Another perspective: Our partnership with Foothills

The Virginia Press Association’s weekly “Member Spotlight” recently focused on this newspaper’s relationship with Foothills Forum. Rappahannock News publisher Dennis Brack answered questions posed by VPA’s William Lineberry. Edited excerpts of their interview:

Tell me about the beginning of this partnership. How did the idea for the Foothills Forum first come about and at what point did Rapp News become involved?

The idea for what became Foothills Forum was born at an installment of the Rappahannock News’s monthly “Fourth Estate Friday” coffee with readers. At this gathering several years ago, a big topic of discussion was a front page story about heroin addiction in the county. Essentially, it was our attempt to localize a story that was getting lots of attention in regional and national media. We quoted various officials saying there was a heroin issue in Rappahannock, but it was difficult to quantify. Statistics in the story were scarce, for several reasons, but the common theme was that our little newsroom — like so many others our size — did not have the resources to try to find and crunch data that was elusive.

In a rural community like Rappahannock served by hospitals elsewhere, getting drug overdose numbers isn’t straightforward. One reader/attendee in particular felt unfulfilled by our story and, without better statistics, thought that the article and presentation was sensational. He had a good point. The conversation quickly turned to the realities of our reporting resources. They were slim. Thankfully, we have an amazing audience that cuts across all sorts of folks. And they care. It’s what makes Rappahannock so unique. In attendance that morning happened to be Bill Dietel, who ran the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and Bud Meyer, a former Knight Foundation executive and Miami Herald senior editor. We started talking about what would be needed to provide more in-depth reporting about county issues. And Foothills Forum ultimately came to be.

What does the collaboration between Foothills and Rapp News entail, for those aren’t aware? Was there ever a question of just putting this money toward the newspaper and the work it was already doing rather than starting a separate nonprofit?

We have a legal agreement with Foothills that gives the newspaper discretion to edit and decide whether to publish or not publish Foothills projects. But the reality has been our relationship has been quite collaborative. From the start, we’ve worked with the reporters doing the Foothills stories as we would with someone on staff or who is a regular contributor.

We are a private business, of course, and have a committed group of local investors. So, direct financial contributions outside of an ownership sense are difficult. But mostly, the mutually shared idea between the Foothills folks and the paper was that we wanted to do in-depth reporting. The best way to accomplish this — without getting bogged down in newspaper business issues — was through the nonprofit model.

That’s great that the relationship between Foothills and Rapp News has been collaborative since the beginning…

A big reason why the relationship has been so collaborative is because there’s a common journalistic understanding shared by key people involved. Foothills chair Bud Meyer worked in newsrooms for years, as did Andy Alexander, one of the Foothills board members who has worked most closely with the reporting projects.

What stories have been produced and how did you go about selecting your subjects?

Subject selection was a key question, especially early on. What to report about is related to a concern that both Foothills and the newspaper wanted to address — was there an agenda (other than in-depth reporting) behind Foothills? Instead of randomly picked topics, the group’s first decision was to do a scientific survey, in collaboration with the UVA Center for Survey Research, of county residents asking about the issues most important in their lives.

The results of this survey provided material for the first series and have helped guide story selection since. For instance, the second project was about the county’s broadband and cell phone connectivity challenges, which was identified by the survey as the most important issue facing the county.

Do you think this model — a nonprofit and a weekly, or daily, newspaper collaborating on long-term enterprise projects — could work in other rural areas?

Yes, I think variations of this model can work in other rural areas. Rappahannock is unique in some respects, but there are nonprofits, such as community foundations, in other places that could be good partners for local newspapers to collaborate with on in-depth reporting efforts. The key is a shared belief that deep-dive journalism can produce information to help citizens make decisions about critical community issues.

Of course, there also has to be a commitment to unbiased reporting. Our media agreement with Foothills, which is a public document, could be used as a basis for other newspaper-nonprofit endeavors.

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