Photo: Jeffrey Beall

Photo: Jeffrey Beall

Over the next few weeks, SJN will be launching an exciting new initiative: a pilot newsroom network that brings solutions coverage to rural communities in New Mexico and Colorado. With support from the LOR Foundation, we’ll be working with a variety of news organizations to explore complex issues concerning vitality, sustainability, and quality of life in these small towns.

For us, this is an opportunity to learn about a very different sort of news ecosystem. For most of our first three years, SJN has collaborated with big-city or national newspapers, public radio, and online outlets. We think we understand how those places work, give or take, and how the solutions approach can drive value there.

The question is, how do you bring solutions journalism to a weekly paper with just two or three reporters, with no travel budget and little time for anything but getting the next issue out the door? It’s not an academic question for us, since smaller newsrooms like these are the primary sources of local news for thousands of communities across the U.S.

Starting in December, we embarked on a journey to start figuring this out. Led by reporter Leah Todd, we met with editors, reporters, and producers at dozens of news organizations in the Mountain West. We also hosted 20 focus groups in 10 rural communities. We were trying to understand people’s relationship to the news: What issues are important to them, and how do those priorities match up against their perceptions of actual coverage? We’re combining insights from those discussions with the results of broader surveys and an analysis of the content of relevant community news sources.

We’re distilling all of that into a white paper that we’ll publish next month, hopefully. Meantime, here are posts on “The Whole Story,” our Medium publication, that capture two important themes from our research:

“And now, the news. Or maybe not” describes the “news deserts” we found in many of these communities — lack of access to reliable, relevant information needed for people to be good citizens. How do people find out what’s going on when traditional news organizations either don’t exist or have radically reduced their capacity?

And “Our lives our not simply black and white” examines the role of news coverage in shaping the thinking and the conversations that determine a community’s self-image, what it believes about itself and its future. If people read nothing but bad news about their town, that’s what they’ll come to expect of themselves and others.