Q&A: Trudy Lieberman on rural health news

CJR's healthcare expert talks about her efforts to help fill the news gap in parts of Nebraska, South Dakota, and Colorado

Just as many rural communities face healthcare gaps—shortages of doctors, hospitals, and insurers—many also face healthcare-journalism gaps, as we reported last week. One of the journalists working to alleviate this problem is CJR’s own Trudy Lieberman. In addition to her duties at CJR and as a fellow at the Center for Advancing Health, Lieberman has also been contributing to the Rural Health News Service, writing bi-monthly “Thinking About Health” columns on healthcare issues that have been picked up free of charge by community newspapers in South Dakota, Colorado, and Lieberman’s home state of Nebraska—papers like the Steamboat Pilot & Today, the Gering Citizen, and the Mitchell Daily Republic.

The Rural Health News Service was the brainchild of Lieberman; Allen Beermann, executive director of the Nebraska Press Association, who began distributing Lieberman’s “Thinking About Health” columns to his member newspapers in Nebraska in 2012; Dennis Berens, former director of the Nebraska Office of Rural Health; and Barry Scholl of The Commonwealth Fund, which provides grant funding for the project (as well as for CJR’s The Second Opinion). The news service expanded to Colorado and South Dakota in 2013, and Beermann says as many as eight more states in the Midwest and Upper Midwest are considering signing on this year.

We spoke with Lieberman this week about her work with the Rural Health News Service, the challenges faced by small-town newspapers, and her advice for rural reporters looking to cover the effects of the Affordable Care Act in their communities. Edited excerpts follow.

Can you tell me about the origins and mission of the Rural Health News Service?

I was a visiting professor at the University of Nebraska College of Journalism in the fall of 2011. While I was there, Beermann, Berens, and I decided we would do a series of five panels in Lincoln and broadcast them throughout the state of Nebraska through the Nebraska Telehealth Network…. And these panels dealt with major health topics like Medicare, Medicaid, the cost of care, long-term care, healthcare financing in a global sense. And they were broadcast in hospitals across the state and in offices of local health departments…

The idea was to bring unbiased information to people of a rural state, who didn’t really have a lot of access to good quality information. We had assumed that most people read their community newspapers and listened to CNN, Fox, maybe the network news; maybe they read the larger papers like the Omaha World-Herald or Lincoln Journal Star, but outside of that it’s mostly the weeklies and dailies where they’re getting information.

These five panels were very successful, so we kept thinking about how do we continue this. The more we talked about it, the more it became clear that we would try this idea of a rural health news service, with me writing a column appropriate for these audiences twice a month. And it would be sent out through Allen Beermann’s offices… and then it gets picked up by the papers.

The mission is to provide unbiased, clear information about healthcare to readers of community newspapers. When we set out to do this, we realized that when we think about healthcare, there’s a lot of misinformation, disinformation and no information, and we wanted to combat all of that.

Few papers in this region would probably have a dedicated health reporter.

Right. I think it’s very difficult for these papers. The fact of the matter is, many of these papers are just not going to do it. Covering health issues is complicated and time consuming. We all may think that they should do it, but they’re not. They don’t have the resources to do it. If they have a reporter, the reporter may cover different beats, which is true even in big-city papers. If they want to run this kind of content, this is a good way to do it.

So I think this column just sort of hit at the right time.

Why did you choose these states in particular?

We started in Nebraska because that’s where we were. It was a good state to begin with because I know the state very well; I lived there until I was 22. I maintained my connections there all these years through the university. My parents lived a very long time and we were always back in western Nebraska….

We thought about Colorado because it was a little different than Nebraska—it’s more “blue,” more liberal. And then South Dakota—because Allen thought that Dave Bordewyk, the general manager of the newspaper association there, would be very amenable, and he clearly was. Those were the main reasons.

But there is interest from other states now as well, mostly in the Midwest.

Do you see nonprofit news outlets and news services like yours increasing in prominence?

I think in this case that the nonprofit idea is good. Now, we do have to think about sustainability over the years. And this is what we are going to begin talking about…. And certainly as we bring other states into the picture here, that is something we’re going to have to consider.

But I think the audience is there, I think the product is there.

Knowing that these small-town papers do have limited reporting manpower, what advice would you give to rural editors and reporters who might want to follow up on what you’re doing and localize the ongoing story of the Affordable Care Act in their communities?

I think they should localize it if they can….

[A column] I just did was about a woman in Hastings, Nebraska who was shopping the exchanges out there, and I had followed her for three months…. And it shows the difficulty of people actually shopping in the exchanges to buy a policy. It’s just not an easy thing to do—insurance is a very difficult product to buy.

So that piece ran and was picked up by lots of papers. And that’s the kind of story that local reporters can do. They can find somebody who will shop the exchanges and they can follow their process….

There’s a reluctance to try to work with somebody over a long period of time, but that’s the kind of anecdotal reporting people ought to be doing. [Ed.: For Lieberman’s view on what kind of anecdotal Obamacare reporting to avoid, see her CJR piece from Monday.]

I did that for CJR with a woman in Pennsylvania whom I’ve written about twice. [This sort of reporting takes] some time, but if you’re a reporter, my theory is sometimes you just have to work on your own time if you want to be a good one.

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Deron Lee is CJR's correspondent for Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska. A writer and copy editor who has spent nine years with the National Journal Group, he has also contributed to The Hotline and the Lawrence Journal-World. He lives in the Kansas City area. Follow him on Twitter at @deron_lee. Tags: , , , , ,