(Photo courtesy: The Mendocino Voice )

Six years ago, Rappahannock County, Virginia’s story was a familiar one. A rolling, mountainous landscape with no interstates and a single flashing red light, the county was at risk of becoming a news desert, and the local outlet, Rappahannock News, was struggling.

“We’re representative of a lot of communities in America that are rural,” said Larry Meyer. A career editor, newsman and foundation executive, he recognized the potential for Rappahannock News to vanish altogether. So, in collaboration with longtime philanthropy executive Bill Dietel and a group of concerned residents, he began examining ways to bring the vital news operation back to life and make it sustainable for the future.

The result of their efforts was a private, independent, nonprofit news organization called Foothills Forum, created specifically to provide in-depth, investigative reporting for Rappahannock News. A county of remarkable natural beauty, Rappahannock is a sought-after haven for many with ties to Washington, D.C. A large portion of the population consists of second homeowners and retirees. The ability to tap into this affluent echelon created a prime environment for Foothills Forum to thrive as a 501(c)(3). 

However, in many rural areas, that’s not the case. Across the country, in California’s Mendocino County, home to approximately 90,000 people, the setting is quite different. “Our community didn’t seem like it was one where there were tons of extra philanthropy resources lying around,” said Kate Maxwell, publisher at The Mendocino Voice. 

This reality, along with other factors, including the considerable administrative requirements of nonprofit status, sent The Mendocino Voice in a different direction. Since 2016, it has been growing as a fully digital, for-profit news organization. Now, it’s also moving toward becoming a co-op in which community members and staff can hold a stake. 

The transition to this democratic model is a direct reaction to the region’s current journalism landscape, which is largely overseen by Alden Global Capital. The media monolith has been referred to by Vanity Fair as the “The Hedge Fund Vampire that Bleeds Newspapers Dry” and “The most feared owner in American journalism” by Columbia Journalism Review. 

“Not only were they just extracting profit from the local communities and not serving them, but what we could do as reporters was limited by essentially our minimum-wage salary,” recalled Maxwell, who previously worked at an Alden-owned paper

In response, she has positioned reporting at the forefront of The Mendocino Voice, where with little overhead, the bulk of funds can be poured into news coverage. She feels embracing a co-op structure will now “reflect the kind of ownership, trust and accountability to the local community that we thought…would best serve readers.”

Since inception, Maxwell and her co-founder seized just about any opportunity, including community events and farmer’s markets, to talk with residents about the advantages of a digital news outlet. In 2020, they were planning a series of events to share messaging around becoming a co-op, but the pandemic put in-person opportunities on hold. 

Instead, they’ve continued to build momentum online. Faced with great geographic distances between residents, as well as limited internet and cellphone coverage, they’ve been forced to think creatively. Maxwell says they’re “trying to find those really easy-to-access, low-barrier, most efficient mechanisms.” She expects it’s a process that will evolve over time.

A significant commonality between The Mendocino Voice and Foothills Forum is their commitment to hearing directly from the community. Prior to launching as a nonprofit, the Forum conducted a community-wide survey with support from University of Virginia’s Center for Survey Research to identify the priorities of county residents. 

“We sent that survey in big envelopes on paper to more than 3,000 households,” said Meyer. Having prefaced it with PR in the local news, word-of-mouth, and flyers at country stores and gas stations, they received an astonishing 42% response rate. 

With that information in hand, Foothills Forum came into being. A four-page legal document was created, establishing the nonprofit as a content provider ready to supply key-issue news coverage to the Rappahannock News. 

But gaining the trust of residents, especially in a region with deep political divides, added another layer of complexity. Meyer points to the reporting of Foothills Forums’ highly respected freelance journalists as the critical ingredient that brought success.

Not only did reporters build relationships each time they went out into the community, but the writing they created spoke for itself. Their award-winning pieces have been recognized by the Virginia Press Association, and Meyer and Dietel have been dubbed journalism innovators by the Press Association.

The Foothills Forum model has been adapted by other news operations in the region and cited nationally as an approach that might be replicated in other communities. It was even included in Harvard Kennedy School’s “Playbook for Launching a Local, Nonprofit News Outlet.”

As journalism continues to take new forms in rural pockets across the county, Maxwell feels hopeful. For instance, she’s inspired by the numerous iterations of news co-ops being explored in the Group Wiki she participates in. “It takes time for people to imagine new ways that things could happen,” she said. 

Though each location requires its own, unique solution, Meyer says, “We think that the conditions for creating community-supported local news probably exist more than we realize in most rural American communities.” 

Caroline Tremblay is a freelance writer and assists in the news coverage of Radically Rural, a two-day summit on key rural issues, September 22-23, in Keene, New Hampshire.