View this email in your browser

Creating a 'Supercharged Weekly Newspaper'

Last month the Rappahannock News, a weekly newspaper in Virginia, received 13 awards, including eight first-place honors, from the Virginia Press Association in its annual excellence in journalism competition.

If you look at the Rappahannock News website today, you'll see daily news updates, in-depth investigative reporting features, eye-catching video vignettes, daily email newsletters about the covid-19 pandemic, a texting service and more.
What you don't see under the hood, however, is that the Rappahannock News has a full-time staff of one.

What is this wizardry? How does the Rappahannock News do it?

Well, the paper has a not-so-secret weapon: a collaboration with Foothills Forum, a nonpartisan, nonprofit civic news organization.

If you're not familiar with Rappahannock County, it is a rural area that has seen a steady stream of retirees migrate from Washington, D.C., and even more Washingtonians who view the area as a weekend getaway from inside the Beltway.

The collaboration between Foothills and the News has existed for about four years. 
Foothills Forum began as a way to provide in-depth reporting on topics that the people of Rappahannock County said they were interested in via a comprehensive survey that was created in conjunction with the University of Virginia and mailed to everyone in the county. Foothills hired reporters to create investigative-style stories on topics that came out of the survey. The organization then handed over the stories (and money for any costs associated with publishing them) to Rappahannock News publisher Dennis Brack and editor/reporter John McCaslin for possible publication.  

That's right, "possible" publication. According to the four-page agreement between the two organizations, the Rappahannock News can edit the stories how it wants. Or it could pass on the stories altogether. That, however, doesn't seem to be an issue since the two sides are in agreement on what stories to cover from inception.

But over the last couple of years, the partnership has morphed from just a few in-depth series or investigations into what you see today -- nonstop coverage of the pandemic and an expansion of platforms used to get information to the people.

The whole idea, according to Foothills Forum co-founder Larry "Bud" Meyer, is to create a "supercharged weekly newspaper."

"Whatever we do, it has to have a 'wow' factor," Meyer said. "It has to make Jim and Sarah sitting around their morning breakfast table say, 'Wow, this is not your mother or father’s journalism."

Brack, a former design director and creative director at the Washington Post, said the collaboration has been "enormously beneficial" for the newspaper and the readers.

"That a paper of the Rappahannock News' size can do such in-depth journalism is pretty remarkable," Brack said.

Case in point: an ongoing series called "Opioid Ripples," which was produced not only by Foothills Forum and Rappahannock News, but also with Piedmont Journalism Foundation (which is modeled after Foothills) and the Fauquier Times. The research and the reporting was done by the nonprofits, and the newspapers published the content on their sites.

The Rappahannock News not only gets award-winning content out of its collaboration with Foothills, but also benefits via subscriptions from the community, which values the in-depth reporting found in its paper and on its site.

Meyer, who was vice president and secretary of the Knight Foundation from 1995-2009, believes Foothills Forum could be a model for rural communities to keep their local news outlets alive.

The formula, Meyer said, includes the following:
  • Willing partnerships
  • Community support
  • Finding a niche
  • Understanding if the community is, or is close to being, a news desert
For Foothills Forum, they definitely have the willing partnership with Rappahannock News. They also now have community support, although there were plenty of local skeptics early on who thought the founders were, as Brack put it, "just an example of these come-heres who have an agenda." They've found their niche by reporting on specific topics that are important to county residents. And without the Rappahannock News, the county would be a news desert, according to the Expanding News Desert Study.

Foothills Forum has a unique group of founders, like Meyer and Bill Dietel, who has extensive expertise in philanthropy (he's was executive VP and president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund for nearly 20 years) and other board members and advisors like Beverly Jones, an attorney, corporate executive and university administrator, and her husband, Andy Alexander, a former ombudsman at the Washington Post and current Scripps Howard visiting professional at Ohio University.

It's a powerful group of leaders from journalism, philanthropy and beyond, and points to the power of what a rural community can do if it pulls its resources together for a common cause.

And both Foothills Forum and Rappahannock News think this is just the beginning of what their partnership can become. For example, the Rappahannock News will host its first Report For America reporter starting in June, which will immediately double its staff size. The Subtext texting service and the newsletter could lead to new audiences and advertising opportunities in the future. 

Brack said he could even envision a podcast down the road. 

All of these things, he said, wouldn't be possible without Foothills Forum.

"We’d be around as a business, but it’s a total game changer," Brack said of his newspaper. "We’d be doing what we do anyway, which is scramble every week, but we wouldn’t have that depth.

"The product is recognized as a stronger paper than it was five or six years ago," he added.  "Not that it was bad.  ... I think people have noticed that we’re doing things now in a positive way that weren’t being done before."

