Rural News Network
Keith Graham, Associate Professor, University of Montana School of JournalismMissoula, Mont.
Rural News Network
University of Montana
Missoula, MT 59812
The network will recruit and train residents of three rural Montana towns to report on news and information for rural websites and plans to locate a computer kiosk in each community to ensure access and the ability to contribute to the news.
Check back for future news and updates.
• End of Year Two: October 2008
• End of Year One: November 2007
• Spring 2007
• November 2006
• August 2006
Small Towns, Big Impact
End of Year Two: October 2008
In its second year, following on the heels of its success with the Dutton Country Courier, the Rural News Network launched another website in November 2007: CrowNews.net, serving the Crow tribe. The Crow Reservation covers two million acres of land in southern Montana and is home to 8,000 people.
University of Montana journalism professor Keith Graham said his staff of seven students got deeply involved in the Crow community and have finally gotten some citizens to contribute. “I think the greatest growth for this site has been in the students’ learning process this semester. They realized how important it is to make time to be in the community - to learn about another culture and to see how and what is important for the Apsalooke Nation, the tribe that the government calls the Crow tribe.”
The Crow site invites locals to share everything from church bulletins to birth notices, opinion pieces to stories profiling their neighbors. As of September 2008, 111 stories have been posted to the site, including 20 by Crow residents. A dozen community members have contributed content and three are especially active.
Rural News Network co-founder Courtney Lowery, managing editor of NewWest.net, said the photo submissions and comments are the crowning achievement of the Crow site. “Some of the photographs are quite spectacular and I like that we’re helping Indian people to document their own history. I think just having faces and names and stories told in this way sends a message to the community that ‘we matter’ and I like that.”
The Crow site is also having a civic impact. Candidates running for tribal office have been posting their platforms on the site.
Meanwhile, in Dutton, the community news site is alive and well with one student working as the team coordinator. “So many of the Dutton residents have taken ownership of their site,” said Graham. “I think this community’s site, with a little care and feeing every once in while, will continue.”
From January 2006 to September 2008, 171 stories have been posted to the Dutton Country Courier. Dutton residents contributed 147 of those, with the rest coming from students and faculty at the U-Montana J-school. Lowery said 30 residents have posted items, 10 on a regular basis.
Lowery, who grew up in Dutton, is especially proud that the mayor has been posting the full town council minutes every month. “It’s nothing fancy, but it’s really important information for people they would get nowhere else unless they walked down to town hall. I feel like we’re doing a real service to the community by posting these minutes in their entirety.” Lowery said even the mayor acknowledges that it brought a new sense of government accountability.
Graham credits the New Voices grant for making these sites possible. “I want to say a thank you for selecting us. It is hard to tell you how much this has meant to us. We may live in the fourth largest state but we trail in per capita income (47th) - so we try and squeeze out every last cent you have been gracious to supply.”
According to Graham, most of the funding from J-Lab supported the cost of students to travel and stay overnight in these rural communities. Dutton is a six-hour round trip from campus, while Crow Agency is a six-hour trek one way. Some students made these trips two or three times each semester, in order to interview community members, recruit contributors or conduct workshops on citizen journalism and the basics of photography. Other costs covered by the grant included domain names, digital cameras, software, and a launch party.
The Rural News Network is seeking other sources of funding and hopes to launch another site in yet another overlooked and under-covered rural community. Lowery said her vision is to create a competitive application process in order to choose the next town in the Rural News Network.
Keith Graham’s 10 Lessons Learned on how to Engage Community Members
- 1. The mission of the project must be clear and face-to-face interaction in the community has to be the first step in the conversation. Create an advisory board, or group of volunteers who would be willing to help shape the new venture.
- 2. In those initial conversations, it’s crucial to create the site based on what the community members want. Do they want to do their own reporting? Do they want to write features, list events, submit photos and list announcements? What do they want to read and what do they want to contribute?
- 3. Follow up on the wishes of the community. If you ask what the community wants and portray the project as something community members will dictate, you’ll lose credibility quickly if you don’t follow through on those promises. It’s a challenge to relinquish even a little control, (although easier if you create a separately branded project), but it’s imperative that the community feels like it has ownership over the project, with you as its guide.
- 4. Ask immediately for commitments from community members to contribute, to help spread the word and overall, to support the project.
- 5. Once you have those commitments, immediately make a game plan with contributors. When someone says, “Yes, I’d like to help,” follow up immediately saying “How often could you contribute? What kinds of stories or photographs would you most like to contribute? What are the skills you’d like to use? What would you like to learn?”
- 6. Now work with your contributors to find reasonable goals for what they can contribute and how often. When contributors feel responsible for their “beat” and have a clear understanding of what you - and their readers - expect from them, they are more likely to follow through.
