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Colleges and Students Are Stepping Up to Help Rural Newspapers

If you want to see the latest way people are helping keep rural journalism healthy, look at Ohio.

When the media company Gannett closed the Oxford Press, the community paper in the town of Oxford, faculty at Miami University saw an opportunity to enlist their students in a hands-on learning experience providing local news.

They started the Oxford Observer, a weekly newspaper staffed by Miami students and professors. 

“It’s a community relationship, but it definitely benefits the students,” said Sacha DeVroomen Bellman, the Miami University journalism instructor who leads a class that acts as the paper’s newsroom. “This is a way they can get professional work.”

About 145 miles away, students at Ohio University are providing stories to the Athens County Independent, a digital start-up covering that county founded after its editor was unjustly fired from the area’s only daily paper. And faculty member Hans Meyer plans to keep ramping up stories from students.

To the north, at Kent State University, two faculty members lead the Ohio Newslab with a focus on providing stories to rural areas. The lab partners with four community news outlets that run stories from advanced reporting classes. The faculty have raised funds to pay students and an editor who works with the classes to shape up stories and mentor students. 

“We are covering some of the more sparsely populated sections of Ohio that don’t get much media attention,” said Susan Kirkman Zake, who coordinates the program with fellow faculty member Jacqueline Marino. “I really think that’s a good news niche for us to explore, both for students and the media landscape in Ohio, because media companies are really concentrated in cities.”  

And in the center of the state sits Denison University, which is revamping its journalism curriculum to empower student coverage of rural Licking County, Ohio. Those stories, published through The Reporting Project, are available for local media to pick up. When Intel announced the construction of a $20 billion chip plant in the city of New Albany, Denison’s project was the only media outlet to cover the project’s influence on its neighbors.

“We went and sat with Danny and Barbara Vanhoose, who have lived on Green Chapel Road for 50 years, right across the road from where Intel’s front door is going to be,” said Alan Miller, a Denison journalism professor who spent three decades at the Columbus Dispatch and covered the story with faculty member Jack Shuler and student Thu Nguyen.

“We just went and visited with them while they watched and got their reaction and had an outside-the-fence view, literally, of a very big news event that everybody else was covering from inside the fence,” he said.

Those four examples showcase a trend extending far beyond Ohio. Across the nation, student reporters and their colleges are stepping in as local news outlets disappear. At the Center for Community News, our team documents partnerships between local media and colleges, and in the last year we’ve found more than 120  — many focused on bolstering news in rural areas that have been neglected as big conglomerates eat up local dailies and whittle staffs to skeleton crews. 

The University of Vermont, where the center is housed, also runs a student reporting program that works with local media. In the last year, it has provided close to 300 stories for free to community papers and other local outlets. 

These programs are not internships in the traditional sense. Students of course can get great experiences interning directly with newsrooms, but many of those internships have disappeared, and beleaguered editors can’t be expected to dive deep with their rookies on each and every story. 

But colleges can. 

In university-led reporting programs, experienced former journalists vet and assign and edit student work and work with local news outlets to assign stories that otherwise would go uncovered. 

It’s a win-win. Papers get content and students get experience. 

Richard Watts is the director of the University of Vermont’s Center for Community News, an organization that documents and brings together university-led reporting projects around the country. Justin Trombly is the editor of the Community News Service, the University of Vermont’s academic-media partnership.

The post Colleges and Students Are Stepping Up to Help Rural Newspapers appeared first on The Daily Yonder.

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