Washington State University

Can Community-Guided "Parachute" Journalism Lead to Meaningful Coverage in Rural Areas?

Washington State University is one of the 2018 winners of the Challenge Fund. See all the winners.


Led by Clinical Assistant Professor Lisa Waananen Jones, the Journalism and Media Production Department of Washington State University’s Edward R. Murrow College of Communication is participating in an ongoing rural reporting initiative in partnership with Northwest Public Broadcasting.

Describe your project

Will experimenting with community-guided rural reporting lead to better rural news coverage? Student journalists from Washington State University will visit different towns all over Eastern Washington and North Idaho to talk with people and look for stories. Later, they’ll hit the road again with professional journalists to cap off the Rural Reporting Plunge.

What is your experiment?

Our hypothesis is that community guidance and involvement can improve “parachute” journalism to create meaningful coverage in rural areas. We are working with local libraries in the rural communities surrounding our university to build story ideas, then sending teams of students with professional or faculty advisers to produce multimedia content. We are specifically testing whether this relationship and process 1) is effective for student learning, 2) leads to story ideas that would otherwise be missed, 3) creates meaningful coverage that represents communities with more depth than typical “parachute” journalism. We have gathered data and interviews about student learning, and need to get more feedback from local communities as the project progresses in spring 2019.

2019 update: The hypothesis has not changed substantially, though our perspective on outcomes has shifted as we’ve worked with local communities and learned from other projects involving community-led reporting. We’ve realized that successful engagement and relationship-building is not transactional, and needs to be a cyclical process rather than a linear one. There is value in asking for ideas and sending students to talk with people, even if those ideas and conversations do not immediately turn into publishable stories. Data and results from our fall semester activities support the hypothesis with regard to student learning and differences in story ideas. The spring activities will provide more information about the quality of coverage from various perspectives.

We’ve added some project activities and events this spring because our fall activities came in under budget, based on suggestions from students and library staff. Tentative projects include:

  • Reporting travel fund for students to voluntarily follow up on stories from the Rural Reporting Plunge in the fall.
  • Student-led multimedia training for K-12 kids at local libraries, for podcasts, visuals and/or interviewing and news techniques.
  • Showcase event in April to show student work and invite people involved with the project to campus, to supplement the Murrow Symposium panel with more time for conversation and fully completed student work.

If the experiment works, what do you think might happen?

Student learning has been the most significant and exciting part of this project so far. Our event in the fall created a lot of energy for the journalism program and we’ve anecdotally seen students show more ambition and curiosity in their reporting. Half of the students who participated in the Rural Reporting Plunge had never before interviewed someone for a journalism story outside our college town. We’ve also encouraged students to pitch us on follow-up reporting trips, which has led to several stories and has provided good experience for pitching and planning.

2019 update: We initially planned to collect survey data about media habits and opinions in rural communities before sending students there, in order to have baseline data for later comparison. This did not happen for several reasons, including the short timeline after the project launch, workload for our research team member, and some practical limitations that made it difficult to distribute surveys through local libraries. Instead, we focused on collecting extensive quantitative and qualitative data about student experiences and outcomes, and intend to follow up with local communities for our spring phase.

How is this project unique and innovative?

Students have produced text, photo, audio and video content for our media partner. A new sub-site, the Murrow News 8 newscast, is a collaboration between NWPB and Murrow courses and includes stories produced as part of this project.

Our perspective has shifted to thinking beyond one year if we want to establish community relationships for input and feedback, making use of institutional continuity to improve the value for both students and rural communities. We still expect meaningful insights and results from this first year that may contribute to the research about rural news engagement and inspire other journalism programs to experiment with similar projects.

How might this experiment change teaching at your school or media practices in your partner’s newsroom?

Our academic team has met regularly with the news staff at NWPB, our media partner. Their reporting staff was overextended with election coverage for most of the fall semester. Our students will work with their reporters this spring. We are also working with other regional news organizations as opportunities arise, particularly because alumni have been interested in getting involved after hearing about our main fall event, the Rural Reporting Plunge. Students have been working directly with NWPB to develop drafts and meet standards for publication, with faculty making introductions and giving input as necessary.

Our media partnership benefits from the co-location of NWPB in the Murrow College. However, newsrooms like NWPB are historically understaffed, but that was particularly noticeable during the 2018 midterm elections. As a result, Murrow faculty took a more direct role in the planning and execution of stories than originally planned.

For more information about Washington State University’s Challenge Fund project: