How the University of Vermont is investing in local journalism

In 2019, The University of Vermont launched a program called the Community News Service: connecting student reporters to local publications across the state with support from mentors that the university provides. So far, the program has produced a thousand stories for local outlets and participated in launching two hyper-local publications in news deserts.

Program coordinator Richard Watts spoke to CJR about the program’s growth, building a civic infrastructure, and connecting needs to resources. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

How did the Community News Service program grow to become what it is now?

Richard Watts: We started this programming a few years ago. We decided to do it—from the beginning—in partnership and collaboration with media partners. There are so many great journalism programs already; it wasn’t about reinventing another one. It was about starting from the beginning, as an applied experiential learning place for students and to add value to our struggling community newspapers [in Vermont.]

We call the program Reporting and Documentary Storytelling. And that embraces longer form storytelling: documentary filmmaking, podcasting, photography. And it’s always meant to be a companion to your classic liberal arts degree. So you might be an economics major, but you might minor in reporting a documentary storytelling, because these are the skills that are going to be useful to you, wherever you are.

What are your program’s primary goals? 

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One is to give students real life applied experience. It’s a little bit less about training people to be journalists than training students to be citizens. Then the second is you’re providing this content that is so desperately needed. The idea is that we’re helping to build a civic infrastructure, where members of a community can know more about what’s going on and engage in their community and contribute to rebuilding trust in their local institutions. We’re connecting students and other people to these communities so that they’ll build these networks.

Part of being a citizen in democracy is being able to participate actively in community life, whether it be the decisions that are made at the local level or it’s through the events and activities happening in the town, or through simple things like voting. There’s such a relationship between knowing your community and engaging. Years ago, research showed that for every ten percent of the time you spend commuting, you’re ten percent less likely to be involved in your community. Vermont has this enormous network of small towns, and each of them have their own local decision making. They each have their own government, their own planning and zoning. So there’s just so many ways to engage. And what we’re hoping to do is by raising the level of understanding about what’s gone on in the community, we’re encouraging more people to participate. And for our students, they’re not all going to stay in Vermont, but hopefully they’ll take this knowledge with them, they’ll know how to influence their local Select Board, or how to follow what’s happening locally, and then hopefully, they’ll be inspired to engage.

And it’s not just about teaching these students to be citizens. It’s about shoring up these super important institutions. When people don’t show up and participate, the institutions lose value. And also, we know that when people know their local reporter, they’re more likely to trust them. When they read these local stories about government, when they know that people are actually making these decisions.

You’ve helped launch a few new hyper-local publications too, right?

The first person we hired was a woman named Lisa Scagliotti. So Lisa then spun off at some point and started the Waterbury Roundabout with our support. And that’s what you want. You want these partners in these communities, right? Now she’s a partner with us.

Then we started another paper in Winooski. Winooski has no no local paper, but it’s Vermont’s most diverse community. It’s right next to Burlington, and it’s just so logical for us in so many ways. We got a grant from a foundation in Vermont to try and jumpstart this. It’s called the Winooski News. We support it right now. We are the reporting team and the organizers. Ultimately, we’d like it to be of the community and in the community. We’re open to the model that emerges. It could be that there is a nonprofit, with a board, an actual entity that’s recognized and organized under federal rules. That entity can raise money, sell ads, ultimately, all of these should be sustainable financially. In the meantime, there might be a step in between where there’s an advisory committee that reflects the community that ensures that we’re covering the stories that they think should be covered.

How has the pandemic affected this work? 

The pandemic actually—believe it or not—has enabled us to do more. The whole idea of telecommuting, telework, and Zoom has become more acceptable, across lots and lots of different workplaces. All of these government processes are all available on Zoom in ways they never worked before. A student in Burlington can now access the meeting in Barton or Danby or in Bennington, places all over.

What unique challenges does your model have?

We have to figure out the shoulders. Mid-December to mid-January is a quiet time for us. But these papers still need content.

We do continue in the summer. And we’re able to do that because the college provides scholarships for students in the summer. We gave away about twenty scholarships last summer.

