Improving News, Improving Community

“Write for Arkansas” funds reporters in small newsrooms for two years

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.

Indeed, sometimes addressing the communities’ needs also means looking into lengthier, more time-consuming projects that require an extra person who can step back from the day-to-day and dig into something a little deeper. Whitney Snipes, a government reporter for The Courier News in Russellville, says the most rewarding stories she’s worked on were also the most demanding. She won an award from the Arkansas Floodplain Management Association last summer for a series she did on public reaction to FEMA’s recently-revised flood maps. Snipes has also investigated allegations about the efficiency of the city’s public works department and its budget overhaul, controversial and costly renovations of City Hall, and suspected voting errors by the county election commission.

“Some of these in-depth stories can be really time-consuming at times—going through files and budget reports and navigating all these documents that the city has,” says Snipes. “But that’s kind of the purpose of this program, to have the chance to do these more investigative type pieces, that normally you wouldn’t have the manpower to do because you’ve got to keep going, going, going.”

Eric Nicholson says he enjoys the autonomy he has at the Texarkana Gazette to follow his interests, which often means writing features. In November he produced a lengthy, multi-page spread, with maps and photos, called “Bridging the Map”—a guide to the region’s historic bridges. When he accepted the job, Nicholson says, “My editor explained, ‘You’re not going to be on a traditional beat, but you’re just going to write about whatever strikes you.’ And I really like that freedom.”

Whenever the reporters in the program file a story for their newspapers, they also re-publish that story on the Write for Arkansas website. The reporters also blog regularly on the site, posting shorter story items and their own personal reflections about the reporting process throughout their two-year tenures. Gathered together there, the articles and blog posts make its own source of news for readers throughout the state.

“The Write for Arkansas website is a great place for people to go, because the way the grant was handed out, there’s one of us in each corner and one in the center of the state,” says Richard Irby. “So by looking at the website, you can get a sort of overview of what’s happening in various areas of Arkansas.”

Irby added that if readers search for particular news stories in Arkansas, the postings on the Write for Arkansas website tend to come up first, because it often makes better use of SEO, and because it—unlike several of the newspapers it culls from—has no paywall. (The newspapers that received Write for Arkansas reporters had to agree to give up those reporters’ articles for free on the site, even if those articles were blocked on their own home sites; that was part of the deal.)

So in effect, although the Arkansas Community Foundation didn’t necessarily mean to “reinvent the wheel” by building an innovative online news outlet, by funding these reporters’ stories and aggregating them online in a centralized, clean format, this project seems to have done just that.

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Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner