Whitman County Gazette - Serving Whitman County since 1877

By Jana Mathia
Gazette Reporter 

My Two Cents: Going small: Journalism students visit rural towns


May 9, 2019

WSU journalism students talk about their experiences in rural reporting.

While newspapers around the country were struggling, there was one group that kept on pretty much as it always had. They were the weekly papers that cover the local news―papers like the Whitman County Gazette. These papers cover the rural news that, often, no one else does. While rural reporting is not glitzy or high-profile, it is essential to democracy and community, especially in rural areas.

Introducing student journalist to the stories that can be found in rural communities is the basis for a recent grant-funded project at Washington State University. Students from the Murrow College were sent out to 12 rural communities in the region to find stories and report.

"We have really great opportunities in our region," said Lisa Waananen Jones, clinical assistant professor at WSU who oversaw the program.

Jones was speaking to a room of about 24 people representing media, community, educators and students. Those in the room represented NPR, The Inlander, Moscow-Pullman Daily News and the Whitman County Gazette. Jones had invited everyone to the Rural Journalism Education Roundtable to wrap up the grant project and discuss ideas and challenges moving forward.

The project's main question was "Can community-guided parachute journalism lead to meaningful coverage in rural areas?" The two measures of success were whether the students could produce compelling journalism stories and whether the local communities feel like the stories represent them in a meaningful way. A draft summary of the project noted the two outcomes could conflict.

Twelve communities were selected. The school worked with local libraries to help guide students, but the teams of students did not know what communities they were going to until given directions to go there. They stayed overnight, interviewed the locals and left to put their stories together.

Endicott was the only town in Whitman County on the roster of rural communities. The others were Ritzville, Dayton, Kahlotus, Pomeroy and Sprague in Washington and Harrison, Weippe, Kamiah, Bovill, Nezperce and Peck in Idaho.

Before their trip to the sticks, students were given a survey. Less than a quarter of them were from rural areas and almost half had never interviewed someone outside Pullman/Moscow.

At the end there was another survey. All who responded were glad they participates, would "definitely" or "probably" recommend other students participate and strongly or somewhat agree the experience was "eye-opening" among other things.

All those in attendance felt rural journalism was important, but some comments left one wondering what they considered rural. Those from larger news agencies commented on the need for oversight, watching out for corruption, even at the smallest levels.

A Gazette staff comment to that was that most of the rural communities in the area are just struggling to fill their council seats. Being mayor is not a political move, it is a community service. True, there can be some shenanigans, but most small town councils are just people, stepping up to fill a need and do the best they can for their community.

The group discussed how the journalism program can address rural news needs and what the current problems and shortcomings were. How can the university prepare students to cover rural news?

One citizen, who had also worked as a press photographer, sited the cost of student loans as a hurdle for students to take the rural jobs as they had to make more money to pay their loan bills.

A representative from the Center for Civic Engagement noted a lot of people outside the city limits did not know what was happening on campus.

That's fair. A lot of people on campus do not know what is happening outside city limits.

Also discussed was how could the program benefit students and communities and who would need to be involved.

While everyone agreed rural reporting was important, Jones hit upon academia's biggest self-imposed hurdle near the end.

"In education, we often celebrate our graduates (when) they get jobs at bigger news organizations; we encourage them to do that," she said. "And I think even as we're saying, local matters, and we're celebrating students who get the job at the biggest place, that sends a lot of mixed messages."

Fortunately, like many other local news persons, Jones understands the importance and joy of small town reporting.

"In a small town like that you really get to see how your stories connect people and how people are connected," she said.

There is a lot of talent and skills being cultivated in Whitman County at the university. Yet, how much of those skills and talents are retained in the county? Are students being encouraged to sprout their wings and fly far away, or to bloom locally and use innovation to create the opportunities supposedly only found in metropolitan areas?

Is there a lack of opportunity for student that causes them to leave, or a leaving of students that causes a lack of opportunity?

Journalism students can benefit from rural reporting; rural communities can benefit from more involvement from students. Bringing the two together, however, well, that's a whole new discussion that, to really delve into, will take more time than the hour-long tabletop allowed.


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