The University of Montana's online Rural News Network sustains community ties as newspapers close

DUTTON, MT – When Courtney Lowery flew to Seattle for surgery shortly after her college graduation, her hometown newspaper published a notice so community members knew where to drop off gifts. She awoke following that January 2003 surgery to find a suitcase full of teddy bears, candy and flowers from neighbors in the small farming community at her hospital bedside. Her thank-you note to the town also ran in the Dutton Dispatch – on the front page, alongside the news of the day.

Lowery, a journalist and currently editor of the Missoula-based, made a complete recovery. However, that thank-you-note issue of the Dispatch was one of the newspaper’s last before the paper was permanently shuttered.

We hear often today about the demise of major metropolitan newspapers. But residents of rural communities – such as Dutton on the Rocky Mountain Front, population around 375 – also lose when their sole source of local news is taken from them.

“These small-town papers – their value is huge,” Lowery said, “They bring the community together [with] a sense of pride and identity. They’re a tiny mark of ‘we were here’ for prom, Arbor Day, Veteran’s Day… You lose your paper; you lose your history.”

It was partly from that sense of loss and a belief in the value of community journalism that Lowery and University of Montana photojournalism professor Keith Graham created the Rural News Network. For the RNR class at the University of Montana, journalism students travel to small towns that have lost their local paper or never had one, and involve residents in starting up local news websites with the goal of handing the sites’ operation and upkeep to those community members at the projects’ close.

The first Rural News Network publication, the Dutton Country Courier, was launched in the spring of 2007. The following fall, the journalism students, several of whom were Native American with ties to the state’s Crow Indian Reservation, launched Crow Agency’s first local news outlet, Both publications today are going strong with regular community contributors and negotiations for handoffs currently in progress.

A 2002 graduate from the University of Montana’s print journalism program, Lowery, who describes herself as an accidental “Web maven,” spent a few years working for Lee Newspapers and the Associate Press before coming back to Montana in 2005 to edit then-startup Also in 2005 she was invited to sit on her alma mater’s newly formed journalism curriculum committee.

“We started talking about introducing a project class, to give students exposure to online and really get their hands dirty building something from scratch,” Lowery said.

At this time of change and upheaval in the journalism industry, innovative J-schools across the country are looking to offer students various entrepreneurial Web journalism training and experience.

“There was a lot of buzz around rural, conversations about the West going blue,” Lowery said. “So this class was [also] about grounding tomorrow’s journalists in an understanding of what rural places look like and what that culture means.”

The Rural News Network project won a two-year $17,000 New Voices grant (through American University-based J-Lab and the Knight Foundation), which provides seed money for such online community news start-ups.

Part of the explosive trend in Web-based “hyperlocal” citizen journalism and “pro-am” news start-ups, the Rural News Network project is one of 48 New Voices grant recipients since 2005. The Crow and Dutton sites also are listed among the more than 6,000 local “mostly news” websites indexed by, the largest searchable index of local sites, said PlaceBlogger CEO and Founder Lisa Williams.

For the UM project, grant money went to equipment, and transportation between the University in Missoula and the RNR sites. “Dutton is around three hours from Missoula. Crow is six-to-seven hours,” said Peggy Kuhr, dean of the University of Montana’s journalism school. “Some students had friends or family to stay with in the communities. Sometimes they had to find a cheap motel nearby. It would have been difficult in the space of the semester to get something up and running without those local ties.”

Another consideration in the site selection process was Internet access, as parts of rural Montana do not have access to broadband.

As for training, Lowery and Graham held a few workshops for the students, but the real work of the Rural News Network class was in the communities.

“A majority of the [teaching] was just winging it. I go through a list of what I think they need to know,” Lowery said. “Why should newspapers be on Facebook? What’s good newspaper Web design? How are news organizations using the Web to reach out to their communities?

“In Dutton, Keith and I did a lot of the scheduling and setting up,” Lowery said.

In Crow Agency, the instructors left much of the initial footwork to the students with ties there. In both communities, the students found out about town meetings, piggybacked on fundraisers and social events, and contacted key community leaders and legislators. They covered beats and co-wrote stories with residents.

“They were having a hard time getting town meeting agendas out to the public; the community didn’t know when they were going to discuss water management issues… school consolidations. It’s critical,” said Tad Sooter, a graduate of UM journalism school, who worked on the Dutton startup.

“[In Crow] we went to churches, introduced ourselves to pastors, went where people gathered to find out what they’d want to hear,” said Adam Sings In The Timber, a recent UM J-school graduate, who is currently working on a photo book on Native Americans, a project inspired in part by the RNR experience. “In Montana when we see Natives in the newspaper, it’s often negative: drunk driving… a Native beat someone up. There’s lots of negative news about Indians. We’d cover that if it was necessary, but we also wanted to talk about the happy things that Natives do.”

The sites feature sections for library news, school news, sports and town hall news designed for the community leaders, as citizen journalists, to share the goings-on in their areas.

“It’s a great resource,” said Bill Habel of Dutton, a retired farmer and chairman of the town’s Civic Club and annual Fun Day fair and fundraiser. “Particularly for the older people who rely on a local newspaper or something online.” Habel said he contributes to the Courier when he can. “And my mother who is 89, she doesn’t mind contributing to the news. [The site] is important for small towns that can’t afford a newspaper.”

Yet as local and national newspapers shrink and fold and the Web continues to expand and redefine journalism, the increasing role of citizen journalism is a growing concern to some veteran journalists.

“There is a void being created in terms of news and information and it falls to all of us, journalists and non-journalists alike, to get important stories told,” said Bill Mitchell, who heads the Poynter Institute’s News Transformation and International Programs. But while this chaotic period in journalism calls for collaboration, such participatory journalism introduces new concerns about accuracy and transparency, with other legal and ethical concerns, he added.

J-Lab Executive Director Jan Schaffer said such ethical concerns are more-or-less mitigated by the very nature of community publications.

“In this particular slice of the ecosystem, where we have citizens doing community sites… they are civic catalysts – on the PTA, coaching soccer, they’re civically engaged,” Schaffer said. “They care very deeply about being fair to people in the community, providing good coverage that’s not going to hurt anyone. The people who read them are those they see in church, in the grocery store.”

In Montana Melody Martinsen, editor of the Choteau Acantha based 25 miles from Dutton, finds it funny that notions of citizen journalism and hyperlocalism are being discussed in the context of recent or tech-driven trends.

The Acantha – which covers the news of Teton County (population around 6,300), like other rural newspapers with tight budgets and limited staff – relies on community contributors and so-called hyperlocal content. Online for more than 10 years, the Acantha has used the Web to expand its community coverage, Martinsen said.

“I cover government and enterprise stories… I want the community to contribute its own minutiae,” she said. “It’s what the community needs and wants to know.”

That’s how rural news outlets have functioned for years, Martinsen said.

About Elizabeth Zwerling

Formerly an award-winning newspaper reporter, currently an associate professor of journalism at the University of La Verne, I left the newsroom for the classroom in 2001. At ULV, I advise the Campus Times newspaper and teach Media Ethics, among other courses. And I continue to write, most recently for Ms. Magazine, Women's Enews, Pasadena Weekly and public radio among others.