CNS reporter Jenny Koppang interviewing Hal Colston, Deputy Mayor in the City of Winooski // Photo courtesy Community News Service

Since students graduate after a few years, do you worry about turnover in these local communities? 

We’re hoping that the relationships that some of these students are building will stay with them. But also, in partnership with everybody we’re building a big Rolodex of all the people that we are in touch with, so that it’s not reinventing when a student starts covering the town. And remember, in between us, there’s this relationship with these community newspapers that will continue.

What other value do you think the program adds? 

We’re building a program that has a financial model that is sustainable, which is challenging in today’s era, of course, with ad content diminished. Students pay tuition, and the college has allowed us to use that tuition to pay for professional mentors that we hire to connect the students with these community papers so that they can write to the standards and values and to the needs of these communities.

These papers, these are small, you know, they don’t have one reporter, some of them they cannot handle being assigned a full-time person that may need some help. That’s the added value. We are paying someone in-between. So the editor can just say “I need someone to cover select boards,” and that person in-between makes sure it’s up to snuff.

We now have over forty students this semester, and we have twenty plus partners around the state, partnerships with other colleges in the state, and lots of room to keep growing.

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EXPLORE THE TOW CENTER’S COVID-19 CUTBACK TRACKER: Over the past year and a half, researchers at the Tow Center collected reports of a wide range of cutbacks amid the pandemic. There’s an interactive map and searchable database. You can find it here.

Below, more on recent media trends and changes in newsrooms:

 

  • FORMER GATEHOUSE VP INVESTS IN LOCAL PAPER: In Westchester County, New York, Alain Begun, a former GateHouse VP, purchased a struggling local weekly in 2018. Over the past few years, Begun has expanded the weekly publication to include more publication days, grown print revenue by forty percent, and launched a sister publication, a newsletter, a podcast, and an events calendar, the NewStart Alliance newsletter reported. “There is an appetite for this type of content, either print or digital or a combination,” Begun said. “When you have a community that has no media property, serve it. We’re doing a service to the community, but at the same time generating revenue, and doing a service to the small businesses that are here.”
  • BUILD BACK BETTER OFFERS BILLIONS FOR LOCAL NEWS: Local news outlets could receive more than $1.7 billion in aid from the Build Back Better bill, the New York Times reported on Sunday. Local family-run outlets like Iowa’s Storm Lake Times could earn $200,000 in payroll subsidies over the first year and $500,000 over the course of the next four years. Local news companies like Gannett could receive as much as $37.5 million in the first year.
  • ON JOURNALISM AND BELONGING: For her “Time Spent” newsletter on Substack, Jihii Jolly considers how journalism both fosters and inhibits a sense of belonging in a community. Traditional news producers ought to consider their value proposition, Jolly writes, who it serves, and where it sits in the larger system. Newsletter guest Carla Murphy wrote in Dissent Magazine last summer in favor of “multiple mainstreams strong enough to compete with the mainstream,” in other words: building a journalism industry to serve pluralities. “To navigate these multiple mainstreams of media available to us online, we need both policy and media literacy solutions,” Jolly writes, in conversation with Murphy. “Building an information product that allows people to feel like they belong is the basis for much of the success we see media ventures enjoying today,” she adds. “However, when that information product purports to provide civic value as its core competency and abide by a set of ethics including do no harm, we have to look at the product as a system rather than individual stories or publishers.”
  • BRINGING LOCAL VOICES TO CLIMATE COVERAGE: The Local Media Association wrote about local climate reporting and the value of local news partnerships, in addition to elevating local expert voices. For example, in August, New Mexico PBS environment reporter Laura Paskus hosted a conversation with a local meteorologist about how to tackle climate change. “I’ve long wondered how the dialogue around climate change in the United States would be different if people heard regularly about the divergence of current conditions from historical conditions — and heard about it from their trusted local weather sources,” Paskus said.

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Lauren Harris is a freelance journalist. She writes CJR's weekly newsletter for the Journalism Crisis Project. Follow her on Twitter @LHarrisWrites