Center for Survey Research at the University of Virginia, to the county’s more than 3,000 households and mailboxes. An astonishing 42 percent responded by ranking a set of issues and answering questions on quality of life and services.
And we were off, to research and report on the topmost issues in our old (and getting older) county – lack of broadband and cell service, concerns about land use and agriculture’s future, access to health care and transportation, an economy where apples once were king, how to make love-it or hate-it tourism sticky. A four-page agreement with the paper’s owners protects the newsroom’s integrity, and we provide resources for reporting, research, information graphics, photography and design. Each series attempts to show examples of how other communities successfully deal with the thorny issues.
We tripped early in this hike of ours. We lost (and quickly regained) our nonprofit tax status. We weathered criticism from a small but loud cadre of skeptics lampooning the nonprofit as “Foothills Follies” run by “arrivistes” who “fell off the turnip truck.” Our requests for some interviews went unanswered. New issues have arisen since the 2015 survey amid long-simmering tensions; we’re absorbing lessons from a divisive debate this past fall that led to rejection of a state grant for a bike trail.
But the newspaper reporting we jointly produce began to win awards (Best in Show two years running at the Virginia Press Association), get results (our Board of Supervisors formed a broadband committee), and earn trust as readers saw themselves and their concerns reflected in readable, nuanced, coverage.
As community support has grown, ranging from individual donations to grants from local foundations, we’ve been able to add other resources for the weekly – summer interns, a summer fellowship. We make seed grants for other news startups. Our most recent project, the Rappahannock Snapshot, is a special section revisiting and updating readers and viewers on progress, or stagnation, on previously reported issues. Our next project adds video. The work is archived online at www.rappnews.com.
The Foothills model has recently drawn more discerning attention. Columbia Journalism Review featured our approach in Virginia’s Piedmont in November 2017. We’ve presented to the International Society of Weekly News Editors and the Virginia Press Association. We’ve heard from news nonprofits in Maine, North Carolina, Kentucky and of course, Virginia, who want to learn and share together. The Fauquier Times in our adjoining county asked us for our start-up playbook and has created its own partnership with the new Piedmont Journalism Foundation.
On a personal note, I grew up on a Holstein dairy farm in northeast Missouri, and the Virginia Piedmont’s rolling hills and hollows have reintroduced me in the past 13 years to country life after a big-city career. Rappahannock County’s friendly people, numerous vineyards, small batch breweries and farm-to-table restaurants add savor and flavor to my life in retirement. But being part of Foothills Forum has assured me there’s a strong connection between community and journalism.
We can’t wait to see what the next five years bring.
Larry “Bud” Meyer is chair and co-founder of Foothills Forum. You may reach him at email@example.com.