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FEATURE: This Kansas town first lost local news in 2009. Now, the nearby J-school is bringing it back.
This small Kansas town first lost local news in 2009.
Now, the University of Kansas J-school is bringing it back.
By Kristen Hare
By Kristen Hare
Eudora, Kansas first lost local news in 2009. Now, the University of Kansas J-school is bringing it back.
Riley Wilson’s alarm went off at 7:15 a.m. on a chilly November Tuesday. Still in bed, the University of Kansas senior checked her school email on her phone, then she got up and called a source while getting ready.
By about 8:45, she left her campus townhouse, climbed into her freezing car and took K-10 east for 15 minutes to the town of Eudora.
At Zeb’s Coffeehouse on Main Street, she emailed a source, checked the agenda of a school board meeting and started brainstorming her next few stories.
Here, Wilson’s life as a student morphed into her life as a local reporter.
Eudora, with a population of about 6,000, is one of many American cities that became a news desert when its newspaper closed in 2009. In 2010, also like many places, an online site started covering the community. But it eventually closed, too.
So what happens when the traditional newspaper closes and the online news site closes? Where’s a town to learn what’s happening to it?
If that town is less than 20 minutes from a university with a journalism school, there may be a third option.
The Eudora Times started publishing online last semester.
This week, it announced that it’s becoming part of KU’s student media group.
And that means a place that’s gotten used to relying on updates from neighborhood Facebook posts has something many places don’t anymore — local news.
The Eudora Weekly-Enterprise-News-Reporter
For generations, Eudora was well-served by local journalism.
The town’s first paper started printing in 1886. The Eudora Weekly changed hands over time. The Eudora Enterprise launched in 1966, but eventually closed. The weekly Eudora News opened in 1989, was bought by the World Company in 2000, and closed in 2009, said Ben Terwilliger of the Eudora Area Historical Society.
In 2010, the Eudora Reporter launched online. It stopped publishing by 2015.
“Newspapers are some of the best historical sources you can have,” Terwilliger said. “That’s definitely where we learn the history of Eudora.”
And so the loss of local news here is devastating, he said.
Leslie Herring has also thought a lot about what it means to have a town without news.
After she started working in Eudora three years ago, the assistant city manager started issuing regular press releases with city updates, and sometimes they’d get picked up by newsrooms in the region. But not often.
“So I just stopped,” she said.
Eudora’s about 40 minutes from Kansas City and 15 minutes from Lawrence. It lost even more news when the Lawrence Journal-World reporter who covered the city was moved to a different beat.
In early January, between semesters, Herring got a call from an assistant professor at KU. The professor had an idea and asked for a meeting.
“I couldn’t believe that a city of over 6,000 people didn’t have its own newspaper,” said Teri Finneman.
Finneman worked with Herring to create a partnership between a KU social media class and Eudora’s convention and visitor’s bureau. They used Facebook to promote local events.
And people loved it.
“It became evident that this was a town that really wanted to see coverage of what it was doing,” Finneman said.
That inspired her to think bigger. Could student journalists help revive local news in Eudora?
A five-beat kinda job
Every Tuesday and Thursday, The Eudora Times’ two reporters spend a few hours each at Zeb’s Coffeeshop on Main Street.
“Eudora is definitely small town Kansas,” Wilson said. “But not so small that there’s nothing going on there. There’s actually so much going on there.”
It’s the kind of place, she said, where everyone knows everyone else, where they’re happy to say hello, and where they remember your name.
Wilson covers education, police, seniors, politics and state government. Lucie Krisman, a junior, covers arts and culture, religion, business, city government and politics.
There’s a weekly newsletter, and another student is working on a podcast about the town. Both reporters get class credit for their work, and $250 this semester to help with gas money.
Krisman was worried at first that people here would think the Times reporters were being exploitative, stepping in as outsiders. But people have been open and willing to talk to her, she said, and seem to appreciate the coverage.
“I love it,” said Kathy Weld, the owner of Zeb’s and the subject of an early story by Krisman. “It’s been awhile since we had consistent news coverage here.”
The Eudora Times covered a recent forum with city commissioner candidates, Weld said, and published the answers to a questionnaire it sent out to those candidates. For the people who didn’t make that forum, Weld said, it offered a way to be informed before seeing names on a ballot.
That matters for a lot of other reasons, too.
A new report from the Brookings Institution gathers research about what happens when there’s no local news. Consequences include lower voter turnout, fewer people running for office and increased political polarization as people turn to national news.
Not everyone in town knows about the publication yet, but Weld said, “I don’t know of anyone that’s like ‘Oh, this is silly, we don’t need this.’”
How does a class project that’s a local news site sustain itself long-term? Even if it’s welcome? Turns out a class at one of KU’s rivals is working on finding the answers.
Rock-chalk ... ZOU?
In August, a University of Missouri professor and a dozen students drove across Missouri into Kansas, bound for Eudora. They didn’t come to cheer the Tigers or jeer the Jayhawks, though.
They came to meet people.
Randall Smith, the Donald W. Reynolds Endowed Chair in Business Journalism, first worked with Finneman at MU when she was getting her master’s.
