Case Study

How deep listening in the rural West led to solutions-oriented collaborations

The LOR Foundation, which serves rural communities in the Mountain West, hasn’t traditionally viewed itself as a media funder. In 2016, however, LOR undertook a groundbreaking and ambitious project.

LOR worked with the Solutions Journalism Network (SJN), a nonprofit that trains journalists and fosters newsroom collaborations in solutions-oriented reporting.

“We invest in communities, and we saw a community need,” LOR’s chief communications officer LaMonte Guillory explained. “Media and journalism happened to be that facilitator to make the community better.”

Photo of Mountain landscape

Margaret Wright/Santa Fe New Mexican

The impetus for the project came from LOR’s efforts to understand the foundation’s role in the region, Guillory said.

In learning about people’s daily lives, LOR began to understand that people were turning away from traditional news sources to social media to find out what was happening in their communities, and they weren’t getting the news they needed.

LOR engaged SJN in a six-month process to understand the news habits and needs of people living in small towns across New Mexico, Colorado, and Montana. That assessment included surveys, focus groups, and content analysis, among other methods.

Only one in five people surveyed said their local news was consistently relevant and valuable. Jobs and the economy were top of mind for residents, who complained that news coverage focused too much on crime stories. People said news coverage was episodic and problem-centric, when what they wanted were context and solutions.

LOR and SJN released the study publicly and moved on to piloting solutions. While similar studies had been done in major metro areas, none had ever focused on rural communities.

act on what you’ve learned

“In the rural context,” Guillory explained, “newspapers are really small and hyperlocal, and just focusing on one newsroom wouldn’t solve the problem.”

The team recruited seven small news organizations in New Mexico and Colorado to be part of a collaborative experiment, producing solutions-oriented stories on a range of rural challenges, overseen by a project editor. The “Small Towns, Big Change” initiative produced more than 50 stories in 2017 on land and water issues, substance abuse, education, and rural economic development. The next phase was “The Montana Gap,” a series of stories in the magazine High Country News, with guidance from SJN, on how people in Montana communities are responding to changes in the economy and in population patterns.

Guillory said LOR is eager to find additional partners.

We want to maximize the success we’ve had in New Mexico and Montana and invite other place-based funders to participate. We’re trying to create an on-ramp and make it easy for other foundations to join this work.”

Some organizations fear they can’t fund this work because they don’t have enough money. But you don’t need a large budget to make this happen. There’s enough proof of concept out there in the field that you don’t have to reinvent it. You don’t have to do it alone. Join forces.”

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