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.

As newspapers die, journalism schools turn online to find new life

Sometime in the weeks between the shuttering of the Rocky Mountain News and Seattle Post Intelligencer newsrooms, it dawned on me that not having a Facebook account (or texting capabilities for that matter) might actually make me less credible as a journalism professor.

I realized I needed some self-examination, and our journalism program needed some updating.

At the University of La Verne in Los Angeles County, the journalism program for which I’ve taught the past eight years is part of a healthy department of communications, where we have had a decent record of readying graduates for the “real world.”

Amid newspaper closures and projected closures, surveys showing dwindling newspaper readership, and the lousy economy, we – with journalism professors across the nation –are trying to figure out what to teach our students about the Fourth Estate and the news business, and how to retool with the hope of staying ahead of or at least in step with the mercurial news media market.

Despite the dramatic contraction of newspapers – with an estimated 5,000 newspaper jobs lost last year, many more projected for this year, and 16 percent of newspaper staff positions lost since 2001, according to the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism – journalism school enrollment since 2001 has continued to climb, according to the Annual Survey of Journalism & Mass Communication Enrollments. And faculty at J-schools across the country say even this year, applications rates remain strong.

“Applications are up here,” said Duy Linh Tu, new media coordinator and assistant professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

“Why do people want to go to school in a dying field?” Tu asked.

For a variety of reasons and at various stages in their careers, he said.

Many of today’s students are mid-career journalists who “grew up in the age of newspapers,” having never picked up a video camera or used their computers for more than word-processing and e-mail.

“They are back to get a new job, or retain their current job. We’re (also seeing more) kids straight out of school. Normally we get those who have been out working a few years. Partly it’s the economy, but it’s a pretty exciting time to enter journalism. For better or worse, you have a chance to make a big splash early in your career,” Tu said.

Under the old formula, young journalists often had to pay their dues starting in low- paying reporting jobs in small rural newsrooms and work their way up to major metro newspapers or TV stations.

“Today, as a 25-year-old kid, I could make the front page of the website,” Tu said. “With journalism school you buy into a club … you have more credibility.”

Still, predicting the skills that will be needed by journalists of the future is challenging educators at journalism schools across the nation, who are trying to address uncertain demands in a variety of ways and learn new skills alongside the students.

“Whereas 20 years ago students were pointing themselves toward certain kinds of newspaper, magazine or television journalism jobs, now they are really broadening their horizons and developing a skill set that will travel well,” said Paul Voakes, dean of the journalism school at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

“It’s more likely a 20-something journalism grad is going to have a brilliant idea for a Web-based product. She needs to know how to develop it, take it to market and make a success story out of it for herself and her friends.”

In spring 2010, Boulder’s journalism school will offer a course in entrepreneurial journalism.

“We’ve come to terms with what would have been anathema 20 years ago,” Voakes said, adding that his students are not only learning to be nimble with the various print, broadcast and online storytelling tools, they are also developing their business and marketing skills.

Another new course at Boulder specifically responds to citizen journalism and reader participation.

“When we think about training the journalists of tomorrow, we need to give more attention to training them to be editors,” Voakes said. “If the whole idea of user-generated content is not a passing fancy, then the people in charge are going to have to generate a new skill set of social responsibility and ethics. Unlike the old model where you worked with highly trained professionals, now you need to work with people who don’t know a lead, don’t know basic principals of media ethics.”

For the course titled “The Resolving Door,” advanced journalism students at Boulder will practice those skills on a community of students who not journalism majors.

The University of Wisconsin at Madison’s school of journalism did away with “the old platform-based boxes” that used to separate print, broadcast advertising, PR and research in 2000. “We’re in the second wave of reforming the curriculum,” said Katy Culver, who heads the six-unit “boot camp” Mass Communication Practices.

“The boot camp cuts across all media,” Culver said. “We teach news gathering, writing and editing for print, audio, video and online.”

The course involves two hours of lecture, six hours of lab, and 12 hours of outside work. The course has evolved over the years as the technology and demands of professional journalism have changed, Culver said.

Following boot camp, UW journalism students split off into just two major tracks: reporting or strategic communications.

Culver said that the UW faculty adopted the converged curriculum earlier than some schools based on research they’d done in the ’90s on the Internet.

“(They predicted) the whole world would change because of the Internet. So they rolled the dice,” Culver said.

