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 WriteForArkansas.com 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.