The West Virginia University Reed College of Media has received a grant from the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation to help strengthen local journalism in West Virginia and preserve it for the future by creating a new ownership pipeline.
The $125,000 grant will support a partnership between the College of Media and the West Virginia Press Association to recruit, develop and train the next generation of independent community newspaper owners.
The program anticipates that a number of West Virginia’s small-market newspaper owners and publishers will be ready to retire and sell their news operations over the next several years, creating potential news “deserts” in their local communities.
The grant will support the development of a three-year program designed to recruit and train new potential owners and to help current owners prepare their businesses for sale.
A goal of the program is to facilitate successful ownership transitions that maintain a strong local news presence in West Virginia. Another goal is to help news organizations adapt and modernize their operations to respond to the demands of today’s local news and information consumer.
A key component of the program will be a year-long fellowship for potential new owners, located at the West Virginia Reed College of Media. Fellows will receive training in both journalism and business practices with an emphasis on digital transition and new funding models for media.
They will also be placed in internships at West Virginia newspapers, where they will learn firsthand the day-to-day challenges of running a small-market newspaper in a local community.
“The Benedum grant supports our mission to support and strengthen both journalism about the region and within the region,” said WVU College of Media Dean Maryanne Reed. “We believe that a vibrant local news ecosystem it is vital to the state, the country and our democracy. And we have a responsibility to help these news organizations transition to the future.”
Don Smith, executive director of the West Virginia Press Association says the program will fill an urgent need.
“We are really at a crisis point for many small-town weekly newspapers across this country,” Smith said. “There is a growing number of newspapers owners — many second- or third-generation family owners — considering retirement. Unfortunately, the next generation of their family often is not interested in running the newspaper.”
Smith says local newspapers play a vital role in informing their audiences. But they also promote economic development, civic engagement and shared sense of community identity.
“The pages of a local newspaper serve as the community’s marketplace of ideas, center of economic development and banner of civic pride. Its editorials call for action, question the status quo, encourage change, target the corrupt and support all attempts to improve the community.”
Over the next several months, the College of Media will develop the curriculum and application process for the fellowship program and work with the West Virginia Press Association and regional partners to identify news owners interesting in participating, as well as additional funding sources. The College hopes to launch the program in Fall 2019.
The Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation was established in 1944 by Michael and Sarah Benedum and has served West Virginia and Southwestern Pennsylvania from its founding. Funds are made available to projects and programs in the areas of education, economic development, health and human services, community development and civic engagement.
The grant was made in conjunction with the WVU Foundation, the nonprofit corporation that generates and provides support for West Virginia University.