Continuously updating her course to stay current, Culver also addresses effective and ethical ways to use social media in reporting.

The University of Kansas has a similar philosophy and similar two-track program.

Ten years ago KU’s journalism school had seven different majors, said Mike Williams, associate professor of news and information.

“We took the curriculum … looked at it from every angle and realized we needed to be platform agnostic. That (journalism) was about good content and good management,” Williams said.

He said students in the KU journalism program learn not only the skills to produce stories in the various media, but the judgment to choose for each story which media would be the most effective for telling that story.

“A particular story may be better told with video than with still photos or a long-story format… Now students are more nimble,” Williams said.

To address faculty skill gaps, Williams said many of the courses at KU are team-taught. Many of the faculty at Wisconsin and Columbia participate in workshops to increase their multimedia literacy.

At other journalism schools, changes are coming at varying degrees of speed and success, said Regina McCombs who teaches multimedia journalism to journalism instructors and professional journalists at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla.

“Educators … have to retrain, to increase their own education,” McCombs said. “Everybody in journalism is going to have to develop skills they haven’t got.”

The idea of temporary incompetence can be daunting. And many programs report at least initial resistance, McCombs said.

“They have to learn new things. When you first are trying a new thing you say, ‘I suck at this…’ You have to go through sucking at it.” McCombs said.

Several journalism programs have addressed the need to offer multimedia training – and some faculty’s lack of versatility – by offering five-week, one-unit courses in Web editing or digital video editing.

That approach, some feel, takes care of concerns about depth of training vs. breadth.

“You have to be careful you’re not morphing into a computer technical school,” Voakes said. “You can never take your eye off the fundamentals of journalism. Short intensive courses, which are hands-on and skills oriented don’t take up all the credit hours.”

Another reason to focus on the fundamentals of reporting, writing, history, law and ethics rather than technical skills is that most of the technical skills learned today will be outdated tomorrow, whereas even the skeptics agree that good ethical journalism will survive.

But what form will it take?

Williams of KU believes 10 years from now we’ll get all our breaking news on personal iPhone-type devices while other journalism educators are less certain.

The University of Missouri’s Reynolds Journalism Institute, where researchers work alongside students, is “conducting experiments in how to do journalism in an age where journalism is chaotic,” said Dean Mills, professor of convergence journalism and dean of the Missouri School of Journalism

Culver of UW Madison suggests educators embrace social networking technology.

And says Tu of Columbia: “We’re not fortune tellers. We don’t have to have a viable business model. Academia doesn’t have to. (At Columbia) we stick to the core values of reporting (yet) here students can put together a package of stories that would never run on a site ‘out there,’ because it’s too big… We do a lot of experimentation.”

As for the University of La Verne, while we do currently offer Web, video, audio and “digital documentary” courses along with the traditional reporting, ethics and law; on our drawing board are multimedia editing, a blogging/opinion/Web writing course, and hopefully in the near future an entrepreneurial journalism course.

Oh, and I’ve promised my students I’ll sign up for Facebook this summer.

Rewriting history: Should editors delete or alter online content?

Elizabeth Zwerling is an associate professor of journalism at the University of La Verne in Los Angeles County.

By the time I got the e-mail from the spokeswomen for a major credit card company asking me to delete her quotes from an article we’d run almost a year before, I was skeptical. She had already contacted the reporter with various versions of her concern: she’d been speaking off the record, the reporter must have confused her with another source, the quotes were wrong. A man “representing” her had called the managing editor urging him to omit the quotes from the archive. “I think he was a lawyer,” the managing editor told me at the time. (He wasn’t.)

I’m faculty adviser for the Campus Times, a 2,000-circulation weekly newspaper of the University of La Verne in Los Angeles County. My staff of undergraduates occasionally gets things wrong and corrects them. But this was a solid story by a conscientious reporter, puzzled by the content, urgency and timing of the source request.

Most likely the credit card spokeswoman – a woman a Google search revealed is widely quoted by Reuters and CNN, among others – had searched herself online and found our story about college students and credit card debt, in which she spoke openly, if off-message, about the age group’s unchecked spending habits.

Easy access to online news archives is one of the Web’s amazing benefits for journalists – or anyone wanting background on people or events. But the fact that last year’s or the last decade’s news stories are just a mouse-click away means that anything one says to a reporter – perhaps in a moment of vulnerability – can be entered into a very visible long-lasting record. The visibility of this record, its effects and what to do about those, if anything, is a contentious topic among editors and ethicists across the nation, as the sense – and the reality – of new media is that stories live long past their press dates.

