A few years ago, while Courtney Lowery was a student at the University of Montana School of Journalism, her hometown of Dutton lost its local weekly newspaper. The Dutton Dispatch was little more than a newsletter printed on 11- by 17-inch paper, Lowery recalls, but it played an important role in her tiny community of about 400 people.
“When the paper went out of business it was just really hard for the community to mobilize,” says Lowery, who is now editor-in-chief for the Missoula-based online news outfit NewWest.Net. “The Great Falls Tribune and the Choteau Acantha do a good job of covering the area, but there’s not a lot of room for birth announcements and wedding showers and the other local
tidbits that are important to small, rural communities.”
Lowery says she felt as though many of her college classmates and professional colleagues were detached from the issues that are important to rural Montanans, so in 2005 when UM journalism professors sought new ways to incorporate online media into the curriculum, Lowery, a farm girl-turned-online journalist, saw an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. She proposed the idea for what would become the Rural News Network (RNN), a three-credit class that would introduce students to rural reporting and editing as well as teach them online journalism skills.
In 2006, with a grant from J-Lab, the Institute for Interactive Journalism, RNN began its first project in Dutton with Lowery and j-school professor Keith Graham as its instructors.
Throughout the fall semester of that year students in the RNN program traveled to Dutton to report, write and photograph stories and create interactive media projects for the new Dutton Country Courier website (www.duttoncc.org). Students also trained members of the community to write their own stories, take their own photographs, and conduct their own audio interviews. Lowery says the students gain valuable editing and online publishing skills, while in turn helping the community to reinvigorate its local news outlet.
This week RNN launched its second website, called CrowNews.net, on the Crow Indian Reservation. But some people aren’t happy about it. Especially Wes Eben, publisher of the Big Horn County News in Hardin.
“Competition,” says Eben. “Competition for news. Competition for attention. Competition for the aspect of being the primary news source in the county. The only thing we have to sell is news and readership. The fewer readers we have the less valuable our paper is to advertisers.”
When Eben learned earlier in the fall that RNN planned to start an online project in his backyard, he raised some of those concerns with the Montana Newspaper Association (MNA). The MNA invited Graham and journalism school dean Peggy Kuhr to the group’s September board meeting in Billings to talk about the project.
“I think that the first thing the meeting did was inform the MNA board, some of whom were learning about the project for the first time, the history of the project,” Graham says of the meeting. “Two, I think what it did was start a dialogue about what our role is and what our goals are. We’re here to collaborate and work with folks who are underserved in their communities. One of the goals was to find small communities where either their newspapers had died or the town never had one to begin with.”
But in a recent interview, Eben says the project’s instructors failed to consider how the project websites might impact the bottom line of newspapers like his, which he says devotes about 60 percent of its coverage to the Crow Indian Reservation. In short, the Crow Reservation is not an underserved market, he says.
“There didn’t seem to be any consideration of ‘is this truly a disenfranchised site?’” Eben says. “The one thing that seems to have driven [the project location] is, ‘Do we have local students that have a commitment to setting this up in their hometown?’”
He contends that despite the journalism school’s honorable intent to train journalists, “They are sending them out to undermine and destroy the very newspapers that will be hiring them.”
“We went to Dutton because I’m from Dutton and I saw a need there,” Lowery says. “We went to Crow because [RNN student] Mary Hudetz is from Crow Agency and she saw a need there.”
Next time, says Lowery, the project will take applications from communities that feel they are underserved. In the meantime, Lowery contends that RNN has no intentions to compete with anyone. She says the websites, which don’t sell advertising and don’t make any money, aren’t intended to replace local newspapers.
But Eben says despite the project’s good intentions, it’s off to a rocky start with him and his paper.
“The bottom line is that a newspaper is there to make money,” Eben says. “The more readers we have the more we can charge for advertising. Anything that threatens our readership becomes a threat to us.”
Eben says he supports the School of Journalism, and he says he recognizes the value of RNN for students as well as the truly underserved communities in rural Montana. But he says collaboration with existing small town papers needs improvement.
Both sides agree that better collaboration would be advantageous to everyone involved, and there’s now talk of forming a task force to help guide future RNN projects.
But Eben says when he logged on to CrowNews.net for the first time on Nov. 5, he was stunned to see a slickly produced news site with content that directly overlaps with the Big Horn County News’ coverage of recent homecoming events, along with links to stories in the Billings Gazette.
“They’ve done good. They’ve got a good template. It’s a nice readable site. These kids are good,” Eben says. “But the lack of cooperation is troubling.”