Where buffaloes roam, an idea to keep local news alive

This “editor” isn’t a slave to the police blotter. He prefers updated community-by-community economic figures. Town histories. Even collections, from the big 1972 flood or from generations of billboard signs around Rapid City, South Dakota.

“We don’t claim to be journalists, by any means,” says Jared McEntaffer, an economist who oversees the three-member staff of South Dakota’s Black Hills Knowledge Network. Nevertheless, his website, which is assisted by volunteers and members of 13 libraries, has been filling a news and information vacuum in the western part of the state.

The Knowledge Network may point to one path for communities across the United States facing less and less original news coverage. Co-founder Eric Abrahamson, then a member of the state’s library board, envisioned it in 2008 as a true partnership with libraries, citizens and existing publications. He saw it as a way librarians could engage residents in the unique story of each community.

“The biggest information gap is local, because it’s not scalable,’’ Abrahamson says. “I can tell you in two seconds when Elvis died, but I can’t find out anything about who owned my house in 1962. In the age of Google, the hardest information to find is local.”

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Libraries have to pivot, he believes, and one new task could be expanding databases of local information.

The Black Hills network creates collections and resource links on local issues. It and a related site, the South Dakota Dashboard, provide community-by-community economic and demographic data. The Black Hills network aggregates news, such as declining casino receipts in Deadwood, a new vo-tech school, the auctioning of 200 buffalo at Custer State Park, or, just last month, the closure of two weekly newspapers.

“Things are hollowing out,’’ McEntaffer says. “The business model that supported local journalism is just not there anymore, especially for smaller areas. How can you make sure that the people in those smaller areas have the knowledge they need?”

How, too, can you deepen ties to community and provide neutral and authoritative information to people who might want to develop businesses in the region? Could deeper knowledge deepen a reader’s ties to a region, and help keep them there? “Keeping the people you have is so important,’’ says McEntaffer, a native South Dakotan. “You’re not going to get people from New York, from Los Angeles, from Tampa, to come here in droves.”

As an editor, McEntaffer gets excited about the release of new GNP data. Project coordinator and data specialist Callie Tysdal, also a native South Dakotan, finds nuggets in Census data, such as disproportionate percentages of Native Americans arrested or stopped in traffic by police in Rapid City.

One thing that Tysdal, a geographer by training, has learned in her 3 ½ years on the job: Balance. “People don’t want you to convince them,’’ she says. “If you can give them the chance to make up their own minds, they respond to that.”

The Black Hills website has helped other publications, such as the 141-year-old Black Hills Pioneer, a 5,000-circulation daily. The Knowledge Network has tipped off the Pioneer to new economic studies or government reports affecting the area, says Pioneer Publisher Letti Lister.

“I was very skeptical at first,” says Lister of the network. She didn’t want someone else to aggregate her 35-story-a-day original news report. So now, the Pioneer puts its three or four biggest daily stories online, available for the Knowledge Network’s archives or aggregation. The remainder of the Pioneer’s stories run only in her newspaper or its subscriber-only electronic edition.

Lister also has become a board member of  the Knowledge Network — and calls its role vital. “Our belief is that the public is hungry for facts and factual data,’’ she says, “and we need to provide it.”

Like many editors, the network’s McEntaffer shows pride in the content, playing up the context and transparency. “We’ll always do some reporting — here I’m calling it reporting — of city economic matters, but we’ll always have a link to the documents, so that others” can build from it.

Over the past year, with declining contributions from some hard-hit libraries, the network is having to pivot, too. Launched and supported with foundation grants, the network itself is moving toward funding itself through more economic data education and analysis. This year, it expects to make about half of its revenue from this type of help to governments, businesses and nonprofits.

Nationwide, many libraries understand the loss of local news has impelled them toward some form of better information curation for their communities. Some have expanded their email newsletters from listings of library events to community events in general. Some  emphasize town histories, first-person stories or town profiles written by librarians or patrons, reinforcing an area’s distinctiveness or a common ethos. Some libraries have allowed bloggers to use their space and doubled down on meetings on media literacy. One even has a newsroom in its main library.

As Jane Abernathy, a Knowledge Network member and the outgoing Piedmont, S.D., librarian, puts it: “Who is going to do it if we don’t step forward and do it?"

National organizations such as the Urban Libraries Council are wrestling with the idea of curating distinctive local information and encouraging patrons to seek it out, contribute to it and ask questions, says Susan Benton, the council’s president and CEO.

“What is the community data, the community information that would help us have a deeper understanding of who we are, what we look like?” Benton asks. “Using that helps us to be more empowered in your community.”

What would really help the Knowledge Network — and promote the establishment of similar local library-information partnerships elsewhere — would be a publishing system that would easily accommodate indexing archives, aggregating news stories, historical archives, updatable economic data and other databases, says Abrahamson, the network founder.

If platforms want to help with authoritative local content, a unified system for library/news partnerships would be a no-brainer, he says.

“If local libraries began building local content” into shared/aggregated platforms like the Black Hills network, Abrahamson said, “they would be building content for Google, too.”

Know of other situations similar to this? Please email the author at beardwrites@gmail.com with other examples of collaboration between libraries and journalists.

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