- 7. When you have people contributing, give as much feedback as you can and stay in regular contact. It’s incredibly scary to be published for the first time, so pay careful attention to editing. Edit with a soft hand and explain edits thoroughly. Most people will welcome, crave even some professional guidance. Give them confidence that you won’t “let them sound dumb,” which is a common concern for novice contributors. Most contributors really appreciate a hand to hold. If they feel they’re all alone, they’re less likely to continue contributing.
- 8. Start simple. Ask for announcements, wedding photos, baby photos, event photos, event announcements, items people are comfortable with sharing. Then, once your relationship is established and you’re both comfortable with tone, style and reliability, help the contributor branch out, suggest new stories, styles and approaches.
- 9. Make it very easy for people to contribute and take into account the community’s “habits” in submitting news. If for years, the Senior Citizen Center has been submitting its lunch schedule to the school newsletter, find a way to incorporate your publication into that process. And, one size will not fit all. Some may like to e-mail, others might still want to submit hard copy. Whatever the habit is, try to work with it instead of against it.
- 10. Reward the contributors and keep them in the loop. Treat them as staff members whenever you can. These relationships have to be cultivated and that takes valuable staff time. In the end, the quality and quantity you’ll get will be worth it. Also, these contributors are often participating for free, so find creative ways to compensate them. Have a special event honoring your volunteers, let them be part of the newsroom when you can and remind them often that what they’re doing is helping keep their community in touch and in tact and that their contributions are important for their hometown paper as well as their hometown. Essentially, share the reasons you continue to do the work you do and impart that passion often to your volunteers.
Keith Graham’s final bit of advice to hyperlocal citizen news site leaders: “Above all remember to listen to them. It is, after all, why you did this, right?”
Rural Journalism 101: Covering the Basics
End of Year One: November 2007
On Saturday, May 5, 2007, 30 citizens from Dutton showed up at the Dutton-Brady School for a party to launch the new website, the Dutton Country Courier. Over hot dogs and hamburgers, a little catch and touch football, residents of rural Dutton, Montana celebrated a new beginning.
Six months later, the Rural News Network’s second site, CrowNews.net, burst on the scene, with content by, for and about tribal members of the Apsaalooke nation and residents of Crow Agency, Montana.
Keith Graham of the University of Montana says the journey to DuttonCC.org took many unexpected turns. “We changed our syllabus almost weekly as we kept figuring out how best to accomplish two goals - getting students an education in rural journalism and establishing a citizen journalism website.”
How did they do it?
- With one student assigned to the website - creating the template and placing stories, photographs, audio interviews and slideshows.
- One student working with a Dutton high school student on creating audio stories. (This student is now planning to come to the University of Montana to study journalism.)
- One student working with the Dutton high school coaches (their toughest assignment, according to Graham) to see if they would file reports at the end of each season.
- Two students working on picture stories about the town.
- One student working to get the mayor and librarian to contribute.
“The librarian has written two wonderful pieces,” says Graham . “She also recalls some of the history of the community. And she has a wonderful sensibility for story telling,”
The biggest struggle the project faced was distance. Dutton is a three-hour trip from campus and it was difficult to get students up there more than two or three times during the spring 2007 semester. The challenge will be even greater with Crow Agency, which is a six-hour drive away.
Five Native American students in broadcast news, photojournalism and print journalism are participating in CrowNews.net.
Graham plans to use some matching funds to cover travel expenses and purchase an inexpensive point-and-shoot digital camera and audio kit for the town.
Graham says in the process of launching Dutton Country Courier, he learned that students have to get involved quickly in a town, making connections with the residents. “It is important for the journalists of the next generation to learn what is vital to the rural communities of today. It is important to put in face time in your community. The townsfolk must get to know and trust you - a basic tenet in journalism.”
In its first week (November 2007), CrowNews.net posted a video about the community, coverage of a Lodge Grass homecoming football game, and a competition.
Rural News Network Teams Citizen Reporters with Student Journalists
The Rural News Network launched the first of its town sites in March 2007 in Dutton, Montana, an agricultural community of about 375. Some of the first content on the Dutton Country Courier (duttoncc.org) was co-authored by pairing a University of Montana journalism student with a citizen journalist.
A natural for the launch’s lead story was the change in ownership of the Café Dutton, the town’s restaurant and main gathering place since 1954. To write about it, grad student Mary Hudetz paired up with Bev Pedersen, who was retiring after owning the café with her husband for more than 20 years. Pedersen kept notes from her final days as owner of Café Dutton before selling it and offered some history of the watering hole.
Now the site has a couple of regular columns: “Jean’s Book Ends” from the town’s librarian, and “From the Mayor’s Desk,” written by Dutton Mayor Susan Fleshman. The site has audio interviews, slide shows and photos that are uploaded to Flickr.
Through the spring semester, the project leaders assigned students to develop story ideas and find a Dutton resident to work with them in producing the story. Co-authoring pieces, “gives [authors] confidence to publish,” project director Keith Graham advised at a March New Voices meeting.
