Water is an important issue to Joe Wertz. As climate and environment editor at Colorado Public Radio, he’s overseen a lot of reporting on water in the state and its scientific and political aspects.
“There’s this complicated dance of factors that end up with water in the river,” Wertz said. “And it seems sort of simple, but it’s not.”
CPR will be able to dive deeper into that complexity thanks to a new collaboration with the Institute for Nonprofit News. INN announced in November that it will launch a Rural News Network this year focusing on issues of concern to rural Americans, particularly communities of color.
With 60 INN member news organizations participating, the network will release two pilot projects to test how the collaboration will work for the foreseeable future. The first series will cover water issues; the second will focus on the economics of tribal communities.
“It’s also important to recognize that these stories really center the impacts and stories of diverse communities,” said Jonathan Kealing, chief network officer for INN. “It allows us to really put the equity lens on this storytelling thread throughout the project.”
INN began planning the project in 2020 in response to interest from its members, Kealing said. The institute had previously convened rural news collaborations, and Kealing wanted to expand on that work.
“The success we had in previous coverage of rural issues, rural education, rural health care, and those stories really had an impact in their communities and really helped the newsrooms meet their mission of serving and informing their communities,” he said.
INN reached out to its 350 member organizations, and two — Daily Yonder in Whitesburg, Ky., and Investigative Midwest in Champaign, Ill. — expressed interest in leading and shaping the new project. The outlets, which specialize in rural and agricultural coverage, will provide RNN organizations with deep source networks and access to local community data, said Daily Yonder Editor Tim Marema.
Stories from the first pilot series, “Tapped Out: Power and water justice in the rural West,” began coming out in November, funded by a $30,000 grant from the Water Foundation that will be divided among participating organizations. RNN members have published the articles on their own platforms, and INN published the entire series on its website. The project extends a previous INN initiative also titled “Tapped Out.”
The goal for the collaboration is to reach a bigger audience, said INN Member Collaborations Editor Bridget Thoreson. Local and national publications have republished coverage from previous INN collaborations, reaching millions of readers. INN is in early talks with several national news outlets to redistribute RNN articles, Thoreson said.
“We’re taking work that’s already being done and connecting it to get this force multiplier effect, where it’s really able to reach and represent more people,” Thoreson said.
More than 20 public radio stations have expressed interest in joining the RNN. Public radio has a large role to play in spreading the reporting, Kealing said.
“I think public media and nonprofit news broadly share values, share a sense of mission and share a commitment to journalism with nonpartisanship and independence,” Kealing said. “The real strength of radio is just its incredible reach across broad geographic areas. So I think as we move forward, I’m really interested and excited about the ways that this project can work with public media organizations across the country.”
In December, CPR published an article about how water shortages and policies governing the Colorado River affect tribal communities, who were excluded from negotiations over the river in 1922. The piece aired on CPR, Science Friday republished the article, and host Ira Flatow interviewed CPR climate/environment reporter Michael Elizabeth Sakas Dec. 10.
Stitching together a ‘nationwide story’
Another public radio station, KOSU in Stillwater, Okla., is participating in the second pilot program, which will cover economic issues within tribal communities. The pilot will feature 10 news organizations, including three tribal publications, publishing articles that will be released in March. Each organization will cover stories in its region. Indian Country Today, leader of the series and an INN member, will publish a story about tribal economics across rural America.
News organizations that are part of the pilot had to apply to participate. INN received a $114,000 grant from the Walton Family Foundation to fund the collaboration.
KOSU, which will receive $8,500 from the grant, had collaborated with INN on prior projects and was part of the Institute’s NewsMatch fundraising campaign, said KOSU Executive Director Rachel Hubbard. A 2020 INN survey asked the station whether it was interested in a rural news partnership. KOSU already had an agriculture and rural affairs reporter, and given that Oklahoma has the second-largest Native American population in the country, the station wanted to participate.
“This kind of collaboration allows us to stop and be really intentional about how can we work together,” Hubbard said. “It allows us to stitch together a nationwide story, rather than it being that sort of micro-story that we would just tell in Oklahoma, and help broaden people’s understanding of what’s happening nationwide.”
KOSU is in the early stages of reporting. The station is collaborating with tribal publications Mvskoke Media and Osage News on a story about Native-owned businesses, and KOSU created a survey asking Oklahomans which tribal businesses it should cover. Hubbard said the pilot won’t be able to cover all 39 federally recognized tribes in the state but will be a learning opportunity for future coverage.
Community-driven reporting is an integral part of the tribal economics project, said Dianna Hunt, a senior editor at Indian Country Today who will lead the tribal economics project with Thoreson. Hunt, who is of Cherokee Nation descent, helped select the news organizations that will participate in the pilot series.
“The first phase of the project is listening,” Hunt said. “That part will kick off the project, and then the reporting will follow from the information that they get from their individual communities.”
Hunt said that engagement with rural Americans is crucial because local communities will pick the stories that make up the pilot. Building trust is key, she added, because residents in rural and tribal communities lack trust in journalists due to negative stereotyping and parachute reporting by the national media.
RNN will undergo changes after both pilot programs are finished, as the objective is to learn for future collaborations. Kealing said RNN’s next collaboration could focus on rural health care and that an announcement could be made this month. Wertz and Hubbard both said they want to continue working with INN, but no future projects are in the works yet.
RNN’s format might also change. Kealing said INN might create a desk that compiles data for network members to use in reporting. INN is also prototyping packaging RNN content in a short video format or newsletter.
“The biggest appeal we see of the newsletter is that it allows us to push the content out to potentially interested parties, but there’s also a direct correlation between newsletter lists and donors,” Kealing said. “We think we can help newsrooms develop their individual donor strategies and become more sustainable by creating a newsletter where they have the subscriber list and then can hopefully cultivate supporters or recurring donors members out of that program.”
However, the Network will need more funding for collaborations to continue. The two grants INN received fund only the pilot programs, and Kealing said INN is raising funds to bring the broader network to fruition.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that Dianna Hunt is a member of the Cherokee Nation. Hunt is of Cherokee Nation descent but is not a member.