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Virginia Nonprofit Forges New Model for Community Journalism

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A group of Rappahannock County, Virginia, citizens decided their community needed a different kind of journalism. Instead of starting a new publication, they forged a partnership with the Rappahannock News. After five years on the job, the Foothills Forum looks at where they’ve been and where they’re going.

Five years after launching Foothills Forum, a small-scale venture in nonprofit journalism serving rural Rappahannock County, Virginia, I can look back and ask: What the heck were we thinking? 

Well, we felt we were responding to the wishes of a remote oasis of 7,400 residents tucked up against the morning side of Shenandoah National Park. No stoplights, no superhighways, no big box stores. Privacy rules. 

A Foothills Forum gathering following a three-part series on rural health issues in Rappahannock County elicited laughs.(L-R) Judy Reidinger of the all-volunteer Sperryville Fire and Rescue Squad; Foothills Forum’s vice Chair Beverly E. Jones; Foothills’ principal reporter Randy Rieland; and Dennis Barry, chairman of the nonprofit Rapp at Home. (Photo provided)

But my colleagues and I heard ample demand for a deeper understanding of the underlying issues in a place that’s home to both “been-here’s” – many of them seventh- and eighth-generation farm families, and more recent “come-here’s” – most with ties to greater Washington, D.C., 65 miles east.

From both you hear: We love life here, followed by an earful about what’s not known about an uncertain future. And the only game in town in this local news desert, the weekly Rappahannock News, admitted it lacked the wherewithal to meet that demand. Newsroom staff now: One full-time editor.

So, after a year of listening – interviews and focus groups with more than 100 citizens – we promised to commission high-quality explanatory journalism in conjunction with the weekly. We believed the community would support an independent, nonpartisan nonprofit by opening their wallets, even if they were skeptical about what they’d be getting. Foothills also pledged to live up to the “forum” part of the name by bringing folks together in our fire halls and churches to discuss the issues as reported and what could be done about them. 

Rather than assume we knew what the issues to be covered should be, we asked first. We mailed a baseline survey, developed with the Center for Survey Research at the University of Virginia, to the county’s more than 3,000 households and mailboxes. An astonishing 42 percent responded by ranking a set of issues and answering questions on quality of life and services.  

And we were off, to research and report on the topmost issues in our old (and getting older) county – lack of broadband and cell service, concerns about land use and agriculture’s future, access to health care and transportation, an economy where apples once were king, how to make love-it or hate-it tourism sticky. A four-page agreement with the paper’s owners protects the newsroom’s integrity, and we provide resources for reporting, research, information graphics, photography and design. Each series attempts to show examples of how other communities successfully deal with the thorny issues. 

We tripped early in this hike of ours. We lost (and quickly regained) our nonprofit tax status. We weathered criticism from a small but loud cadre of skeptics lampooning the nonprofit as “Foothills Follies” run by “arrivistes” who “fell off the turnip truck.”  Our requests for some interviews went unanswered. New issues have arisen since the 2015 survey amid long-simmering tensions; we’re absorbing lessons from a divisive debate this past fall that led to rejection of a state grant for a bike trail. 

But the newspaper reporting we jointly produce began to win awards (Best in Show two years running at the Virginia Press Association), get results (our Board of Supervisors formed a broadband committee), and earn trust as readers saw themselves and their concerns reflected in readable, nuanced, coverage.  

Foothills Forum 2016 college intern Julia Fair, right, interviews environmentalist Phil Irwin, founder of the Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection. (Photo provided)

As community support has grown, ranging from individual donations to grants from local foundations, we’ve been able to add other resources for the weekly – summer interns, a summer fellowship. We make seed grants for other news startups. Our most recent project, the Rappahannock Snapshot, is a special section revisiting and updating readers and viewers on progress, or stagnation, on previously reported issues. Our next project adds video. The work is archived online at www.rappnews.com

The Foothills model has recently drawn more discerning attention. Columbia Journalism Review featured our approach in Virginia’s Piedmont in November 2017. We’ve presented to the International Society of Weekly News Editors and the Virginia Press Association. We’ve heard from news nonprofits in Maine, North Carolina, Kentucky and of course, Virginia, who want to learn and share together. The Fauquier Times in our adjoining county asked us for our start-up playbook and has created its own partnership with the new Piedmont Journalism Foundation.  

On a personal note, I grew up on a Holstein dairy farm in northeast Missouri, and the Virginia Piedmont’s rolling hills and hollows have reintroduced me in the past 13 years to country life after a big-city career. Rappahannock County’s friendly people, numerous vineyards, small batch breweries and farm-to-table restaurants add savor and flavor to my life in retirement. But being part of Foothills Forum has assured me there’s a strong connection between community and journalism.  

We can’t wait to see what the next five years bring. 

