Journalism innovation for small towns and rural areas

As I sit in Vilnius Lithuania, the next to last stop on my 2011 journalism world tour, I was taken back to where my journalism career started: Hays Kansas I started my career as the regional reporter at a small town, 14,000 circulation newspaper, the Hays Daily News. The standard joke told by the locals was: It’s not the middle of no where but you can see it from here. My job was to cover 1100 square miles on northwest Kansas. I covered my first presidential election from Hays as local hero done good, Bob Dole, ran against Bill Clinton in 1996. Dole’s hometown of Russell Kansas was also the birthplace of another Republican candidate that year, Pennsylvania senator Arlen Specter, who also ran the nomination that year. Apart from that, I covered what most cub reporters at local newspapers do: School board meetings, the weather (think storm chasing in Tornado Alley), the odd agriculture story and a beloved Sunday feature called the Nor’wester.

It was a great place to start journalism, working with a curmudgeonly good hearted editor, Mike Corn, and an award winning team of photographers, Steve Hausler and Charlie Riedel. Charlie now travels the world for the Associated Press. It’s still the second greatest job I’ve ever had, second only to working for the BBC in Washington. My job meant something. Western Kansas was a place fighting off decline in the 1990s. It was still reeling from the farm crisis, and as its youth left because they had to find work and their way elsewhere, many of its small towns fought off extinction. When I first moved there, Mike used to quiz me on where these small towns were. Every once in a while with a glimmer in his eye, he would say: “Ha, got ya! Trick question. It’s a ghost town!” For these small towns, I was all they had when it came to news, and they thanked me for it. It was deeply satisfying work.

Hays was also a great place to start because when I worked there, it was very innovative for a small newspaper. I started in December 1994, and we all had Macs on our desks and a cutting edge production system. For a newspaper of that size, I’m pretty sure that was rare then. The paper went online in 1996, and I applied to become their first internet editor. It was definitely ahead of its time.

Hays is why I’ve always been interested in local news, now mostly talked about as hyperlocal. What took me back to Hays? The Colombia Journalism Review has an interesting collection of views about Modesto California and journalism. It’s a world away from Hays and ten times as large, but for Hays and a lot of even smaller communities, the issues of providing journalism to these places is even more challenging than when I was there, especially in my adopted home of England, where the crisis in local journalism is even more acute. Although I cringe a bit when I read the CJR piece and detect a whiff of big city condescension (I’ll always be a country boy), their larger point is right:

If the digital-news revolution is to truly serve a mass audience, beyond educated and reasonably affluent urbanites, we must account for Modesto; we must find ways for innovation to flourish in poor towns where, for so long, it has been allowed to die.

I guess broadly, it’s not just the dying of journalism in not just poor towns, but also small communities, that worries me but the existential threat to rural areas full stop both in the US and the UK. That’s another issue, but if you’re interested in local journalism, it’s well worth a read. I especially love Rusty Coats’ piece. I met Rusty in 2005 at Web+10 at Poynter, and his story and mine share a lot of similarities. I love this line:

Fledgling news websites have cropped up across the country, led by journalists who bleed local, sometimes down to the neighborhood.

Local journalism survives on the dedication of these journalists, like Mike Corn. When I pulled up the Hays Daily News website tonight, there was Mike’s name. He’s still in Hays. He has threatened to leave several times since I left in 1996, but he’s still there. You have to have that kind of dedication because it sure as hell doesn’t pay that well. I made $2000 less than a first year teacher when I started in Hays. I made ends meet by having no student debt and living very frugally. I drove a very used car that had no working air conditioning, something you miss when it’s 45 C (114 F) on a hot, dusty summer day in Kansas.

Sceptical optimism

Local news and information has always been a tough business, and the ongoing economic crises aren’t making that any easier. It is good to see a renewed vigour when it comes to local. John Paton, dubbed newspapers’ digital apostle by the New York Times this week, is pulling the industry forward, and his digital first strategy has been a clarion call to his editors and journalists, many who work at small newspapers. Steve Yelvington has long been a leader in digitally-led local journalism, and as Morris, the group he works for, moves digital close to its core, I’m sure we’ll see great things. I’m sure we’ll see new efforts in how communities cover themselves. For those of you working with such projects, it’s well worth reading the New Voices: What works report.

I continue to be sceptically optimistic about local journalism, more because I choose to be optimistic about small communities. Although I haven’t done truly local journalism for a long time, I remember all too well how hard it is and the dedication required. I remain slightly sceptical because I think a lot of the hype surrounding hyperlocal has needed tempering for a very long time, and I see a lot of hyperlocal projects make the same mistakes over and over and over again. Local journalism needs more of a rethink than national or international when it comes to remaking the business model. Thanks to CJR for trying to move this conversation a bit more front and centre.