On a recent Monday morning, there were very few students on the University of Vermont campus in Burlington. Most went home for the summer weeks ago. But surrounding a table in the library, were a group of student journalists who could be the key to preserving news coverage in some of the country’s rural communities.
Nearly everyone in the room is being paid by the university through various scholarships. They are all considered reporters as part of the Community News Service.
Journalism students report for local newspapers across the state providing valuable hyper-local community coverage, at no cost to the papers benefiting from their stories.
“A lot of these are community newspapers that have one reporter and an editor,” said Richard Watts who serves as the director of the Center for Community News, which launched last year.
“It’s enormous, and there’s a crisis in local news; the systems have evaporated, there are 100 million Americans with no local news source,” Watts explained.
SEE MORE: Why don’t Americans trust the media?
In the last 15 years,an estimated 360 newspapers have shut down across the country. But in the last 12 months, the Center for Community News has found more than 120 partnerships between local media and colleges. Many are bolstering news in rural areas where larger media companies have pulled the plug on local news organizations.
Aubrey Weaver, a college junior from Colorado, is covering state politics across Vermont as part of the program.
“It’s such an immersive experience, not being from Vermont, it’s just been eye-opening to see a different way of life,” Weaver explained.
At 19 years old, Weaver is is also hoping to connect with the next generation of news consumers.
“There is definitely a younger perspective,” Weaver added. “I’ve heard from a lot of sources who are glad someone is listening to what [they] have to say. Because so often smaller towns just get overlooked.”
The impact of the stories these reporters are telling is already being noticed in communities across the state.
Thomas Renner is the deputy mayor of nearby Winooski, Vermont, a city of 8,300 that until recently was considered a news desert.
“What gets lost when you don’t have a newspaper is those local issues, events that are happening, what’s happening in city council,” Renner explained.
Nearby Burlington, Vermont, gets plenty of news coverage but Winooski’s local issues were often getting overlooked. Now though, they have Winooski News an online reporting service that was born through the Community News Service, a reporting partnership with University of Vermont.
“It reminds people their neighbors are facing the same issues they’re facing. It reminds them they have more in common than they think they do,” Renner added.
All of this comes at a time when just 7% of Americans say they have a “great deal” of trust and confidence in the media. Bolstering hyper-local content, experts say, is a way to combat that mistrust.
“When there’s local news, people are more likely to engage in their community,” Center for Community News Director Richard Watts explained.
Going forward, the Center for Community News’s goal is to secure more funding and provide more staff to smaller newspapers that may be teetering on the edge. All in hopes of making sure the news coverage of America’s rural communities is as robust as the beauty of the landscape here.
“These folks are bringing young eyes to this landscape and thinking about the types of stories they think need to be written about, it’s bringing new energy and diversity to a stogy business,” Watts said.
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