March 4, 2021

Last year, at the end of June, I got an email from Teri Finneman. The subject line was “new project.” You know those sources you’ve learned to listen to?

Finneman was one of them.

She’s the University of Kansas professor who launched The Eudora Times, bringing a local newsroom back to Eudora, Kansas, with the help of student journalists. Her new project, she told me in that email, was an oral history “with journalists in the middle of the country about the impact of the pandemic on rural community newspapers. It’s been terrific so far …”

In July, I got to speak with her and Louisiana State University’s Will Mari. I intended to write a story about their project. But pretty soon, I wanted to know if instead it could live at Poynter.

As of this week, finally, it does. You can explore their project, The Essential Workers. Today, I want to share some snapshots of it with you — like digital postcards from mid-America.

There are 28 interviews in all with journalists in seven states. Here are some of the themes I saw from Finneman and Mari’s work:

Community mattered: Two publishers saved nearby publications from closing last year. Cynthia Haynes, chief financial officer of Haynes Publishing in Kansas and pictured up top, was one of them. Carrie Pitzer, owner and publisher of Pitzer Digital in Neligh, Nebraska, was another. She’s pictured below, second from the right.

Innovation sped up: The pandemic caused weekly newsrooms to become dailies, and newsrooms that hadn’t spent much time online found new, big audiences there. “In March, we had so much traffic, our tech guy had to buy more bandwidth or whatever he does,” said Joey Young, owner of Kansas Publishing Ventures. Bonita Gooch, editor and publisher of The Community Voice in Wichita, Kansas, pictured below, got a Report for America reporter to help cover all the news.

They were it: In many places, including the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, these publications were the only news. “There’s nobody else to do it,” said Alaina Beautiful Bald Eagle, managing editor of the West River Eagle, pictured below. The Black Hills Pioneer in Spearfish, South Dakota, covers five towns and three counties.

These are legacies: Several publishers and editors weren’t just trying to save local news, or the news that covers their communities. They were saving their family businesses. Jeremy Waltner, pictured below, is the second-generation publisher of the Freeman Courier in South Dakota. Renette Dejoie-Hall, publisher of The Louisiana Weekly in New Orleans, is the third generation to run that publication.

Innovation isn’t just about technology: Michael Smith, a reporter at The Daily Ardmoreite in Ardmore, Oklahoma, taught himself to cover the health beat. The Daily Record in Little Rock, Arkansas, built expertise in the Paycheck Protection Program to help small businesses, said publisher Wes Brown. And in North Dakota, Jill Friesz, pictured below, traveled 14 miles to a nearby lake community, where she’d walk a 10-mile route delivering papers and offering summer subscriptions to grow readership.

There’s a lot more. These journalists spoke about fighting misinformation, managing political divisiveness between neighbors, how far we have to go for newsrooms to really look like their communities, and all the ways everyone in their newsrooms shifted to cover the story of the pandemic.

We also announced what I’ll be spending the rest of 2021 working on — Recovering the News. This project, which will publish monthly, will work to make sense of the last year by looking at the numbers, stories and work that has to be done to get local news — all local news — onto firm footing.

I think Brown’s quote below fits pretty well for everything that comes next.

This piece originally appeared in Local Edition, our newsletter devoted to the telling stories of local journalists.

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Kristen Hare covers the people and business of local news and is the editor of Locally at Poynter. She previously worked as a staff writer…
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