RELATED: Industry Insight: Fight for Survival Will Push More For-Profit Toward Philanthropy


There have been a lot of newspaper ownership moves across North America in the past few weeks.  Here is just a sampling:

The owners of the Stanton Register, a 600-circulation weekly newspaper in Nebraska, decided to end its 140-year run last month. But the owners of another Nebraska media company inquired about saving it. Instead of selling it to them, the Register owners offered them the paper -- at no charge.  The Omaha World-Herald has the rest of the story.

Also from that article is this tidbit about newspaper revenue during the covid-19 crisis in Nebraska:
A recent survey of the state’s 163 newspapers found that revenue was down from 10% to as much as 70%, with only a couple of papers saying they were doing better than before COVID-19, according to Dennis DeRossett, executive director of the Nebraska Press Association.

“I think people are holding their breath and hoping that July and August will start to show improvement, or it will be very, very bad,” he said.
Meanwhile, you've probably heard the latest news about Alden and Tribune Publishing... 

And you may have heard about the Toronto Star and all of its accompanying publications being sold in a deal that actually, well, sounds promising for the company's future.

Small, Digital, Independent, Cost-Efficient

But that's not the only news out of Canada. There's a new local news company that is trying to give entrepreneurs a way to sustain their own publications.  It's called Indiegraf, and it is an intriguing concept:
Smack in the middle of a global pandemic may seem like a terrible time to give birth to a new local news company. But we think now is the perfect time for a new model of local news publishing, based on being small, digital, cost-efficient and independent, to take hold — and that’s why we accelerated Indiegraf’s plans to respond to the urgent need for local news innovation during COVID-19.
And here's Indiegraf's funnel, because I love funnels.
I'm actually going to be talking with one of the co-founders of Indiegraf next week, so I'll share what I find out.  In the meantime, you can read more from Nieman Lab here.

And in keeping with the entrepreneurial spirit, you probably heard about the new program at the Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY that will start offering a 100-day certificate program in January to help entrepreneurs own their own media company.

NewStart Update

An online entrepreneurial journalism education program is a great idea. 

Did you know there's still time to enroll in the one-year, online master's degree in Media Solutions and Innovation from West Virginia University. If you're interested in becoming a media entrepreneur, email me at and we can set up a phone call or Zoom meeting and chat to see if it's right for you.

The Power of Local Media

Local news outlets are still relevant, example No. 9,010:
Tap on the image above to read Sara's complete thread.

Quick Hits

Now on to the latest news and notes from around the world of local journalism:

Learn: "I know that I would pay, right now, $100 a year for someone to cover Madison, WI, my hometown, with a daily email letting me know what happened — and if nothing happened, telling me exactly that! The point is to be informed, not to be served filler with ads on top!" "This was the future researchers and the media warned us about. And an avalanche of fake news hearings, news literacy efforts, and investments in fact-checking infrastructure since 2016 couldn’t stop it."

Economic Updates: "Here’s some information about the new funding program to aid small businesses that became available during the last few weeks." "The idea of letting chain-owned newspapers apply for Small Business Administration loans under the Paycheck Protection Program now has bipartisan support in both the House and Senate, reports the News Media Alliance, a lobbying group." "The new program is patterned on USDA’s existing Business and Industry program but with a higher loan guarantee level and lower requirements for collateral. Loan guarantees assure lenders that the government will pay off a loan if the borrower cannot."

This An' 'At: "Millennials returning home as lockdowns strip cities of allure ... It just makes sense to ‘go back to your parents,’ broker says" "After all, if people weren’t paying for it before the pandemic, what makes any of us think they’d be willing to pay for it now? Therein lies the problem, and it’s time for everyone to put on their thinking caps." "But the rise of nonprofit news, however laudable, is nowhere close to — and may never reach — the scale that would be needed to make up for the reduction in original reporting by newspapers." "The demise of local news is a pandemic emergency."

See Something, Share Something

That's all for this week. Thanks for reading!

A reminder: If you have a success story, or know someone else doing something great, I want to hear about it, and share it in this newsletter. So reach out to me and we'll chat. You can reply to this email, or hit up NewStart on Twitter @wvunewstart, and you can @ me @jimiovino.

If you, your organization, or anyone else you know would like to fund a NewStart fellowship position or would want to offer a scholarship this coming year (or any other time down the road), feel free to reach out to me. I'd be happy to talk! Seriously, I would love to offer more fellowships and scholarships, and you can help.

And don't forget, you can find NewStart online at

If someone forwarded this newsletter to you and you want to subscribe, just hit the Subscribe Me button below:
Subscribe Me
Thanks again, stay safe, and we'll talk next week.
Follow us on Twitter
Visit Our Site
Copyright © 2020 The NewStart Alliance, All rights reserved.

Want to change how you receive these emails?
You can update your preferences or unsubscribe from this list.

Email Marketing Powered by Mailchimp