And they are seeking more Dutton citizens to be consistent site contributors.
“We really struggled with whether or not to train these people how to do journalism,” Graham said. “We came to the conclusion that we really don’t have to.”
For the fall, RNN will move to a second town. The top choice is Crow Agency, at the heart of the Crow Reservation. This effort will be led by a Native American graduate student who is returning to class. Graham reported that he is excited at the prospect of having, “an intriguing Native American town to pursue.”
RNN is discussing other possible towns for inclusion in the network. One possibility is the town of Wisdom, which is in cattle ranching country and “is home to a fine trout stream,” Graham said. Other possibilities are in the northwest portion of the state.
Rural News Network Site to Launch in March
UPDATE: Rural News Network has launched a beta version of the Dutton Country Courier, its website covering Dutton, Montana: www.duttoncc.org.
Citizen interest in the University of Montana’s Rural News Network is high. Keith Graham, the project director, proudly reports that about 80 people in the town of Dutton attended a meeting about the RNN in the fall.
“We couldn’t believe it,” he writes in a progress report on the project. “We got some effective questions from the floor that evening. After that meeting we really had a sense of what people want to see on their site. Now we just have to get it developed and designed.”
Graham hopes to launch the site at the end of March 2007. In preparation, students have been writing stories and building contacts in the community. At that town meeting, residents were given surveys, and 36 people returned them. Graham had been concerned that citizens in rural areas wouldn’t have home Internet access, but 30 of the respondents said that they had home computers. Three or four people also expressed interest in volunteering to work on the site.
The fall RNN class was made up of seven students that represented many facets of journalism. There were two reporters, two photographers, one radio reporter, one videographer and a web designer. “This is the only class this semester where we have this kind of cross-discipline work,” Graham writes. Five of those students will continue to be in the class in the spring semester, and Graham is trying to recruit another participant.
The web designer took suggestions from the class and has been designing the site. RNN is using Typepad to make it easy for citizens to participate.
For the fall semester’s final assignment, students teamed up with Dutton citizens to create stories. The radio reporter, for instance, produced a project on family heritage with interviews recorded by students in a high school class that has received reporting instruction from the RNN students.
One reporter worked with a woman who sold a local café she had owned for years. The student wrote a background story on the history of the place, and the owner penned “a nice reflective piece,” Graham says, on how she felt about leaving the restaurant. That story, he says, will serve as a model for other reports. None of the stories will appear on the web until the RNN site debuts.
Rural News Network Recruits Town Mayor, Librarian as News Correspondents
As Montana’s Rural News Network plans to launch, the project directors have been reaching out to rural communities to learn more about them and recruit citizen journalists. And students at the University of Montana School of Journalism in Missoula have been taking an active role in developing and designing the RNN website.
This summer, Associate Professor Keith Graham and Courtney Lowery, managing editor of NewWest.net, a UM alum and the creator of the project, made a summer scouting trip to Dutton, one of at least three towns that will participate in the RNN. Local residents will report and write the news for their community’s page, while UM students in Graham’s RNN class will contribute stories on rural issues to another section of the site and help train resident reporters.
Graham and Lowery also visited the nearby town of Brady, which recently consolidated its schools with those in Dutton, a major issue for area residents. Their road trip included a tour of the ranches and farms in this region of northwestern Montana.
In conversations in Dutton with the mayor and her assistant, the town librarian, the high school principal and his secretary, the English/yearbook high school teacher and several citizens, Graham got a very positive response. The mayor and the librarian were interested in training to be citizen journalists, and Graham and Lowery felt the high school secretary would participate as well, since she helped publish a monthly newsletter in Dutton after the local paper folded. One woman outside a church in town told Graham, who now has visited Dutton three times, that residents miss their newspaper and RNN would be a welcome addition.
Throughout the summer, Lowery tackled the technical side, choosing software for the RNN site and starting to design it. In the fall, Graham’s RNN class of seven students from various journalism disciplines started to produce content for the site, brainstorm on ideas for how the project will work, and instruct a Dutton high school class in the basics of reporting.
In November at a town meeting, Dutton residents will give their input about the design of the Dutton page on the RNN site. By the end of the semester, the site should be ready to launch, and in the meantime, Graham has asked the students to start thinking about the second town the project should approach.
Part of the challenge has been to figure out ways to teach basic reporting to citizens who are novices in journalism but experts on Dutton. Graham’s class has suggested putting a “community reporter’s notebook” section on the site with how-tos on covering city council meetings and high school football games. “It’s really kind of a messy project. It’s a project with so many moving parts,” he says. “But it’s also involving the citizens in as many ways as we can.”
The UM students’ final project will be to coauthor a piece with a town resident. It’s a great way to make this a “hyperlocal” citizen journalism project, Graham says, plus get students involved in covering rural issues.
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