Innovation from a ‘Rural Journalism Lab’
By Sam Ford, Andrea Wenzel, Lee Bratcher, and Dustin Bratcher
There is so much discussion about innovation in journalism circles today. But with all the focus on “fast innovation” around technology and platforms that can grow rapidly and produce products with the potential to scale widely, what often gets discounted is the other half of innovation—the one focused on processes and approaches.
Based on a pilot project conducted in Ohio County, Kentucky, that we coined the “rural journalism innovation lab,” we believe in the benefits of channelling more energy toward what Sam Ford and his former colleague Federico Rodríguez Tarditi have called “slow innovation.” This means innovation focused on issues that matter beyond the quarter, that are perpetually “#6 on the list” of things to try — and that build toward models of the future even if daily operations remain focused on the structures of today. This is, in effect, our attempt to rescue innovation from being conflated with the “shiny new object syndrome” surrounding today’s thinking.
We’re also concerned with where it is that innovation is imagined to happen. When people talk about transformation in journalism, they imagine a trickle-down effect, where the most meaningful experimentation happens in the newsrooms with the budgets to fund big experiments. In other words, rural journalism is rarely included in these discussions.
Too often the journalism industry thinks and talks instead about the challenges that rural journalism faces: a smaller pool of interested audiences and advertisers; limited access to resources, capital, and talent; challenges of broadband and mobile internet access for producers and audiences; and a range of other barriers. However, hyperlocal, rural digital outlets actually enjoy many overlooked advantages — a niche focus without intense competition, a concrete and direct relationship with the communities they serve, the ability to nimbly experiment without layers of approval, and overhead costs that are quite low compared to their urban news counterparts.
In a series of pieces on Medium and Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), we’ll look at what we can learn when we focus on the “other half” of journalism innovation by reviewing experiments put into place at the The Ohio County Monitor — what’s become for us a hyperlocal incubator for exploring long-term questions (not primarily those of the current quarter) with a full range of potential solutions (not just those that are driven by technology).
The Ohio County Monitor
Andrea Wenzel and Sam Ford, both current Knight News Innovation Fellows with the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, partnered with Lee and Dustin Bratcher, co-owners of the digital journalism site The Ohio County Monitor in rural Ohio County, Kentucky. In a study conducted between October 2017 and January 2018, our work focused on using a rural digital newsroom as a site for implementing sustainable approaches to telling stories, engaging with audiences, and building forward-facing business models.
The project comes at an interesting time for The Ohio County Monitor. Launched in 2012, the publication was first conceived of as an advertising-supported, hyperlocal website. Dustin Bratcher, one of the site’s co-founders who had previously worked for traditional weekly and daily newspapers in the area, launched the publication with his brother, Lee, under the premise that the lack of physical infrastructure required for running an online news outlet would present a viable alternative to the local newspaper. Initially, traffic came quickly and the number of visitors continued to grow. But, given the challenges of sustainably building a business around digital advertising and the limited pool of interested advertisers in a rural place in particular, revenue was another matter.
After going semi-dormant while the Bratchers began working with a larger regional journalism outlet called SurfKY — also driven by digital advertising but covering a wider territory — Dustin and Lee returned their full-time focus to The Ohio County Monitor in 2017. Their renewed mission was to focus their efforts wholly on Ohio County, which hadn’t been possible while working with a multi-county news organization.
In Kentucky, where the state’s 4.5 million residents are divided into 120 counties, identity in rural places is often tied to county. Many of those counties are populated by towns ranging from a few hundred to, at most, a few thousand residents served by one county-wide school system. Ohio County, where The Ohio County Monitor is located, is Kentucky’s fifth largest in geographic size, with its 24,000 residents spread across 600 square miles — making it challenging to provide adequate focus on residents across each of the towns.
The Bratchers decided to take a bold leap. As they read discussions happening across journalism outlets and in groups like the Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers, they became convinced that continuing to invest in an advertising-supported model was a futile strategy in the long term. Instead, they switched to building a digital subscription model, supported by limited advertising. Priced at $5 a month, or $48 annually, The Ohio County Monitor provides a few news categories free of charge (obituaries, a community calendar, and stories related to immediate issues of public safety) and a limited number of articles a month for free, with the remaining stories behind a paywall.
The mentality of The Monitor has been that operational costs are low in a rural location. The rent for the outlet’s small office is $200 a month, and all costs in total — from server costs and services, to money set aside for various contingencies and emergencies — fall safely below $10,000 annually. For the Bratchers, the number of subscribers they need to recruit over time in a county of 24,000 is not astronomical to make running the news site their permanent, full-time job. However, with the move to a subscription-supported site, the question for them is how best to build a relationship with the community that will drive financial investment in their journalism, and how quickly that process will happen.
As The Monitor set out on that journey, it became the ideal partner site for the experimentation around innovation we envisioned for this project. We were curious about which types of interventions engaged people not just in a rural place, but this rural place in particular, and how the traditions of the area might help drive ideas and experiments for a digital news outlet.
Building new processes for strengthening local civic engagement
This rural journalism innovation lab research project was borne out of an ongoing research initiative that Andrea Wenzel and Sam Ford have been working on at Tow since 2017. Phase I of the project began last spring and summer with research Wenzel and Ford conducted around residents living in rural Ohio County and the city of Bowling Green — Kentucky’s third largest city, which is a little more than 30 minutes away from the Ohio County border. The pair drew from work Wenzel had done in the past, looking at the storytelling networks and civic engagement of other communities, and Ford’s longstanding knowledge of the region as a Kentucky resident and his former work in rural journalism in the area.
In a report published last August on CJR, “Lessons on Overcoming Polarization from Bowling Green and Ohio County, Kentucky,” Wenzel and Ford looked at the communication networks in these two regions and the challenges many residents face at a moment when so much civic discussion is focused around polarized frames, often driven by public imagination at a national level that understands our society as defined by paradigms like red states versus blue states, urban America versus rural America, and the coasts versus “flyover country.” Among other topics, the report highlighted how local news outlets might be a potential point of intervention amidst that increased polarization, noting: “Many participants shared that, while they could no longer talk about national politics with their neighbors or coworkers, or even many friends, they were generally still able to talk about local news and issues.”
In particular, the series of discussion groups, media diaries, and one-on-one interviews conducted as part of that research highlighted a desire for local journalism to be a catalyst for finding solutions to local issues, approaches that might also be able to bring people across a particular place together, in ways that speak specifically to the dynamics, cultures, traditions, and challenges of the area.
In Phase II of the project, a workshop brought together some of the local residents who had already participated with journalists and community groups from Bowling Green and Ohio County, as well as a set of participants doing interesting work in journalism and civic engagement at the state and national level. As Ford and Wenzel wrote in their recap piece of the workshop:
Much of the discussion of the day turned toward new potential models, strategies, and tactics for finding sustainable methods of maintaining a news outlet at a very local level, in cities the size of Bowling Green or rural areas. Subscription/membership models (and making sure people see the value they’re getting through their financial support), opportunities for meaningful community participation facilitated by the outlet (such as makerspaces for community residents), methods for making residents part of the story selection and creation process, spaces to explain why stories were done and how the reporting happened, sustainable ways to provide Spanish-language coverage, meaningful relationship-building with civic organizations, and new regional events all came up in group discussions.
In particular, significant discussion at the workshop focused on longstanding community traditions in the region:
- literary clubs, where men or women (usually grouped by gender) of higher socioeconomic classes in communities maintained invite-only literary clubs, where members take turns hosting the club at their house and focus an evening discussion of a particular issue over a meal.
- liars tables, where men (sometimes community elders or business leaders in town, but often also including blue-collar workers who pass through before or after work) gather at general stores or local diners to talk, argue (and perhaps sometimes embellish) over local community issues and news on a regular basis.
- society columns in rural weekly newspapers, where community correspondents for each small town in a county have long gathered and shared community announcements and events; births, deaths, anniversaries, birthdays, and information about people in the community who need support, or thoughts and prayers; and even comings and goings (who had out-of-town visitors, or a family reunion, or who went on a social outing with whom) to help local residents stay up-to-date with one another or the diaspora of their town, particularly in a pre-Facebook era.
After the workshop, our intent was to inspire Phase III: a series of pilot projects that took ideas from the research and workshop and began to test them. The challenges and ideas raised in the workshop seemed ideal for a pilot project, and the four of us set out to design something around the unique moment The Ohio County Monitor found itself in to explore a range of approaches that might provide insights for the broader journalism community.
For the four months from October 2017 to January 2018, our team conducted a range of experiments looking to give us directional insight into what practices and innovations might lead to a long-term, sustainable relationship between a local rural news outlets and the communities it serves. With a small newsroom consisting of the two co-founders, and faced with the various challenges that exist with a media business in a rural community, what approaches are feasible? What is meaningful to the community? What new approaches to doing things connect with the audience, and what don’t? What, if anything, might lead local residents to make the leap to directly supporting the work of a local news organization financially without a physical newspaper on the stands? And what barriers stand in the way of that financial support?
We began these experiments with a survey administered through The Ohio County Monitor site and distributed through its Facebook page. We asked residents to identify their current relationship with local journalism, with their county and hyperlocal community, and with The Ohio County Monitor in particular, as well as their reaction to some of the longstanding community traditions. Along the way, we conducted interviews with participants around some of our experiments and approaches. We then concluded our initial pilot research with a follow-up survey through The Monitor, gauging people’s opinions on a range of experiments we focused on over the past few months.
Two of our more ambitious projects built on existing community traditions unearthed in the workshop. First, responding to the idea of liars tables that came up in the workshop, we looked across the county at where and when people in several of the small cities gather, with a particular focus on areas outside Beaver Dam and Hartford where the largest concentration of Ohio County residents live. Then, we designed a “liars table” listening tour, to see where and how journalists might be welcome in the places where members of the community already convene.
And, second, we were curious how the local society column might be updated for a digital audience. As part of our initial survey, we solicited ideas from local residents about how a contemporary community contributor section of the site might be useful, and The Monitor sent out a call to its readers for people interested in participating. We then identified an initial cohort of community contributors, who worked with Dustin, Lee, and Sam to envision, develop, workshop, and publish their pieces — and to hold a follow-up gathering, open to the public, about what they wrote, what they learned, and what might be next.
What is to come
In a series of pieces on CJR, available here and here, we share our takeaways, looking at:
- how our attempts to utilize and/or reimagine long-standing community traditions were received, what we learned from those approaches, and their potential to contribute to local storytelling networks
- community engagement and the “long game” of converting people from readers to subscribers, compared to the immediate budget needs of a small business
- platform, technology, and cultural challenges that shape what’s possible for experimental approaches in rural places
- questions raised in this pilot that highlight additional areas of exploration for rural, hyperlocal outlets
Through this work, we intend to illustrate how rural places provide a vibrant testing ground for experiments around new models for journalism and community engagement, while also pointing out the range of barriers those working in rural areas face. We hope our approach illustrates why an investment in “processes” to uncover uniquely local solutions is essential to finding long-term models that address slow innovation questions.
Sam Ford is a media industries consultant and a Knight News Innovation Fellow with the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. He teaches in the Department of Communication at Western Kentucky University and is a research affiliate with MIT Comparative Media Studies/Writing. He is also a Kentucky Press Association award-winning journalist.
Andrea Wenzel is an assistant professor at Temple University’s Klein College of Media and Communication and a Knight News Innovation Fellow with the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. Prior to her current career in academia, Andrea spent 15 years as a public radio producer, editor, and media development consultant.
Lee and Dustin Bratcher are the co-founders of The Ohio County Monitor, based in Beaver Dam, Kentucky. The brothers have covered Ohio County news together through the site since 2012. Prior, Dustin worked in local news for more than nine years and won 10 Kentucky Press Association awards.