Larry “Bud” Meyer is chair and co-founder of Foothills Forum. You may reach him at info@foothills-forum.org. 

This article was originally published by Daily Yonder.

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Is Rural America Having a Moment in Democratic Policy Proposals?

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At the Iowa State Fair, candidates were everywhere. Photo: Phil Roeder/Flickr, Creative Commons

The 2020 Presidential election is not likely to hinge on nuanced rural policy positions and party platforms. That doesn’t seem to matter to the women and men running for the Democratic nomination, many of whom are campaigning hard for big investments and jobs in rural infrastructure, agriculture, clean energy and health care.

When it comes to presidential elections, many people feel that rural issues get ignored . Mainstream media coverage of campaigns and voter opinion tends to focus on the horserace between political parties, geographic divisions and the moving weathervane of “electability.” Rural topics, with the exception of commercial and corporate agriculture, traditionally don’t get much mention.

Things seems different this year. Last week I spent a lot of time reading and comparing statements and policy positions among the diverse field of Democratic candidates. Unlike any time I’ve seen in 20 years of rural advocacy and economic development work, many of the candidates are developing serious and innovative rural policy ideas that deserve more attention.

A large number of campaigns are embracing infrastructure and telecommunications improvements in rural communities, for instance, and are trying to differentiate themselves through specific budget and policy goals. Numerous candidates are calling for aggressive changes in the health-care sector to address a crisis in rural health care facilities and availability. Most of them support agricultural reforms and conservation programs that would decrease greenhouse gas emissions.

As we were compiling our initial set of candidate position reporting at the Daily Yonder, there was a flurry of activity on rural issues just last Wednesday and Thursday. Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) all released comprehensive, detailed rural economic development platforms while campaigning in rural Iowa. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced a bill designed to address climate change through conservation-based farming practices, renewing the Civilian Conservation Corps and scaling up clean energy systems in rural communities. Mayor Pete Buttigieg (South Bend, IN) unveiled his plan for improving rural healthcare and later released a comprehensive rural-policy plan.

A few of the innovative proposals that stick out for innovation and scope include the following:

  • ARPA-Ag, a science and innovation platform to decrease greenhouse gas emission from agriculture, Washington Governor Jay Inslee.

Modeled after the U. S. Defense Department’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the public-sector research and development initiative that helped create the internet and supercomputers, and the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E that led to clean energy innovations during the Obama Administration, Inslee’s ARPA-Ag would attempt to decarbonize agriculture.  ARPA-Ag would expandd federal investment in “research, development, demonstration and deployment” of climate-friendly farming practices, while also reducing climate emission from the agricultural input sector. Inslee would also create a Next-Generation Clean Energy Extension Service to share the results, knowledge and resources for participating in ARPA-Ag and related efforts to decrease greenhouse gas emissions and address climate change.

Warren’s $85 billion rural broadband proposal states that, “One of the best tools for unlocking economic opportunity and advances in health care, like telemedicine, is access to reliable, high-speed Internet.” The package includes funding, incentives and regulatory changes that will allow public sector internet providers to compete head-to-head with private services. In addition, funding will be available to expand service to rural communities currently being ignored by the private sector. Eligible entities will be local governments, Native American tribes, rural electric cooperatives and rural telephone cooperatives among others.  Warren’s plan is to set-aside at least $5 billion funding for Native American tribal governments.  The $85 billion broadband plan seeks to address the rural internet access gap. “According to the FCC, in 2017, 26.4% of people living in rural areas and 32.1% of people living on tribal lands did not have access to minimum speed broadband (25 Mbps/ 3 Mbps), compared to 1.7% in urban areas,” Warren’s plan states.

  • Rural Future Partnership Fund,” New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.

Gillibrand is proposing $50 billion in public financing to fund multi-year, flexible, block grants to local communities with comprehensive rural revitalization strategies. Funds would be available for rural water systems, affordable housing, local food efforts, rural entrepreneurship and other rural economic development needs. The funding will target projects in rural communities with a history of persistent poverty, along with prioritizing cooperatively-owned enterprises. Gillibrand’s rural economic development plans also include the creation of a “Rural Future Corps” that identifies and trains rural young people and public servants, as well as supporting arts and cultural heritage-based efforts at job creation and local economic development.

REAP, the Renewable Energy for America Program, is a popular grant and loan program that supports installation and operation of renewable energy systems serving farmers and rural small business owners. Senator Booker recently proposed a $1 billion expansion of REAP as part of his Climate Stewardship Act. The program, in operation since 2009 with limited budgets averaging from $10-$50 million per year, has already been responsible for more than 10 billion kilowatt hours of renewable electricity production by participants, according to USDA. The Booker REAP expansion would provide a short-term boost to the already growing rural deployment of solar, wind and geothermal energy production. REAP expansion would likely result in huge increases in rural solar installations and energy efficiency improvements for farmers and rural small businesses throughout the nation.