When she started her latest project, she reached out with a request: Can you help?
Smith teaches a class called Journalism and Chaos: How to Understand and Cover 21st Century Media Models, which challenges students to come up with original content and revenue ideas and create a business plan around them.
So before the semester started, he and most of his class traveled across state lines to take part in a community engagement event. Both groups of students met about 15 people from Eudora at City Hall.
The Mizzou students are working on several ideas, including a texting service that would put residents in touch with reporters (here are some examples of how that’s worked elsewhere.) Another team is working on something they’re calling “the good neighbor” idea, which involves everything from publishing pet obituaries to town news written by citizens to school lunch menus.
In 2012, Smith and about a dozen students created the Missouri Business Alert, which covers business news through a newsletter, podcast and online. But he’s never seen anything like what Finneman and her students have started in Eudora.
And he thinks it could be one blueprint for how to rebuild news in places that need it.
“I do think if you look at what’s happening around the country, universities need to play and are playing a much larger role in news coverage,” he said.
That might mean more universities following Arizona State University’s coverage of the state legislature for local papers, he said. It could be more publications like MU’s Missourian, which covers the city of Columbia, not just the campus. (And which, disclosure, I wrote for while a student there.) And it could be more projects like The Eudora Times in places that need them.
“There is a demand out there for this coverage, and I think it’s just a matter of rethinking the content, rethinking the delivery and rethinking the revenue,” Smith said. “And I think a university is the perfect place to do that.”
When the local paper has semester breaks
The Eudora Times is in its second semester, and it has a lot of limitations.
How do two part-time reporters cover a place with more than 6,000 people? How does that paper’s editor find time to, you know, edit, while also teaching?
“Essentially I’m running a newspaper on the side of my full-time job,” Finneman said.
And what happens during the summer or winter breaks when class is out? Finneman has worked to be transparent with the community about this local news experiment.
“We’re essentially living in the house at the same time the foundation is being poured,” she said.
What they’ve created is a potential model, said Chad Lawhorn, publisher of The Lawrence Journal-World and, as it so happens, a resident of Eudora. It’s a great opportunity for student journalists and for publications like his that want reporters with real experience.
But as someone who’s focused on coverage of Lawrence, Lawhorn isn’t sure he’s the right person to gauge The Eudora Times’ impact on the community.
The problem they face, like many local newsrooms around the country, is how to make it commercially viable, Lawhorn said.
John Schulz dealt with that when he launched the Eudora Reporter as a part-time project and an online-only site. He isn’t sure Eudora businesses can support an ad-based model. But it’s a place that’s easy to build personal relationships, he said.
He’s seen nice work so far from The Eudora Times, Schulz said, and he’d like to see more hard-hitting news.
And while the Journal-World has shifted coverage, it hasn’t given up on Eudora, Lawhorn said.
Neither has The Eudora Times. At least not after the winter break.
On Tuesday, Finneman announced that the publication would go dark for December and January as it moved to become part of Jayhawk Media Group. She’ll shift from being editor to becoming publisher, with a student editor joining the editorial team. Finneman wrote that the move gives the publication “access to critical tools for us to grow: accounting systems, website systems and — what I know many of you want most — access to a printing press that could allow us to have a printed product in the future.”
At Mizzou, Smith’s class is three weeks away from making its recommendations for The Eudora Times. And he thinks the move to Jayhawk Media Group will be a good one. It will be a separate masthead operated by The University Daily Kansan, the student newspaper.
“That means a steady flow of students and editors into Eudora and the ability to continue experimenting on the model with both content and revenue. It also means continued access to the university’s outstanding journalism school and its many resources.”
And it means more people will be devoted to bringing news back to Eudora.
At noon on that chilly Tuesday, Eudora Times’ reporter Wilson left Zeb’s Coffeehouse and Eudora for another job working with youth development and juvenile justice for her minor. That evening, she met with a friend to work on an assignment while watching a KU basketball game. At home, she kept at her studies. That night, she finished an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy” on Hulu before finally going to sleep.
Two days later, she headed back to Eudora for more stories.
Wilson is from another small Kansas town, Wamego. She knows it’s important that people see themselves reflected in media. And she hopes The Eudora Times will continue covering Eudora in whatever medium it can.
“While this community was covered occasionally in Kansas City and occasionally in Lawrence,” she said, “this gives them their own coverage.”
The spotlight’s just on Eudora.
And that focus isn’t new. In fact, it’s how local journalism always worked.
When Terwilliger, with Eudora’s historical society, looks through old issues of past papers from key dates in history, he doesn’t find the news that actually made history.
He sees the news of this place, which makes sense.
“It’s the only news in the world that’s going to focus on Eudora.”
Written by Kristen Hare
Edited by Barbara Allen
Designed by Ren LaForme
Correction: An earlier version of this story noted a study from the Brookings Institute instead of the Brookings Institution. It has been corrected. Also, an earlier version of this story used the wrong form of “grey” in “Grey’s Anatomy,” for which there is no excuse. It has also been corrected. We apologize for the errors.