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Rural News Network to launch projects centering Indigenous communities and water access

November 11, 2021

A new journalism consortium covering rural issues will kick off with two collaborations investigating economic issues in Indigenous communities and access to water in the West. 

The Rural News Network from the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN) is launching in 2022 to surface the most pressing issues confronting America’s rural communities, with a focus on solutions. The multi-year collaboration is being led by INN members Investigate Midwest and The Daily Yonder, with guidance and project management from staff at INN. The Rural News Network will leverage the expertise of 60 independent INN-member newsrooms already serving rural communities across 30 states.  

The first two projects will pilot strategies and structures for the wider collaboration in advance of the full launch later in 2022: a collaboration centering Indigenous communities led by ICT, formerly known as Indian Country Today, made possible with the support of the Walton Family Foundation; and “Tapped Out: Power and water justice in the rural West,” supported by the Water Foundation.

ICT National Correspondent Mary Annette Pember reports on the ground at the Enbridge pipeline. — Photo courtesy of ICT (formerly Indian Country Today

“Rural America has been misrepresented as a monolithic land of rural white farmers, and nothing could be further from the truth,” said Jonathan Kealing, INN’s chief network officer. “Through these two collaborative projects, and the wider Rural News Network, we will shine a lens on equity issues facing rural communities across this country, with a particular focus on communities of color that are often ignored by traditional media.”

Examining the economics of tribal communities

Ten outlets serving Indigenous communities will work together to identify and investigate the common threads in the economic life of rural tribal nations and communities. Seven INN outlets and three tribal newsrooms will participate in the pilot project under the leadership of Senior Editor Dianna Hunt of ICT and INN Member Collaborations Editor Bridget Thoreson.

“We are honored to take the lead in a project that will assess economic drivers across Indian Country,” Hunt said. “We can all learn from rural tribal communities and the issues they are facing.” 

Community engagement will be a key element of the reporting, which will focus on how rural Indigenous communities are addressing economic issues. The series will feature reporting on such topics as how federal funding has been spent in tribal communities, how tribes have become significant economic forces in areas that otherwise had been left behind by the government and how rural Indigenous groups have pursued sustainability efforts to revitalize their communities and create decent-paying jobs.

The participants’ work is being funded by a $114,000 grant from the Walton Family Foundation.

This project will also result in a report exploring the opportunities and lessons learned for editorial partnerships between nonprofit newsrooms and tribal outlets. 

The collaboration participants are INN members ICT, InvestigateWest, the Indigenous Media Freedom Alliance, KOSU, New Mexico In Depth, Wisconsin Watch and Underscore. They are joined by the Rawhide Press, Mvskoke Media and Osage News. Seven participants are members of the Native American Journalists Association. INN consulted with NAJA on the development of the collaboration and potential participants. 

“Mainstream and tribal media newsrooms all benefit when Indigenous outlets share their critical perspectives,” said NAJA Executive Director Rebecca Landsberry-Baker. “We are thrilled to see more NAJA members participating in this partnership, which will amplify the unique and impactful coverage they lead every day across Indian Country.”

Expanding coverage of power and water justice

No topic is more critical to the Western U.S. at this moment than water. Nine INN members, covering California, Colorado, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Washington, are collaborating to cover aspects of the ongoing water crisis.

This collaboration builds on a project completed earlier this year in which eight INN member organizations spent months reporting on the intersection of water and environmental justice in the Western U.S. The original series generated massive reach and contributed to legislative and political change. 

This new project will explore complex issues focused on water and equity, as well as potential solutions. The stories, which will be published over several weeks beginning on Nov. 22, will address contaminated water, drought, overuse of groundwater, land ownership and who has a seat at the table in water negotiations.

Collaboration participants are INN members California Health Report, Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism, Circle of Blue, Colorado Public Radio, Columbia Insight, The Counter, High Country News, New Mexico In Depth and SJV Water. The project, led by INN Amplify Collaborations Editor Sharon McGowan, is funded by a $30,000 grant from the Water Foundation.

“We’re excited to continue this important collaboration among local and regional news organizations with deep expertise about water issues in the rural West,” said Kealing. 

This post was updated on Nov. 17, 2021 to reflect a change in the participants for the Indigenous collaboration.

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