I don’t want to pretend that a rural policy position paper is going to lead to the presidency, let alone get passed and implemented. Bold, aggressive policy proposals to expand rural economic development like these face a long and politically driven set of challenges.

The coalition of limited government activists, tax-cut proponents and white Christian conservatives that make up the bulk of the Republican Party are not likely to jump for joy. Within the Democratic Party, there is a large contingent of voices that repeatedly call for caution, moderation and fiscal conservatism. “How are we going to pay for it?” is often the mantra of the pundit and lobbyist class.

Still, while partisan and electoral politics are an ever-present barrier, rural people and organizations should take note that their consistent calls for more funding, resources and attention are working. Huge investments in rural broadband have been embraced by all of the Democrats in the race. (Broadband is one of the few rural development areas that the Trump administration has also supported.) Nearly all the candidates have called for aggressive antitrust action to curtail the market power of corporate agribusiness, a clear rejection of the hands-off approach during the Obama administration. The rural hospital closure crisis is being mentioned on the nationally televised debate stage. The climate crisis is being treated as a serious issue, with a “just transition” to cleaner agriculture, forestry and mining practices in the spotlight.

I’m not sure how to take these developments other than to report them as words on the page. Electoral politics, in my opinion, is all-too-often an incredibly important but ultimately frustrating popularity contest void of actual substance. Perhaps 2020 is going to be different, even if the innovative ideas for improving economies and quality-of-life in rural America is coming from the party that most mainstream political pundits describe as “urban.” Stay tuned.

Bryce Oates covers federal rural policy for the Daily Yonder.

This article was originally published by the Daily Yonder.

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Commentary: Immunizing Against Our Culture of Contempt

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In his first inaugural address in March of 1861, Abraham Lincoln said, "We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies," and he invoked "the better angels of our nature." Photo: Wikipedia

Today’s public discourse is a petri dish for breeding disgust for people with whom we disagree. Debates about healthcare issues affecting rural America are no exception.

From the left’s “basket of deplorables” to the right’s “send her back,” our public and private spaces have become infected with a culture of contempt. On too many days, I feel I am in a country I barely recognize. I don’t know if conservatives and liberals equally engage in contempt of the other, only that I hear too much of it from both sides.

Tim Size

I take little comfort when individuals say it’s not so bad, that we were more divided during the Civil War. As savage as those days were, Abraham Lincoln knew we could and must do better.

“Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Even while coming of age in the riot-torn ’60s, my evangelically conservative family would encourage me “to hate the sin but love the sinner.” And not dissimilarly, at the same time, the left made an icon of a Vietnam War protestor placing a carnation into the barrel of a soldier’s rifle.

From Fox News to MSNBC, our airwaves are filled with voices competing to be the loudest and the most adept at ridiculing their opponents. The dominant narrative is not to address ideas but to reduce those with whom who we don’t agree to a position beneath contempt. Once we allow ourselves to hold someone in contempt, all that the best of our culture teaches us about how we are to relate and support each other goes out the window.

I have taken heart from individuals who have begun to name this problem and suggest solutions, such as Arthur Brooks, long-time president of a conservative think tank, as he wrote about “Our Culture of Contempt” in a recent issue of The New York Times: “What we need is not to disagree less, but to disagree better. And that starts when you turn away the rhetorical dope peddlers–the powerful people on your own side who are profiting from the culture of contempt. As satisfying as it can feel to hear that your foes are irredeemable, stupid and deviant, remember: When you find yourself hating something, someone is making money or winning elections or getting more famous and powerful.”

If we are to reverse our country’s slide into increasingly entrenched and divided camps, we need to relearn how to productively talk about our differences instead of attacking the character, motive and personal attributes of the “other side.”

Brooks goes on to say that “each of us can make a commitment never to treat others with contempt, even if we believe they deserve it. This might sound like a call for magnanimity, but it is just as much an appeal to self-interest. Contempt makes persuasion impossible – no one has ever been hated into agreement–so its expression is either petty self-indulgence or cheap virtue signaling, neither of which wins converts.”

For those of us working in health care, contempt is not theoretical. We seem increasingly less able to make progress on important issues as the rhetoric heats up and the attacks get more personal. Here are a few examples of current health care issues that seem too often to be dominated by attacks on those who hold an opposing opinion rather than the opinion itself.

  • Advanced Practice Registered Nurse Collaboration
  • Family Planning
  • Federal Dollars for Medicaid Expansion
  • Medicare for All
  • Race and Geography in Health Disparities
  • Vaccination and Anti-vaxxers

While I know that I have and still can readily discount those who disagree with me on each of these issues, I have renewed my commitment to keep my advocacy based on the facts and our organization’s aspirations, not on trying to tear down those who might disagree. Will you join me in this quest?

Tim Size is executive director of the Rural Wisconsin Health Cooperative.

This article was originally published by the Daily Yonder.

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How Organized Labor Can Reverse Decades of Decline

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A union miner at the rally for pension protection. Photo: Aaron Payne, Ohio Valley ReSource

Collective bargaining has long been one of organized labor’s most attractive selling points.

In its simplest form, collective bargaining involves an organized body of employees negotiating wages and other conditions of employment. In other words, unions are saying: Join us, and we’ll bargain with your boss for better pay.

Unfortunately, traditional collective bargaining is no longer an effective strategy for labor union growth. That’s because employers and many states have made it incredibly hard for workers to form a union, which is necessary for workers to bargain collectively.

My own research suggests unions should pursue alternative ways to organize, such as by focusing on more forceful worker advocacy and offering benefits like health care. Doing so would help unions swell in size, putting them in a stronger position to secure and defend the collective bargaining rights that helped build America’s middle class.

Why unions still matter

Unions reached their pinnacle in the mid-1950s when a third of American workers belonged to one. Today, that figure stands at just 10.5 percent.

A big part of the problem is that employers have used heavy-handed legal and managerial tactics to block organizing and the elections necessary to form a union. And more than half of U.S. states have passed so-called right to work laws, which allow workers at a unionized company to avoid paying dues.

The stakes of this challenge are high – not just for unions but for most workers in the U.S. That’s because weaker unions correlate with lower wages, reduced benefits and greater economic inequality.

Millions stand to gain from a strengthened labor movement, from Uber and Lyft drivers in the gig economy to low-wage employees in retail and hospitality. And surveys show nearly half of nonunion workers in the U.S. say they would join one if they could.

I believe there are three models traditional unions could pursue to add members without relying on workplace certification and collective bargaining.

Advocating for workers

One approach is to build on the success of worker advocacy groups like Fight for $15 and the National Domestic Workers Alliance.

Fight for $15, for example, played a leading role advocating increases in the minimum wage in several states, most recently Connecticut, while the National Domestic Workers Alliance helped secure the passage of the domestic workers bill of rights in New York.

What they all have in common is that they engage in protests and strikes to call public attention to the plight of exploited workers while advocating for economic and social justice. Unions, which used to engage in more of this kind of activism, need to recapture some of that militant spirit.

Establishing minimum standards

A second model involves pushing employers to agree to a minimum set of standards for benefits and pay to provide workers.

The Writers Guild of America, which represent screenwriters and others in television, theater and Hollywood, exemplify this model. For example, they establish minimum levels of compensation for specific jobs and duties and then require members – both employers and workers – to adhere to them. It’s a collective bargaining agreement with a potentially much wider reach.

That’s because these agreements are negotiated with employers but also cover independent contractors who sign on as well. Their strength comes from the aggressive organizing and advocacy plus the strategic importance of the workers they represent, which puts pressure on employers to take part and meet the minimum standards.

Other unions could expand this approach to encourage workers throughout industries that have little or no labor representation to join their ranks as affiliated members, which should pressure employers to follow suit.

Unions peaked in the 1950s. Photo: AP Photo/Sam Myers

Unions with benefits

Another approach involves focusing on offering special benefits to independent workers in exchange for fees.

Some labor groups already do this, but the workers would benefit from unions combining their collective power to offer more heavily discounted goods and services, such as health care, disability benefits and legal representation.

For example, although the 375,000-strong Freelancers Union can’t negotiate over pay, it offers independent contractors these sorts of discounted benefits. Instead of charging dues, it charges fees for its benefits, essentially operating as its own insurance company. It also advocates for public policy changes that safeguard freelancers from exploitation, such as New York’s Freelance Wage Protection Act of 2010.

This model is probably the approach most likely to succeed in attracting large numbers of new members. The growing gig economy and low-wage industries like fast food are two areas that could receive benefits from these types of collective entities.

The endgame

Ideally, unions would embrace all three of these models, offering discounted benefits to any worker interested in signing on, fighting for minimum standards across industries and putting worker advocacy front and center. By broadening the ways in which workers can join and what they offer, unions will become stronger and closer to the people and communities that they are meant to represent.

But by no means are these models meant to supplant organized labor’s traditional collective bargaining role. My point is that unions should break the straightjacket fixation on traditional bargaining and use alternative models as intermediate steps to the ultimate goal of unionizing more workplaces in order to negotiate collective bargaining agreements on behalf of workers.

To get there, though, unions must mobilize a critical mass of workers. Only then will they break the dynamic of labor’s decline.

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Marick Masters, Professor of Business and Adjunct Professor of Political Science, Wayne State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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