University of Kansas associate professor Teri Finnemandoesn’t just research community journalism. She went ahead three years ago and started a community news website, the Eudora Times, to serve the community east of Lawrence.
Finneman was the featured speaker at the Kansas Press Association’s meeting on Friday in Newton. The gathering was the first in-person one held in three years. Over those three years, the state’s journalism landscape has changed rapidly, with newspapers changing hands and the creation of nonprofit outlets, including Kansas Reflector.
But that’s just a beginning.
In her keynote speech, Finneman laid out options for the publishers of rural weeklies, which dot the state’s landscape and serve as vital connective tissue for the communities. They could raise extra revenue to support their businesses in multiple ways — memberships, events, grants — but owners of institutions can be reluctant, even as pressures mount.
She and her research partners also asked readers what they thought about these options. Perhaps surprisingly, they were open to the ideas.
We found there’s a tremendous disconnect between what readers say they are willing to support and what publishers are willing to consider.
“We found there’s a tremendous disconnect between what readers say they are willing to support and what publishers are willing to consider,” Finneman explained last month to the KU News Service. “This business model we’re testing is all about being proactive if the day comes when newspapers lose another revenue source in legal notices, having a safety net in place and evolving.”
She’s working with publisher Joey Young of Kansas Publishing Ventures (of Newton’s Harvey County Now and the Hillsboro Free Press) to make some of these ideas a reality. Young was at the conference, too, and sounded excited about the possibilities.
Finneman also has innovated from the ground up.
She created the Times to fill a “news desert” in Eudora, and the mostly online publication just wrapped up its third year. Students who worked on the publication came along with Finneman, and their dedication to and excitement about the craft of local journalism was inspiring.
One student explained she hadn’t known that community journalism was an option before working for the Times. Now, she said, she really enjoyed it. The notion of “news” has shifted in popular culture from a neighborhood newspaper to the big coastal media outlets.
As a grizzled oldster I find that distressing, but Finneman’s work suggests tantalizing new directions.
Early morning, rising hopes
Speaking of grizzled oldsters, I went to the conference with Kansas Reflector editor Sherman Smith. We were accompanied by our far less-grizzled intern Lily O’Shea Becker. The three of us had roused ourselves before 6 a.m. to take the two-hour trip from Topeka to Newton, with the lengthy drive reminding me of the glories of the Flint Hills around Emporia.
As we chatted with journalists and publishers from throughout the state, we detected a distinctly different feeling from those in the trade: hope.
No, the business issues haven’t entirely been sorted out. No, the challenges posed by social media and rampant disinformation haven’t entirely been solved. No, the general public still has a love-hate relationship with the news content it craves. Yet for the first time in years, you could see new paths into the future, packed with peril and promise.
The same path won’t work for everyone. Some see themselves as a community resource, the journalistic equivalent of a public library offering programming. Others, like the big city papers that continue in Wichita and Topeka and Kansas City, try to make the familiar daily paper work with various nips and tucks. Others, like Kansas Reflector, have embraced a nonprofit model that leaves us free of profitability pressures and able to serve a statewide audience.
None of these approaches is inherently more virtuous. They all have benefits and challenges. In talking with attendees, almost everyone was grateful for Kansas Reflector’s free-to-reprint work — just as we were grateful for the connections they sustained with small towns and rural communities overlooked by larger news media outlets.
The imperative for such smaller publishers, Finneman said this week, is action.
“It’s easy enough to write a column or editorial and explain to readers that we are literally using (the same) business model since Andrew Jackson was president,” she said. “And that is just not realistic anymore. We have over 1,800 communities in this nation that are now news desert communities, that have lost their newspaper in the last 20 years. We simply have to do something to stop that and to bring in more revenue, and we can’t be afraid to ask our readers to help support us in that.”
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What divides, what unites
It was also clear that at a handful of outlets, opinion has become a hot-button topic. As Fox News and outrageous online outfits infiltrate ever-more-conservative areas, opposing viewpoints turn some readers off. They see the content as divisive.
I’m not so sure.
Forces from the right claim that any news coverage upsetting to Republicans must be biased. COVID-19 vaccines work, and the virus harms people. Joe Biden won the presidency, and systemic voter fraud didn’t occur. Critical race theory has nothing to do with elementary education. These are facts. But reporting them accurately leads to a handful of people saying a publication has gone off the rails with hard-left opinion. Running an editorial or colorful column won’t change that impression.
For that matter, high-quality opinion work has journalistic merit all its own. You can look through Kansas Reflector’s opinion archives to see proof.
These pieces aren’t based on some imaginary progressive playbook or memo from George Soros (you can check out our list of donors and IRS tax forms here, and that particular bogeyman is nowhere to be found). They’re based on the work of talented contributors and my own two decades of experience in journalism and public policy.
On the other hand, as one attendee put it during an afternoon discussion, it’s easier to accept different viewpoints if you accept those who deliver them as trusted members of the community. The number of reporters, editors and columnists in Kansas has dropped year after year. Only now, as online sources fill the gaps, have new voices entered the conversation.
It might take time to get used to them.
After all the discussion, pondering and reintroductions, it was time for awards. Kansas Reflector claimed its share, although by that point in the late afternoon, the 5:30 a.m. wakeup call had caught up to me. I still had to drive everyone back to Topeka and Lawrence.
I took a few moments to look around the event room, packed with journalists. Anyone who disparages the news media would be shocked, I thought. I didn’t see elites. I saw hardworking community members with a wide range of beliefs, committed to the proposition that the world is better off when our neighbors are well informed.
We’re lucky to have them. We would be immeasurably worse off without them.