On the future-of-news beat, it’s easy to see which projects and innovations get the most attention. From automation to augmented-reality, the more experimental the idea, the brighter the spotlight; not to mention the more funding it can hope to attract. But when it comes to local news in underserved areas, sometimes the most welcome addition to the media landscape is pure manpower.
To that end, “Write for Arkansas” is a project to improve and increase local news coverage by placing five reporters in existing newsrooms throughout the state for two years, in areas that needed it the most. The project is funded in large part by a Knight Community Information Challenge grant and was organized by the Arkansas Community Foundation.
“The landscape of media is changing—people are getting their information in new and different ways,” says ACF’s communications director, Sarah Kinser. “In many cases that may mean that they know more about national news from what they see on television or on the Internet than they do about what’s going on in their own local government. That’s particularly true in some communities in Arkansas, because we are a rural state.”
Write for Arkansas wants to reverse that trend. After the ACF secured funding, its administrators worked with the Arkansas Press Association to review proposals from local newspapers that could most benefit from a little help. They divided the state into five areas—four quadrants and the center—and chose one newspaper from each area, so that the participants would be geographically spread out. In the end, they placed one reporter each in the newsrooms of the Stuttgart Daily Leader, The [Russellville] Courier News, (Salem’s) Area Wide News, and the Texarkana Gazette.
When asked why they wanted to fund reporters in existing newsrooms of often struggling news organizations, rather than create a brand new project, like an online-only outlet, ACF’s president, Heather Larkin, says it seemed like more efficient way to make an quick impact. Kinser added, “We’ve already got lots of local newspapers who are filling that niche that isn’t being filled by major news outlets—and so we thought, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, why don’t we see if we can find a way to support these already-functional, already-professional news outlets in our small communities?”
Although the program is organized by the ACF, an institution that focuses on projects that build community and engagement in the state, the reporters funded by Write for Arkansas all say they feel no pressure to write “pro-Arkansas” stories, or to “stay positive” in what they write. In fact, they’re free to write pretty much whatever they like. Once they’ve been placed in the participating newsrooms, what the reporters cover is up to the reporters and their editors; they respond to the communities’ greatest needs.
Sometimes that means simply lending a hand to an overworked, undermanned staff. For instance, Richard Irby joined a company, Area Wide Media, that published three different weekly papers but previously only had two reporters. Now that he’s joined on as the third, each reporter can focus on his or her own beat. “Having a third fulltime person allows each of us to concentrate on just one of [the communities], really get to know our areas well, and be more responsible to the communities,” Irby says.
An extra hand can be helpful in bringing state and national news down to a local focus, too. Sarah Morris, community reporter at the Stuttgart Daily Leader, for instance, has worked on local stories like duck-calling contests, but has also expanded the paper’s perspective by writing about how state and federal census results and labor force issues affect the community on the county and town level—larger issues that her paper’s staff might not have had time to look at before she joined on.
Matt Shelnutt was sent to The Madison County Record to be a general assignment reporter. Madison County is a tiny place in newspaper terms: the paper has a circulation of 5,000, serving a county of 16,000 people. But it’s also a county that is not well served by any other media outlet in Arkansas: even if everyone reads the Democrat-Gazette, they don’t necessarily see themselves reflected in it. Shelnutt has written his share of daily stories, but he says he’s also gotten the opportunity to take the time to follow his own interests. For instance, he wrote an impressive series on a very contentious expansion of US Highway 412.