The credit card spokeswoman scenario was fairly easy to resolve: The reporter had kept her notes, we reviewed them against the archived story and the now 2-year-old story remains unchanged in our archive. The spokeswoman’s discomfort with the story, particularly given her profession, I concluded, did not come close to a threshold for altering the permanent record.

A few months earlier a colleague shared a similar scenario, albeit with a more dramatic request. In late 2005 he was asked to alter the archive of a 1999 story about same-sex couples by one of the sources profiled in the La Verne Magazine. “She said she wasn’t gay anymore,” said George Keeler, journalism professor and magazine adviser. “It was a painful thing, but I wrote her back and said I wasn’t going to erase (her past),” The story, now eight years old, come up first when the source’s name is typed into Google and Yahoo!’s engines.

“It’s not like it used to be when clippings would just molder in the morgue of the newspaper office,” said Craig Whitney, standards editor for the New York Times, who said the Times frequently fields requests to alter archives.

“A source will call saying the paper reported an arrest, then didn’t report the dismissal of the case,” Whitney said. “We can’t go re-report the who (sometimes 20-year-old) story and we can’t just take their word for it: ‘The judge threw out the case.’ ‘Where’s the judge?’ ‘He’s dead.’ ‘Where’s the record of the case?’ ‘In some archive in Fort Dix.’ We recognize it’s frustrating. We can’t do anything.

“Sometimes it’s a case where somebody is embarrassed about a part of their past that they don’t deny, which wasn’t so prominent (before online archives and Google),” Whitney said.

The New York Times has received requests from divorced couples to remove archived stories about their marriages, said Leonard Apcar, former editor-in-chief of

“We’ve always had a sense that the archive is historical,” Whitney said. “What’s changed is now anybody can consult it from home. We haven’t figured out what to do, if anything. We’ve had some meetings and we’ll have some more to… figure out something to do that’s ethically responsible, that doesn’t compromise the integrity of the archives, but addresses the need for clarification, elaboration,” Whitney said adding that the Times has never deleted anything from its online archives. “I doubt if we ever would. The question is, is there something else we can do that falls short of rewriting history?”

The answer to that question seems to depend on the story, the publication and a variety of circumstances, which like the medium, are still evolving.

Editors at the Pasadena (Calif.) Weekly felt they found a fair solution when in 2006, they decided to remove the name of an ex-con from an archived story, six months after it came out in print.

Joe Piasecki, the paper’s deputy editor who also reported the story, had covered a protest at San Quentin Prison a week before the execution of Crips co-founder Stanley Tookie Williams, where he interviewed a man who said he’d been in prison with Williams. Piasecki researched the man’s background through the Oakland Tribune’s (offline) coverage of the man’s 1998 trial and found the man had been charged with raping and sodomizing his former girlfriend, and convicted of assault. Piasecki included that information in the story along with the man’s claim that he was innocent. “I’d called the Tribune library (to make sure) he was who he said he was,” Piasecki said.

The story ran Dec. 8, 2005, in the Weekly, its sister paper the Ventura County Reporter, and on the Reporter’s Web site. At the time the story went up, the Pasadena Weekly didn’t have a functioning Web archive, so the source’s call went to the Ventura, Calif., newsroom first. Then Piasecki and Pasadena Weekly Editor Kevin Uhrich were consulted.

“Our first reaction was ‘no don’t change it’,” Piasecki said. “I tend to say that unless (the reporter) screwed up, don’t change it. What’s true is true.”

Piasecki said his publication made an exception here because the man wasn’t familiar with the Internet, and because his quotes toward the end of a story about someone else, were not critical to its “material essence.” The man had served two years at San Quentin and remembered seeing Williams there; his quotes added color to the story, Piasecki said. The quotes are still in the Ventura newspaper’s online archive, only the man’s name was removed.

“The guy said every time he applied for a job they Googled his name and this was the only hit,” Piasecki said. “We took his name out so he could move on with his life.”

“I didn’t see any harm,” Uhrich said, adding this is the only time the Weekly has edited an archived story beyond correcting specific factual errors and taking offline a guest editorial he learned after publication was largely plagiarized. (The paper’s own Web site hosts archives dating back to January 2006.)

