More than just a pop-up: How the collaborative newsroom 100 Days in Appalachia has grown

Since President Trump was elected in 2016, West Virginia and the Appalachian region have become where national and international reporters go to find “real America” and understand Trump’s appeal.

But many of those stories mischaracterized the region. To fix the problem and ensure that Appalachia was accurately represented in the national media, West Virginia University’s Reed College of Media, The Daily Yonder and West Virginia Public Broadcasting launched 100 Days in Appalachia, a pop-up publication to cover the start of the Trump administration from an Appalachian perspective.

As the 100-day mark came and went last spring, news from the Trump administration continued apace and the site started getting traction with readers. As a result, the team decided to keep going. And they haven’t stopped yet.

This week in Solution Set, we’re examining 100 Days in Appalachia. The site received a lot of coverage when it launched last year, but this issue will focus on how it has been able to sustain itself and how West Virginia Public Broadcasting, The Daily Yonder, and West Virginia University have collaborated on the site.

Solution Set is a weekly report from The Lenfest Institute for Journalism and the Solutions Journalism Network. Every Thursday, we take an in-depth look at one cool thing in journalism, share lessons, and point you toward other excellent resources.



Here’s the TLDR version of what you need to know:


TLDR

The Challenge: 100 Days in Appalachia was a collaborative news org created to cover Trump’s first days in office through an Appalachian lens, but as the pace of news only increased they wanted to continue the project.

The Strategy: 100 Days secured additional grant funding and found new ways to foster collaboration between the participating news organizations.

The Numbers: The site received more than $150,000 in grants.

The Lessons: Everything 100 Days produces is created with a distinct audience in mind. Collaboration has also been key to the project’s success.

The Future: 100 Days is looking to introduce new verticals and find independent sources of funding.

Want to know more?: Scroll down for additional coverage of 100 Days in Appalachia and other journalism collaboratives.

• Anything to add?: Following up on last week’s issue about Berkeleyside’s direct public offering, we meet another news org seeking investment from its community.


Now, let’s dig in a little deeper:

The Challenge

The idea for a collaborative reporting project based out of West Virginia University’s Reed College of Media had been floating around for a while. There were discussions of some sort of publication that could cover Appalachia or rural America between representatives of the university along with West Virginia Public Broadcasting and the Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes national rural news site The Daily Yonder.

The participating organizations had spent more than a year going back and forth to decide what the project would ultimately look like. And then on Nov. 8, 2016 everything changed: Donald Trump won the presidency.

“I spent a lot of time writing proposals,” West Virginia University professor Dana Coester, 100 Days in Appalachia’s creative director and executive editor, told me. “I literally had a 15-page proposal with colored graphics, budgets, personnel and the day after the election I wrote a one-paragraph thing and we launched. We could have just done this. It was infinitely easier to just start doing something instead of planning to do something.”

The proposal quickly came together and 100 Days in Appalachia launched as Trump was inaugurated.

Appalachia had — which spans from Western New York through northern Mississippi —become known as Trump Country, and Trump himself repeatedly discussed working on behalf of coal miners and others in the region. As a result, 100 Days in Appalachia was created to cover the first days of Trump’s presidency through the lens of the Appalachian region for a national audience.

Coester told me the project was deliberately created to provide readers with a more nuanced perspective on the region through solutions-oriented reporting.

We “and every other journalist in the country probably had the busiest first 100 days of any administration in my memory,” Coester said. “Our whole point was that we were going to look at the landscape of American politics and legislation decisions coming out of this new administration through the prism of Appalachia. It turns out that almost everything was relevant in some way, and none of that slowed down at 100 days.”

And as the Trump administration barreled through its early days in office, the project began to gain traction. The site built an audience and its reporting was mentioned by outlets such as HuffPost, Reveal and WNYC.

After the first month, Coester and the rest of the team began looking at whether it’d be feasible to expand the project.

“We’d built this brand, we’d built this audience, we’d built this platform and it made sense to keep it going. It’d be a pity if we went through all of that” and it died, said Jesse Wright, West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s news director.


The Strategy

As Coester began to think about how 100 Days could continue past its initial time frame, her first step was to make sure the other participating news organizations were on board.

They were.

“The cool thing about this project for me, as a news director, is that it’s experimental,” Wright said. “There’s nothing fixed,” he continued. There are no rules. There’s no way that we should be doing things. We’re really just trying to find a model that works for us and, hopefully, in so doing provide some lessons for other folks in other regions who might be able to do the same thing or have a desire to do the same thing.

Daily Yonder editor Tim Marema agreed: “We had been trying to do something for a while, and this was the pitch that came over the plate that we felt we could hit because of the interest in the region. Our interest has been long-term from the get-go and obviously, that wouldn’t have continued if the project had not been successful. But all things equal we had hoped, at least to ourselves, that it would be a longer project.”

