Several independent websites are joining forces to create a news network on rural America, hoping to fill a void created in areas hard hit by the contraction of the media industry over the past two decades.
The Rural News Network will begin early next year with collaborations on the economic issues of Indigenous communities, and water and equity issues in the western United States.
The network is organized by the Institute for Nonprofit News, an organization that represents some 350 independent news sites across the country. Members range from well-known survey sites like ProPublica and the Center for Public Integrity to some that focus on particular communities or neighborhoods.
More than 60 sites cover rural issues or specific rural areas. The institute saw how many of them covered similar issues and thought that by working together they could produce more powerful and impactful journalism, said Sue Cross, executive director and CEO of INN.
Because they are connected to their communities and their issues, these member news sites have an expertise that outsiders usually cannot match, said Bridget Thoreson, editor-in-chief of INN collaborations.
“This type of work is the antidote to parachute journalism,” Thoreson said.
The Daily Yonder, a Kentucky-based site that covers rural news from a national perspective, will lead the Rural News Network with Investigate Midwest, a site that focuses primarily on agricultural issues and is based in Champaign, Illinois.
There is no Rural News Network website, although this is under review. The more than 60 members will use the work on their individual sites and INN will link to it by itself.
Tim Marema, editor-in-chief of The Daily Yonder, looks forward to the extra hands that collaborations can bring.
“We are a mission-driven organization,” he said. “If you could make a profit doing this, someone else would have done it a long time ago.”
Vast swaths of rural America have turned into topical “deserts” with the economic failure of many local newspapers, and some of INN’s members have come to life in response. Broadband access in rural America, which is expected to be boosted by recently passed federal infrastructure legislation, is both an issue to be covered for these sites as it is rolled out, and a opportunity to increase their visibility.
The impact of the pandemic on rural health care and the economy, as well as on housing, have been issues that many independent sites in the network have tracked, Marema said. Pandemic work-from-home policies have led to migration to rural areas so that “wherever the scenery is beautiful, home sales have increased dramatically,” he said.
INN helps direct foundation funding to many of its members. A $ 114,000 grant from the Walton Family Foundation is for the Indigenous Project, while the California-based Water Foundation provides a $ 30,000 grant for water and equity reporting.
INN is in its 12th year and has seen a rapid increase in membership, Cross said.
“We don’t have an editing office,” she said. “But we are in a good position to organize collaborations.
Many freelance websites have agreements with more established publications to distribute some of their work. Large-scale projects involving many journalists should be of great interest to these partners, Cross said.