Member Spotlight: Rapp News and the Foothills Forum

This week our feature is a double. It is about Rappahannock News (the only newspaper in Rappahannock County) and a local news nonprofit in Rappahannock, the Foothills Forum and how, together, they have brought major reporting projects to the rural area. Publisher of Rapp News, Dennis Brack, talks about how the collaboration began, how it works, what stories have been produced and how other newspapers could use this as a model for their own collaborations.

Questions by William Lineberry.

Tell me about the beginning of this partnership. How did the idea for the Foothills Forum first come about and at what point did Rapp News become involved? 

The idea for what became Foothills Forum was born at an installment of the Rappahannock News's monthly "Fourth Estate Friday" coffee with readers. At this gathering several years ago, a big topic of discussion was a front page story about heroin addiction in the county. Essentially, it was our attempt to localize a story that was getting lots of attention in regional and national media. We quoted various officials saying there was a heroin issue in Rappahannock, but it was difficult to quantify. Statistics in the story were scarce, for several reasons, but the common theme was that our little newsroom - like so many others our size - did not have the resources to try to find and crunch data that was elusive.

In a rural community like Rappahannock served by hospitals elsewhere, getting drug overdose numbers isn't straightforward. One reader/attendee in particular felt unfulfilled by our story and, without better statistics, thought that the article and presentation was sensational. He had a good point. The conversation quickly turned to the realities of our reporting resources. They were slim. Thankfully, we have an amazing audience that cuts across all sorts of folks. And they care. It's what makes Rappahannock so unique. In attendance that morning happened to be Bill Dietel, who ran the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and Bud Meyer, a former Knight Foundation executive and Miami Herald senior editor. We started talking about what would be needed to provide more in-depth reporting about county issues. And Foothills Forum ultimately came to be.

What does the collaboration between Foothills and Rapp News entail, for those aren't aware? Was there ever a question of just putting this money toward the newspaper and the work it was already doing rather than starting a separate nonprofit?

We have a legal agreement with Foothills that gives the newspaper discretion to edit and decide whether to publish or not publish Foothills projects. But the reality has been our relationship has been quite collaborative. From the start, we've worked with the reporters doing the Foothills stories as we would with someone on staff or who is a regular contributor. We are a private business, of course, and have a committed group of local investors.

So, direct financial contributions outside of an ownership sense are difficult. But mostly, the mutually shared idea between the Foothills folks and the paper was that we wanted to do in-depth reporting. The best way to accomplish this -- without getting bogged down in newspaper business issues -- was through the nonprofit model.

Who are the reporters for Foothills, are they Rapp New staff, freelancers? 

The reporters, photographers and graphic artist are freelancers. Actually, one reporter has done the majority of Foothills projects, Randy Rieland. Randy has a weekend home in Rappahannock, so he's somewhat familiar with the county. He is a former newspaper reporter, magazine editor and VP for digital at the Discovery Channel. Laura Stanton, a former colleague of mine at The Washington Post, has done the informational graphics on a freelance basis for all of the projects. Bud Meyer and Andy Alexander from Foothills helped with the story editing, working with our editor. I did the print page design for the projects.

That's great that the relationship between Foothills and Rapp News has been collaborative since the beginning. Would you say the nonprofit model has been successful in delivering what you wanted it to?

A big reason why the relationship has been so collaborative is because there's a common journalistic understanding shared by key people involved. Foothills chair Bud Meyer worked in newsrooms for years, as did Andy Alexander, one of the Foothills board members who has worked most closely with the reporting projects. Yes, I think the nonprofit model has been quite a success. We've been able to produce lots of in-depth reporting about major community issues

What stories have been produced and how did you go about selecting your subjects?

Subject selection was a key question, especially early on. What to report about is related to a concern that both Foothills and the newspaper wanted to address -- was there an agenda (other than in-depth reporting) behind Foothills? Instead of randomly picked topics, the group's first decision was to do a scientific survey, in collaboration with the UVA Center for Survey Research, of county residents asking about the issues most important in their lives.

The results of this survey provided material for the first series and have helped guide story selection since. For instance, the second project was about the county's broadband and cellphone connectivity challenges, which was identified by the survey as the most important issue facing the county. Story selection also has been influenced by issues in the news. 

See some of the stories that have been produced here.

The county's comprehensive plan is overdue to be revised and that process has been slowly playing out. So, we did a series earlier this year looking at the land use and tax issues facing the county. The comp plan helps guide the county's approach to development, so in advance of public hearings, we wanted to give readers a look at the key questions at stake.

What story do you believe had the largest impact on the Rappahannock community? 

The most impactful project has been "Rappahannock's Digital Dilemma". A direct result of the series was the county Board of Supervisors appointing a broadband committee to see what can be done to increase high-speed internet access in the county. 

Do you think this model-a nonprofit and a weekly, or daily, newspaper collaborating on long-term enterprise projects--could work in other rural areas?

Yes, I think variations of this model can work in other rural areas. Rappahannock is unique in some respects, but there are nonprofits, such as community foundations, in other places that could be good partners for local newspapers to collaborate with on in-depth reporting efforts. The key is a shared belief that deep-dive journalism can produce information to help citizens make decisions about critical community issues. 

Of course, there also has to be a commitment to unbiased reporting. Our media agreement with Foothills, which is a public document, could be used as a basis for other newspaper-nonprofit endeavors.

What's next for Rapp News and the Foothills Forum? Where would you like to see the partnership in the coming years?

In 2018, we're committed to several big reporting projects with Foothills. At least one of which will have a digital video component. Integrating more multi-media elements in our storytelling efforts is a priority. In addition to these larger efforts, I think there will be a couple of shorter-term projects. That's a direction I hope we can increasingly pursue - quicker turnaround explanatory reporting about recent news topics. 

This interview has been edited for length.