With the partners signed on to continue, Coester began looking for grant funding to expand the project. Funding from the Benedum Foundation, which gives grants in West Virginia and southwest Pennsylvania, and The Democracy Fund enabled 100 Days to bring on additional contributing editors to cover race, religion, food and culture.

100 Days has covered stories as wide ranging from a profile of West Virginia’s first LGBTQ prom to how Ohio Valley soy farmers are reacting to the escalating trade conflict with China. Last year, it produced a 360-degree video about what it’s like to be Muslim in Appalachia.

The funding goes through the end of 2018, and you can scroll down to The Future to read about 100 Days’ plans to diversify revenue and other projects it’s planning to launch this year.

Once the decision to continue was made, 100 Days had to make another decision: What should it do with its name? They decided to keep it as they had already built up a brand identity, and it also provided a useful frame for thinking about the collaborative’s reporting.

“For us, the 100 days became this perfect metaphor,” Coester said. “We were looking at these issues through 100 days at a time. In a time when things are so fast-paced, where the implications around technology are changing so rapidly, where there are so many political shifts, honestly looking at policy and journalism, politics, and economic issues within a 100-day window seemed all that anybody could ever do anyway,”


The Numbers

100 Days in Appalachia has now been reporting for all 455 days of the Trump Administration thus far.

The site has a staff of 11, plus nine contributing editors, according to its website.

100 Days received a grant worth $97,000 from the Benedum Foundation and a portion of a $150,000 grant from The Democracy Fund to WVU.

The site also recently received a private donation of $15,000 to support 100 Days’ Washington, D.C. correspondent.

In addition to support from WVU, WVPB contributes some funds to support collaborative reporting projects and will from time to time split the cost for a freelancer. The public broadcaster had previously provided for a full-time digital managing editor for the project, but WVU is trying to absorb that cost by hiring a digital editor through the college that will be able to also teach.

The Daily Yonder doesn’t contribute direct funds to the project, but it shares coverage, provides editorial feedback, and helps 100 Days get access to data and research. In return, 100 Days helps The Daily Yonder with “digital experimentation and web support and ideas,” Coester said in an email.


The Lessons

Define your audience: Since the beginning, 100 Days had a set audience in mind. It’s reporting for people outside of Appalachia. It wants to use its local knowledge and boots-on-the-ground approach to help readers outside the region have a more nuanced understanding of Appalachia while highlighting the area’s diversity.

“Obviously we have a lot of readers in the region, but we work really hard to help those readers understand that we’re trying to make sure that their stories and independent journalists in the region are talking to the rest of the world, so that the rest of the world isn’t getting it wrong, like they often are,” Coester said. “That’s part of our DNA, that’s part of our basic identity and structure.”

With coverage from its partners, 100 Days will sometimes have to add additional context or extra information for readers outside of the area.

“Sometimes our reporters will work on things specifically for 100 days, but generally they’re taking our content and either republishing it or tweaking it,” Wright said of WVPB. “Maybe it’s a headline difference, maybe it’s a graf from a different source or a different photo to give it a specific targeting. They’ve got some great audience engagement folks who are able to rework this content to have it make sense for their audience.”

Any project or news organization should have specific audiences in mind for its coverage. All outlets have limited resources, so by picking specific audiences, you can maximize your time and coverage to best serve those people. Those readers then become more loyal and you can then potentially convert them into subscribers, members, or donors.

• Prosperous partnerships: 100 Days wouldn’t exist without collaboration between the participating organizations.

100 Days in Appalachia works with staff and freelancers to produce coverage for the site. But WVPB and Daily Yonder reporters will also put together stories for the site, or 100 Days can adapt their existing coverage.

Because there are so many parties involved, communication and coordination are a priority, and should be for any news organization that’s involved in this type of partnership.

100 Days has a Slack that includes all the participants, and they also have a call every other week to coordinate coverage. 100 Days staffers also often sit in on the other publications’ editorial meetings. And WVPB will sometime share 100 Days’ Washington, DC correspondent.

“Perhaps [WVPB] throws a story in Slack they’re working on and it’s strictly for radio,” Gina Dahlia, 100 Days’ general manager and managing director of the WVU Media Innovation center. “We look at that and say that would be a great video for 100 Days in Appalachia. That’s more resources. Does it come from their end? Sometimes. Does it come from our end? Sometimes. That takes a matter of coordination. It’s a challenge because not everyone is working in the same office…Slack has been a way of bringing us all together and hashing out ideas.”

The collaborative approach to journalism has enabled 100 Days to reach a wider audience and produce journalism in different mediums like audio and video.

100 Days also works with other journalism partnerships, such as Ohio Valley ReSource, a consortium of public media outlets in the region, to co-publish 100 Days stories.

