United States Project

Key to success at Foothills Forum: A year’s worth of one-on-ones

November 14, 2017
Rappahannock County, via Wikimedia Commons.

Leaders of the Foothills Forum faced all the usual challenges is setting up their news nonprofit in Virginia’s Rappahannock County: developing a strategic plan; getting square with the IRS; raising revenue. But they had an acute additional problema population sharply divided between longtime residents and newer arrivals that had built second homes or chose to retire in the Blue Ridge hills. In an interview, board chairman Larry “Bud” Meyer explained how Foothills Forum overcame initial deep skepticism.


Tell me about Rappahannock’s cultural divide.

You hear about that in the first 10 minutes of living here. You have the “been-here’s” and the “come-here’s.”  The “been-here’s” are longtime residents, many of them ranchers and farmers. They live quietly, lie low. The “come-here’s” are often retired or getting toward retirement, some have second homes. They’re more socially active. They have the financial wherewithal to buy or build nicer homes, generally.

Some longtime residents have less-than-kind things to say about the newcomers. Sometimes we’re called change agents. Some people got up at the board of supervisors and said we were part of an international conspiracy. So, initially, yes, there was a lot of skepticism about Foothills Forum.

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How were you able to ease that skepticism?

Two things. First, (co-founder) Bill Dietel and I spent a year making the case and building support with 75 community individuals and leaders. So this was very one-on-one, usually an hour-long talk. Everyone from the county administrator to the mayor of Little Washington, to business leaders, farmers, elected officials. It was a lot of work. We made the case that we weren’t a bunch of lefty liberals as we were being portrayed. We showed how we had longtime residents on our board. It made a huge difference when it came time to launch.

And then the launch itself we did very carefully, spreading it over time in a series of meetings and presentations and op-eds. People appreciated that we began with the survey. And that we accompany each of the projects with a public forum after publication.

So I would say do your homework. How you prepare for your launch is very, very important.

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David Westphal is a senior fellow at the Center on Communication Leadership and Policy at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. He also is an adjunct instructor in the Studio 20 program at New York University. Previously, he was a longtime newspaper reporter and editor.