- File: James Buck ©️ Seven Days
- Richard Watts and Cory Dawson (left) with members of UVM's Community News Service
A new project led by the University of Vermont will breathe new life into local journalism by enlisting an unlikely corps of citizen journalists: college students.
Galvanized by the success of the Community News Service, a student-powered partnership between UVM and community newspapers across Vermont, the national Center for Community News will expand collaboration between local media outlets and university students around the country. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation is partnering with UVM College of Arts & Sciences donors to support the $400,000 enterprise.
The Community News Service launched in 2019 as a way for students in UVM’s Reporting and Documentary Storytelling program to combat the growing number of “news deserts” in Vermont. Not long after the Waterbury Record folded, CNS students identified the unique role they could have in providing critical reporting to Vermont’s small towns. CNS launched the Waterbury Roundabout, an online outlet that provides student reporting to fill the gap.
Since then, CNS reporters have produced more than 1,000 stories and collaborated with dozens of news organizations across the state. They started a student-run outlet to serve Winooski, and even launched in February 2022 a series of free online classes for anyone interested in learning how to write for local newspapers.
The Waterbury Record’s demise is part of a broader crisis in local news. Since 2004, the United States has lost more than 2,100 newspapers. Research shows that communities with news organizations have better economic outcomes for residents and less political polarization.
“Our idea here is to build something that makes it super possible for more of these programs to grow, and at the same time, see if we can foster more than one way to address the local-news crisis,” said Richard Watts, director of the Center for Research on Vermont and co-director of the Reporting & Documentary Storytelling program.
Watts said the Center for Community News will build upon the success of UVM's efforts by helping develop similar initiatives nationally and continuing to innovate within the existing Vermont model. The first step is building an interactive database to map existing academic-newsroom collaborations. The goal is to fill any holes, and provide resources for schools looking to start their own community news hub.
Watts said universities have a unique responsibility to lead initiatives that strengthen local journalism.
“There's so many reasons why we need it [local journalism],” said Watts. “But just the most basic is that people need to know what's going on in their community from a trusted source."