“Our purpose when we partner with regional media is not to compete with anyone locally, but to surface stories that have national potential and bridge that local-to-national audience,” Coester said.

As news organizations confront diminishing budgets and headcounts, partnerships such as 100 Days can help maximize resources and enable publications to produce meaningful journalism that can impact a wider audience

Students are the future and the present: Because 100 Days is run out of WVU’s Media Innovation Center, journalism students are able to participate in the project.

About 90 percent of videos on 100 Days’ website and social platforms are produced by students.

“Those are student reporters who are involved and engaged in the community who are pitching those stories,” Dahlia said.

As part of a class, students have produced social videos based on their original reporting as well as stories produced by 100 Days and its partners.

100 Days gives students real-world experience as part of their coursework and enables 100 Days to reach audiences on new platforms. WVU plans to continue the class this fall.


The Future

Much of what 100 Days plans to do moving forward is contingent on additional funding.

Coester is applying for grants and seeking additional funding sources. Eventually, she said she’d like to move beyond being completely reliant on grant funding. 100 Days is in the process of figuring out how it could potentially find new revenue sources and generate revenue directly from readers.

“We have a mandate on behalf of our partners to be the experimenter,” Coester said. “We’ll try something out, and if it works they can adopt it. We’re looking at the next year as a series of experiments to test the waters and see what works. I don’t think we would ever be ever to have complete independent funding, but we’re going to maximize that as much as we can to be a viable media outlet.”

100 Days is also planning new verticals and looking to experiment with new story formats, such as community gatherings and events.

But as it grows, it’s looking at other ways it can influence national coverage of the Appalachian region. They’d like to create an editorial advisory board that can work with outlets such as the BBC or The New York Times to help them better understand Appalachia. The idea is that this board would serve as “fixers” of a sort for the publications, and they could pay 100 Days for the resource.

Coester cited the recent teacher strike in West Virginia as an example. She said many outlets were portraying the strike as a progressive uprising when a year ago the same publications were calling West Virginia Trump Country. “Both of them were wrong,” she said.

“I want to experiment to see if that’s something that we can monetize, if someone like a New York Times would pay to have access to that group because God knows they ask us for the access all the time,” Coester said. “These people aren’t sources to be interviewed, they’re sources to vet context and say, let me break this down for you, let me explain how you want to approach it. If I’m a journalist, I’d love to pay for that.”


 Want to know more?

Heather Bryant wrote a great profile of 100 Days in MediaShift last December as the site yeared its one year anniversary.

• In January 2017, Coester spoke with Poynter about the 100 Days’ goals and ambitions.

• Interested in other collaborative journalism projects? Check out this thorough database of more than 150 initiatives from the Center for Cooperative Media.


Anything to add?

In last week’s issue about Berkeleyside’s direct public offering, I mentioned in an aside that another California publication is now undertaking its own DPO. That company is Sonoma West Publishers, and after sending the issue, I heard from that company’s publisher, Rollie Atkinson. We spoke earlier this week, and he shared some details about their DPO. (If you have anything you’d like to share, feel free to reach out!)

Sonoma West publishes four weekly newspapers in northern California. (Atkinson and his wife, Sarah Bradbury, own the company.) Atkinson was interested in redoing the papers’ websites and asked to meet with Berkeleyside because it had recently redesigned its site to be more mobile-friendly. It was during that meeting that he first heard about Berkeleyside’s DPO, and he was immediately intriguedabout the possibility of undertaking their own at Sonoma West.

After doing more research, Sonoma West decided that a DPO was right for the company.

“The DPO allows us to maintain the independent voice of the newspapers,” Atkinson told me. The four papers are all community institutions. The oldest was founded in 1865 and all four predate the incorporation of the towns they serve.

Sonoma West launched its DPO last month, and it has a goal of raising $400,000. So far it’s attracted about 30 investors, Atkinson said. Investors will receive a 3 percent annual dividend.

Berkelyside has shared what it learned from its own DPO experience, and both companies actually used the same Oakland-based law firm to get the direct public offerings set up. (Berkeleyside is in the process now of creating a guide to help other news organizations that are interested in pursuing a DPO. That work is funded by a grant from the Lenfest Institute.)

For its DPO, Sonoma West has a year from its launch to reach its fundraising goal. The company has about $2 million in revenue annually and has about 20 total employees. It plans to use funds from the DPO to better support its journalists, move toward a more digital-first workflow, and to adopt audience-centric tools such as Hearken.

Ultimately though, Atkinson sees a DPO as one solution for how newspapers can support themselves as their business models continue to evolve.

“It better be obvious to every newspaper in the country. The [traditional] business model doesn’t fit today’s needs and today’s economy. We all need a new business model to have journalism pay its own way.”


Creative Commons photo by Elias Schewel.

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