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From the Publisher: Rural Reporter

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Published May 8, 2024 at 10:00 a.m.


Rachel Hellman - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Rachel Hellman

I've always thought the term "reporter" undersells the job of writing the "first rough draft of history," as Washington Post publisher Phil Graham phrased it in 1963. That the word is so simple — and, frankly, humbling — is a reminder to every journalist who steps into the swirl of current events: Our job is to document what we see, hear and experience as accurately as possible, but, in the end, the story is not about us.

We are recording the news, not making it.

That said, to be a good reporter requires more skills and qualities than I can list here: curiosity, for one, and a genuine interest in learning how things work. Good reporters ask questions and listen. Like scientists, they also look for patterns, connect the dots and hatch hypotheses.

When sources aren't forthcoming, it often means we're on to something. Overcoming the obstacles that arise — from persuading people to talk to getting access to data — takes drive, discipline and a certain degree of obsession.

Once all the facts are gathered, another kind of work begins: writing up that research into a readable tale.

Readers who don't like the published result will say so in letters to the editor and on social media platforms that don't require real names or fact-checking. In that realm, the journalist faces twin challenges: to grow a thick skin without losing the ability to feel — and to tell the truth without self-censoring to avoid the inevitable negative reaction. The latter skill is especially crucial these days.

Did I mention a reporter does this over and over again, week after week, for relatively low pay?

"The toughest job you'll ever love," to steal a recruitment slogan from the Peace Corps, is what Rachel Hellman signed up for. She came to Seven Days through a similar service program. The nongovernmental nonprofit Report for America recruits rookie journalists and places them in newsrooms across the U.S.

RFA calls them corps members and for three years partially subsidizes their work, requiring host newsrooms to fundraise for the remaining expenses. RFA offers resources, training and fiscal sponsorship to help. Seven Days applied to host a corps member at the end of 2021. To make our case, we created a compelling beat: covering Vermont's rural towns in an aging state. RFA approved our request, and Rachel arrived on June 1, 2022.

Since then, working alone and with more experienced colleagues on the Seven Days news team, Rachel has filed 125 stories from 84 Vermont towns. One of my favorites was about an Addison Selectboard member who served an extra year because no one remembered that his term was up.

It was Rachel's idea to write about a day in the life of Front Porch Forum, Vermont's homegrown social network, reporting on a collection of interesting posts that appeared within a 24-hour period around the state. The resulting cover story was a quirky, contemporary and moving tapestry of Vermont life.

Rachel's on the lookout for stories that illustrate what rural communities are up against: problems and solutions. In January, she reported on how some areas of Vermont are employing community nurses to visit elders in their homes, warding off potential emergencies by bridging the gaps between health and social services. In this week's issue, she investigates what it's like to live in rural Vermont without being able to drive. Both stories are part of a series we're calling "This Old State," in which our news and culture reporters explore Vermont's aging demographic and its impact on, well, everything.

Meanwhile, on a recent Sunday, Rachel was the writer who answered the call to cover student protests at the University of Vermont.

If you'd like to see more articles by Rachel, help us pay for her continued training. We need to raise $50,000 this spring. That, plus a small contribution from RFA, will fund the next year of her reporting.

Three donors, including Vermont Coffee founder Paul Ralston, have contributed $30,000 already. We have $20,000 more to raise by May 17. Because all contributions go to RFA's parent nonprofit, the GroundTruth Project, they're entirely tax-deductible.

This is a relatively new way of funding journalism, but the job itself hasn't changed much. If anything, it's gotten harder. We're grateful that young reporters like Rachel are embracing the work. We're going to need each and every one of them.

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