This article was originally published on Northwestern University’s Medill Local News Initiative website and is republished here with permission.
As the local news crisis grows, staffs are thinning out and gaps in coverage are widening. But reinforcements are coming — journalism students doing the work that would otherwise go undone.
University of Kansas students are operating a local news website in a “news desert” about 10 miles east of the campus. Students at Franklin College in Indiana are covering state government for a nonprofit website that is battling against civic disengagement.
Both programs are profiled in a new video reporting project by students at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Medill professor Craig Duff’s class of 14 students worked in pairs to visit seven Midwest news operations and produce videos about innovative news projects.
Last week, we highlighted their videos about three projects in Ohio and Iowa. Today, the second part of our three-part series features their videos about two news operations involving students.
Eudora, a suburb of Lawrence, Kansas, lost its newspaper in the Great Recession more than a decade ago. But University of Kansas associate professor Teri Finneman and her students have brought back local reporting to the town of more than 6,000 residents with their digital Eudora Times, created in 2019.
“It’s a news desert, so these people didn’t have news that was just for them,” said Medill student Emilie Zuhowski, who produced the video on the project along with Cameron Bopp. “… We really found that the community truly, truly values it.”
“I couldn’t believe that a town of this size didn’t have its own newspaper,” Finneman said. “So I put together a website in like five minutes, came up with the name Eudora Times in like 10 minutes, and from there we became a full newspaper.”
The students’ dedication is impressive, Finneman said.
“They juggle a lot,” she said. “Some of them work 20 to 30 hours a week in part-time jobs to earn money to help pay for school and rent, and then in their free time they work for the Eudora Times.”
Penny Abernathy, a visiting professor at Medill whose news deserts research has become a key way of measuring the breadth of the crisis, explained why local journalism is vital.
“Having a news organization in your community is vital because it gives you a sense of community identity but also gets the information out that you need to have in order to make those wise decisions and then feel a part of the community,” Abernathy said.
This project also had an impact on the Kansas students.
“I think it completely changed my outlook on journalism,” said student Cami Koons.
Indiana is experiencing “a long-term, slow-motion civic health crisis,” according to Bill Moreau, founder and publisher of the Indiana Citizen. To counter that, his nonprofit digital news site serves as “a one-stop-shop for news and information on Indiana government and policy,” according to Tim Franklin, Medill senior associate dean and John M. Mutz Chair in Local News.
A key source of reporting for the Citizen is the student-written journalism in the Statehouse File at Franklin College in Franklin, Indiana. That partnership has “allowed us to have almost daily news coverage, especially during the legislative session,” said Citizen editor-in-chief Kevin Morgan. “It’s given us an opportunity to work with younger student journalists.”
“The partnership is a really good pairing of the young and the old,” said Statehouse File’s student editor, Erica Irish.
At a time when legacy news outlets have cut back on statehouse coverage, nonprofit efforts like this are trying to fill the gap.
“The Indiana Citizen really does a great job of a nonpartisan approach to getting out information to the entire state to help them with voting, knowing about redistricting, different things that are going on that directly affect them,” said Medill student Alexandra Todd, who produced the video with Hazel Tang.
Journalism like the Citizen can serve as an effective way to boost civic participation.
“One of the things that we don’t talk enough about is media literacy and civic literacy in our communities,” said Silvia Rivera of Listening Post Collective, which helps journalists and nonprofits connect with communities. The Listening Post’s Jesse Hardman and Fernando Diaz helped the Medill students set up their visits and also assisted with the video editing afterward.
Founder Moreau said the Citizen aims to be nonpartisan, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a strong point of view.
“It’s up to our readers to determine whether our brand of journalism has any bias,” Moreau said. “But we do have an agenda. I have to plead guilty to us having an agenda. And the agenda is democracy.”
Next in this series: Investigative nonprofits in the Midwest.