Taking heart from top-down efforts to bolster local journalism

Fayette Station, in West Virginia. Image via Pixabay.

DEBATES THIS YEAR over a succession of health-care bills led media outlets from the coasts and Washington, DC, into “Trump country.” Here’s a snapshot from Kentucky, where I work: Politico went to Salyersville to scrutinize the complications of a Medicaid work requirement. The New York Times parachuted into Whitesburg and spoke with nearly two-dozen people about their conflicted feelings over both Obamacare and the American Health Care Act. And Vox made a trip to Whitley County, where Sarah Kliff spoke with Obamacare enrollees who voted for Trump and seemed disheartened by the failure of a GOP-crafted plan.

Every news outlet that devoted resources to Appalachia should be commended. And, overall, Vox, Politico, and the Times produced thoughtful and compelling coverage of an under-covered region. Still, from a local perspective, reports like those in Vox and Politico in which subjects are asked how they voted can feel like journalists from different places dismissing folks out here as the second-rate “other”.

“It’s easy to mock this sort of thing,” wrote Vox founder Ezra Klein on Twitter, referring to a quote from a Trump voter that felt disenchanted with the GOP’s American Health Care Act. “But a lot of people really believed in Trump, and they’re getting hurt.” To which a number of accounts replied that they would reserve their sympathy.

But regions like Appalachia may see less parachute journalism and more support for local reporting in the new year. If 2017 began with concerns that coastal media bubbles would perpetuate stale narratives about rural folks, then it concludes with news of a few energized efforts to improve those narratives on the local level.

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A few news organizations based in America’s major media centers are committing resources that could bolster reporting elsewhere in the US. Though it’s impossible to say whether those efforts will be successful, it’s hard not to be heartened by them.

 

RELATED: Dissatisfied with the national media’s frame, Appalachia finds its own voice

 

HERE’S A FEW of those efforts.

Harvard’s Nieman Foundation recently announced the Abrams Nieman Fellowship in Local Investigative Journalism, which will support up to three reporters “who cover news in areas of the United States where resources are scarce.” Fellows are expected to pursue “a public service reporting project for their home news organization,” which Nieman’s Ann Marie Lipinski sees as an effort to build on the established and often overlooked strengths of smaller news outlets.

“Some of the greatest, most noble public-service journalism in this country has come from small staffs working hard to shed light or right wrongs in their communities,” said Lipinski in an interview with Nieman Lab’s Shan Wang.

ProPublica recently announced the participants in its inaugural Local Reporting Network: seven reporters culled from a group of 239 applications whose current newsrooms are in cities including Carbondale, Illinois; South Bend, Indiana; and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The seven reporters (and their investigative stories) will remain in their newsrooms, though ProPublica will also publish their work and reinforce it with “data, research, and engagement” expertise.

Report for America received interest from 250 or so people in the three Appalachian jobs. ‘We had a lot of applications from really, really talented people who were living in the region.’

“We had a lot of applications from really, really talented people who were living in the region,” says Grant. And there were also many reporters “really interested in coming home.”

Next year also marks the first for the Ground Truth Project’s Report for America, a program outlined in CJR in 2015, which co-founders Steven Waldman and Charles Sennot hope will put “at least 1,000 local reporters on the ground.”

During its pilot year, Report for America will match up to 12 reporters with positions in four to six newsrooms, according to Kevin Grant, Ground Truth Project’s executive editor. “We’ve learned a lot from the newsrooms in the pilot project,” said Kevin Grant, Ground Truth Executive Editor.

Part of the first Report for America class is a dedicated Appalachian Reporting Project, which will pair three reporters with the Charleston Gazette-Mail, West Virginia Public Broadcasting, and Lexington Herald-Leader. Grant says that a second phase will roll out throughout 2018, and will likely focus on news outlets in the South, Midwest and Southwest.

Emily Bell raised some of the concerns over Report for America, including longevity. “Critics of the scheme have wondered whether parachuting reporters into hard-pressed newsrooms is the right way to address the long term issue of local communities being cut out of how they cover their own stories,” wrote Bell in October.

Grant says that Report for America received interest from 250 or so people in the three Appalachian jobs. Although the Appalachian Reporting Project originally sought “emerging journalists,” Grant says he was surprised by how many applications came from established professionals who lived in the 13-state area or had Appalachian roots.

“We had a lot of applications from really, really talented people who were living in the region,” says Grant. And there were also many reporters “really interested in coming home.”

 

Much of this optimism, however, stems from a place of conceding that it’s hard to [imagine] how our range of options in Appalachia and the quality of our narrative could get worse.

 

ONE WRITER WATCHING the Appalachian Reporting Project with interest is Elizabeth Catte, a historian from east Tennessee and author of the forthcoming book What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia. “It’s not surprising that my circle is guarded toward the project, but Report for America has boosters even in that narrow context,” Catte wrote about the project. “Much of this optimism, however, stems from a place of conceding that it’s hard to [imagine] how our range of options in Appalachia and the quality of our narrative could get worse.”

In an interview with CJR, Catte explained that her book takes its title from a familiar trope. Since before the War on Poverty, there has been an intrinsic idea that rural areas—Appalachia in particular, says Catte, based on this premise: “Whoa, look at all those desperate people making terrible choices.” Catte believes that idea yields to another problematic notion: only outsiders can lift these poor souls out of their misery.

Catte explained it this way in an essay Salon:

Every generation of politicians, writers, analysts, academics and economists believes it has discovered something unique or horrible or paradoxical about Appalachia. And members of each generation of these thinkers is at war with themselves to decide if we’re worthy enough for their solutions to our problems. These solutions, however, never work because they’re almost always premised on the belief that Appalachia is fundamentally different than the rest of the country, not part of it. And so we repeat a frustrating cycle: Our self-appointed social betters interpret our reluctance to embrace their solutions as an act of bad faith.

Ending that cycle is especially important in Appalachia, considering the stakes. Coastal media has long overlooked chronic health conditions in rural areas, which are literally leading to shorter life spans. A recent report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Appalachian Regional Commission, and the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky found that health disparities continue to grow in areas such as infant mortality, diabetes, cancer and heart disease. In many ways, the region is a bellwether for the rest of the country when it comes to looming health crises, including opioid epidemic and the risk of an HIV epidemic.

RELATED: Public media rethinks its approach to journalism

Perhaps it’s telling that, of the seven local projects funded by ProPublica, several touch on health-related topics. There’s also the Center for Health Journalism’s new “Impact Fund,” which will award up to eight $10,000 grants to reporters. For the fund, CHJ professed a special interest “in investigative or explanatory reporting projects that advance public understanding and health policy for underserved or vulnerable populations, which could include people living in low-income neighborhoods, rural areas, prisons, foster homes, juvenile detention centers or homeless encampments.”

Combined, the ProPublica, Nieman and Report for America efforts detailed here will directly benefit fewer than 20 newsrooms. But they’re new beginnings, after all, and encouraging first efforts that may grow in scope. Likeminded projects are a testament to the difference a momentous year, and some innovative thinking, can make.

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Mary Meehan brings 30 years of experience to the health beat at the Ohio Valley ReSource, a network of NPR-affiliated stations covering Kentucky, West Virginia and Ohio. She is based at WEKU.FM at Eastern Kentucky University. As a 2016 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, Mary studied digital journalism and the challenge of using public health policy to create sustainable social change. Follow her on Instagram @TheMaryMeehan and on Twitter @TheMaryMeehan and @OVReSRC.