NEW YORK – Several independent websites are joining forces to create a network for news about rural America, hoping to fill a void created in areas hit hard by the shrinking media industry of the past two decades.
The Rural News Network will begin early next year with collaborations on the economic problems of indigenous communities, and water and equity issues in the western U.S.
The network is being organized by the Institute for Nonprofit News, an organization that represents some 350 independent news sites across the country. Members range from well-known investigative 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 has seen how many of them are covering similar issues, and thought that by working together, they could produce more powerful, impactful journalism, said Sue Cross, INN executive director and CEO.
Because they are wired into their communities and issues, these member news sites have an expertise that outsiders usually can't match, said Bridget Thoreson, INN's collaborations editor.
“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 run the Rural News Network together with Investigate Midwest, a site that focuses primarily on agricultural issues and is based in Champaign, Illinois.
There's no Rural News Network website, although that is under consideration. The 60-plus members will use the work on their individual sites, and INN will link to it on its own.
Tim Marema, editor of The Daily Yonder, is looking forward to the extra hands that collaborations can bring.
“We're a mission-driven organization,” he said. “If you could make a profit doing this, somebody else would have been doing this a long time ago.”
Vast swaths of rural America have become news “deserts” with the economic failure of many local newspapers, and some of INN's members have sprung to life in response to this. Broadband access in rural America, which is expected to be boosted by the recently-passed federal infrastructure legislation, is both an issue for these sites to cover as it rolls out, and an opportunity to increase their visibility.
The pandemic's impact on rural health care and the economy, along with housing, have been issues that many of the independent sites in the network have been following, Marema said. Pandemic work-at-home policies have led to a migration to rural areas so that “anyplace with beautiful scenery, house sales have gone way up,” he said.
INN helps direct foundation funding to many of its members. A $114,000 grant from the Walton Family Foundation is being directed to the indigenous project, while the California-based Water Foundation is providing a $30,000 grant for the water and equity reporting.
INN is in its 12th year, and has seen a rapid increase in its membership, Cross said.
“We don’t have an editing desk,” she said. “But we’re in a good position to organize collaborations.”
Many of the independent websites have agreements with more established publications to distribute some of their work. High profile projects involving many journalists should be of great interest to these partners, Cross said.