Creating a 'Supercharged Weekly Newspaper'

May 28, 2020

Last month the Rappahannock News, a weekly newspaper in Virginia, received 13 awards, including eight first-place honors, from the Virginia Press Association in its annual excellence in journalism competition.

If you look at the Rappahannock News website today, you'll see daily news updatesin-depth investigative reporting featureseye-catching video vignettesdaily email newsletters about the covid-19 pandemic, a texting service and more.

What you don't see under the hood, however, is that the Rappahannock News has a full-time staff of one.

What is this wizardry? How does the Rappahannock News do it?

Well, the paper has a not-so-secret weapon: a collaboration with Foothills Forum, a nonpartisan, nonprofit civic news organization.

If you're not familiar with Rappahannock County, it is a rural area that has seen a steady stream of retirees migrate from Washington, D.C., and even more Washingtonians who view the area as a weekend getaway from inside the Beltway.

The collaboration between Foothills and the News has existed for about four years. 

Foothills Forum began as a way to provide in-depth reporting on topics that the people of Rappahannock County said they were interested in via a comprehensive survey that was created in conjunction with the University of Virginia and mailed to everyone in the county. Foothills hired reporters to create investigative-style stories on topics that came out of the survey. The organization then handed over the stories (and money for any costs associated with publishing them) to Rappahannock News publisher Dennis Brack and editor/reporter John McCaslin for possible publication.  

That's right, "possible" publication. According to the four-page agreement between the two organizations, the Rappahannock News can edit the stories how it wants. Or it could pass on the stories altogether. That, however, doesn't seem to be an issue since the two sides are in agreement on what stories to cover from inception.

But over the last couple of years, the partnership has morphed from just a few in-depth series or investigations into what you see today -- nonstop coverage of the pandemic and an expansion of platforms used to get information to the people.

The whole idea, according to Foothills Forum co-founder Larry "Bud" Meyer, is to create a "supercharged weekly newspaper."

"Whatever we do, it has to have a 'wow' factor," Meyer said. "It has to make Jim and Sarah sitting around their morning breakfast table say, 'Wow, this is not your mother or father’s journalism."

Brack, a former design director and creative director at the Washington Post, said the collaboration has been "enormously beneficial" for the newspaper and the readers.

"That a paper of the Rappahannock News' size can do such in-depth journalism is pretty remarkable," Brack said.

Case in point: an ongoing series called "Opioid Ripples," which was produced not only by Foothills Forum and Rappahannock News, but also with Piedmont Journalism Foundation (which is modeled after Foothills) and the Fauquier Times. The research and the reporting was done by the nonprofits, and the newspapers published the content on their sites.

The Rappahannock News not only gets award-winning content out of its collaboration with Foothills, but also benefits via subscriptions from the community, which values the in-depth reporting found in its paper and on its site.

Meyer, who was vice president and secretary of the Knight Foundation from 1995-2009, believes Foothills Forum could be a model for rural communities to keep their local news outlets alive.

The formula, Meyer said, includes the following:Willing partnershipsCommunity supportFinding a nicheUnderstanding if the community is, or is close to being, a news desertFor Foothills Forum, they definitely have the willing partnership with Rappahannock News. They also now have community support, although there were plenty of local skeptics early on who thought the founders were, as Brack put it, "just an example of these come-heres who have an agenda." They've found their niche by reporting on specific topics that are important to county residents. And without the Rappahannock News, the county would be a news desert, according to the Expanding News Desert Study.

Foothills Forum has a unique group of founders, like Meyer and Bill Dietel, who has extensive expertise in philanthropy (he's was executive VP and president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund for nearly 20 years) and other board members and advisors like Beverly Jones, an attorney, corporate executive and university administrator, and her husband, Andy Alexander, a former ombudsman at the Washington Post and current Scripps Howard visiting professional at Ohio University.

It's a powerful group of leaders from journalism, philanthropy and beyond, and points to the power of what a rural community can do if it pulls its resources together for a common cause.

And both Foothills Forum and Rappahannock News think this is just the beginning of what their partnership can become. For example, the Rappahannock News will host its first Report For America reporter starting in June, which will immediately double its staff size. The Subtext texting service and the newsletter could lead to new audiences and advertising opportunities in the future. 

Brack said he could even envision a podcast down the road. 

All of these things, he said, wouldn't be possible without Foothills Forum.

"We’d be around as a business, but it’s a total game changer," Brack said of his newspaper. "We’d be doing what we do anyway, which is scramble every week, but we wouldn’t have that depth.

"The product is recognized as a stronger paper than it was five or six years ago," he added.  "Not that it was bad.  ... I think people have noticed that we’re doing things now in a positive way that weren’t being done before."

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