Dakotafire Media: Sparking Rural Revival, One Story at a Time


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RPLI 2013 - Dallas, TX

Dakotafire Media: Sparking Rural Revival, One Story at a Time
Heidi Marttila-Losure, Editor and Program Administrator, Dakotafire Media

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  • People make better decisions when they have better information. We at Dakotafire are using that idea to pursue a pretty ambitious goal: Sparking rural revival. We aim to do it one thought-provoking story at a time. Here’s how:
  • In our part of the Dakotas, the big issue underlying most of the challenges we face is dramatic population loss. Many young people leave when they graduate, and not enough return or come from elsewhere. This is the Leola senior class of 2012—all 10 of them.
  • Our weekly newspapers cover the stories related to depopulation as best they can—but they have very small staffs. They don’t have the resources to really look at the issue deeply on their own. Melody from Gackle, pictured here, runs the newspaper, pretty much by herself—and also runs a gift shop, and is the lead member of the local volunteer ambulance service.
  • The newspapers are located far enough apart that they wouldn’t normally work together, but through Dakotafire, they can. Dakotafire brings the efforts of those newspapers together so they can take their journalism to another level, providing their readers with better information so they know not only what the problem is, but also that solutions are possible.
  • For example, a newspaper might do a story about the local church moving services to Saturday night. The church has to share a minister with the next town over because they are having trouble calling a minister.
  • Through Dakotafire, we can take that story to a deeper level. We learn this church isn’t the only one: Most rural churches are struggling with fewer members. And we find out that part of the reason they are having this trouble is because, unlike two generations ago, most pastors are from the suburbs—but most churches are still rural.
  • And then we also learn about solutions: Three churches in one town combined, even though they were of different denominations, and their services have parts of all three traditions. We also hear from an expert encouraging churches to really look at what purpose they serve in today’s society: They are fighting to survive, but surviving for what purpose?
  • This is the kind of information that can help make a difference in our communities. We are encouraging our newspaper partners to think of themselves not just as providers of information, but providers of context and inspiration.
  • Some of the other topics we’ve covered are how the way we farm affects our communities, how young people are leading the way on recycling efforts, how entrepreneurship education is helping young people envision a way they could make a living in their home communities.
  • Fourteen newspapers so far are taking part in the project. Our goal is to have 20. We focused on a region defined by a watershed because the geography and topography is similar, so the issues and challenges these people face is also similar.
  • The Dakotafire team connects almost entirely by phone or e-mail, or using our Basecamp project management software. We have a phone conference once a month when we discuss story ideas, and then I send out e-mails giving suggested questions for interviews. I also have a team of advisers, made up of rural experts from around the country, that provide guidance on story ideas.
  • The newspapers send me back their interview notes, plus photos, every two weeks. I add some data research or expert interviews and combine the result into one big package, with text, photos and/or infographics.
  • Every two weeks, the stories are published in the participating newspapers and on Dakotafire.net. We also publish a quarterly magazine, which has additional content from freelancers.
  • The feedback we’ve received from our stories has been overwhelmingly positive. But it’s also a little hard to measure—much of our typical readership at this point is not all that tech-savvy. I’ve received many type-written or hand-written comments.
  • We do have a fairly strong presence on Facebook and Twitter, and we also have a new forum site called DakotafireCafe.com. It’s a MindMixer site, which has some game theory at its root: People are encouraged to take part in the conversation by earning points, which can be redeemed for rewards.
  • The project is part of the Knight Community Information Challenge, which has the goal of encouraging community foundations to support news projects, in addition to all the other good things they support in their communities. The South Dakota Community Foundation is the actual sponsor of the project.
  • Funding comes from the Knight Foundation, the South Dakota Community Foundation, and corporate and individual sponsors—plus a start of income from advertising and subscriptions. We’re excited to be forming some new partnerships that we think will help propel us forward, both with additional content and the possibility of new revenue.
  • One of our future plans is working more with youth. I am doing a separate project, a community newsletter, with a group of high school journalism students in my hometown, and I’m hopeful we’ll eventually be able to set up a system that could get them and other students involved in reporting for Dakotafire.
  • Our editorial philosophy is this, based on an idea from author and farmer Wendell Berry: For every decision, we should ask: How will this affect the community? I don’t know if asking that question alone will help our communities thrive, but it should at least keep us from getting worse.
  • Every two weeks, we ask that question about one topic, which results in one story. And one story at a time, we’re sparking rural revival. Thank you.
  • Dakotafire Media: Sparking Rural Revival, One Story at a Time

    1. 1. Sparking Rural Revival One Story at a TimeHeidi Marttila-Losure, Editor
    2. 2. “I’m one of those that denominationto me doesn’t make a difference.It’s just about serving the one God.” — Pastor Laurie Kidd Lutheran Methodist Presbyterian
    3. 3. For any decision we make, we should ask: How does thisaffect the community?