At the New York Times, even plagiarized stories remain as part of the permanent record. Those by ex-Times reporter Jayson Blair still appear intact in the Times archives with editor’s notes appended to the articles.

“The Jayson Blair stories are going to (stay) in the archives,” Whitney said. “We can’t pretend he was never here.”

Because Internet databases do not discriminate in what they pick up and store, however, a ProQuest search of a Jayson Blair story with plagiarized sections called up the story without the editor’s notes.

Despite the timeless nature of online postings, laws that protect news outlets have not changed. No matter how emphatic or justified a source’s complaint may be, any threat to take legal action against the reporter or news organization after the one-to-two-year statute of limitations for libel law is an idle threat, said Roger Myers, general counsel for the California First Amendment Coalition.

Ethically, however, dealing with source requests to alter online archives is increasingly complicated, and as with just about every aspect of online journalism, still evolving.

When a story, column or even a reader response to a story is posted online then transferred to the publication’s archive, “it’s a matter of record,” said Robert Steele, a scholar of journalism ethics and values at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. “To change it would change a piece of history.”

If editors start removing some stories or parts of stories from archives, readers will begin to wonder what else is missing, Steele said.

And yet Steele, who advises newsroom leaders on a variety of ethical issues, acknowledges that in the rapidly changing media landscape, there are no absolutes.

“If it can be proven that the material did not come from the person whose name is attached, that would be a reason to take something down,” he said. “If it is substantially inaccurate, that would be a reason to correct it and in a rare case take it down.”

Or, Steele added, if a source could make a convincing argument that the story’s accessibility online poses a “profound and immanent threat to their well-being,” that might be a case to consider altering or deleting it from the record. Though he emphasized that these would be rare exceptions.

In the rare case when an editor does change or delete a story from the archive, there is no guarantee the original version of the story won’t come up in a Google search. As Paul McAfee, director of interactive operations at the Press Enterprise newspaper in Riverside, Calif., explained: “The major search engines crawl the news Web sites on a regular basis. They could pull up an erroneous story and ‘cache’ it in their archives. “Hopefully they will pick up the correction,” he said. Though he added that it’s likely that both the original and the updated version of the story will come up in a search.

There are formal request processes to have items removed from Google and the other search engines, but there is no guarantee their decision-makers will honor the request. Under federal law, “Internet entities that host other people’s content are not liable for that content.” Myers said.

While McAfee said policy at the Press Enterprise is to not alter any accurate news archive, he recently helped a reader who’d posted offensive comments on‘s message board, then wanted the comments deleted.

“Someone wrote a comment that sounded really racist, then a few months later they saw the light and changed their opinion,” McAfee said. When the poster asked McAfee to remove the comments from the message board, he agreed to. Unlike its editorial content, postings on the publication’s electronic message board are eventually purged automatically, he said. Because they are generated by the public and not by the newspaper’s editorial department, these message boards are not subject the publication’s editorial policies, McAfee said.

“I wrote (the poster) back, ‘It’s off our site.’ They wrote back ‘yes but it’s still cashed in Google.’ The Google spiders picked it up, it was stuck in Google’s cache. The person asked me to intercede with Google. I sent them the Web address and a form for Google. I didn’t do it for them,” McAfee said. “We disclaim any responsibility for anything on our message boards.”

Letters to the editor, on the other hand, are different from message board postings when it comes to online archives, editors say.

“We’ve had many experiences where letter writers, who espouse some wild or provocative opinion, want the letter taken off the Web years later,” said Clint Brewer, executive editor of the City Paper in Nashville, Tenn., and the Society of Professional Journalists national president-elect. But letters are also part of the historical record, he said.

Brewer said that while the landscape has changed dramatically, at this point newsroom leaders have a long-standing set of standard for accuracy and preserving the historical record based on the print journalism model. “It’s not apples to apples (but) that’s a logical place to start,” he said.

McAfee said he hopes the visibility and permanence of the online record – and the fact that even stories subsequently edited for accuracy may live online alongside the uncorrected versions – will make journalists take their job of getting it right more seriously than ever.

Whitney believes such visibility and permanence will affect sources: “I think that the arrival of YouTube and Internet and the fact that images and text last forever means that actions have lasting consequences. It’s more important than it ever has been for people before they do something (to consider the) consequences.”