University of Vermont launches nationwide effort to pair colleges with local news organizations

Students participating in UVM's Community News Service this summer meet with editor Justin Trombly (foreground). The service recently graduated its third class of citizen reporters. Photo courtesy of Richard Watts

The University of Vermont launched a nationwide program Wednesday that seeks to address the strains on local newsrooms across the country by partnering news organizations with colleges. 

Richard Watts, head of the new Center for Community News, previously founded UVM’s local student-newsroom partnership program, the Community News Service. That program launched in the summer of 2019 with five student reporters. It has since grown to about 30 students per semester and 20 in the summer. 

The new center builds on that model, aiming to connect and promote similar student-newsroom partnerships across the country. There are already existing programs around the U.S. similar to UVM’s Community News Service, but this is the first attempt to connect them, Watts said. 

“That's kind of the laboratory out of which this idea grew,” Watts said. “In the core, the idea is that local and hyperlocal media platforms are struggling for content, and students can write those stories with some professional help.” 

Justin Trombly, editor at the Community News Service and a former VTDigger reporter — said he believes this kind of programming has lots of potential to help mitigate the problems facing smaller local news organizations, which have fewer resources than academic institutions.

“UVM doesn't have a formal journalism major department,” Trombly said. “Obviously, keeping up the supply of the pool of young journalists in this country is crucial to continuing to have a strong news industry here.” 

Research suggests regions of the country with dedicated news outlets demonstrate increased civic engagement, decreased levels of polarization, heightened transparency in elections, more competitive elections and better economic outcomes. However, the U.S. has lost about 2,200 newspapers since 2005, according to the Washington Post, creating local “news deserts” throughout the country. 

Trombly said he personally experienced the strains the industry faces at earlier jobs.

“I've definitely felt those wider trends, that a lot of these papers we’re working with have experienced. I’ve felt that on a personal level. And you know, it's sad,” he said. “That's ultimately what Community News Service and the national program are looking to address.” 

The new Center for Community News is supported by $400,000 in funding, half of which came from donors through UVM’s College of Arts and Sciences and the rest in a matching grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. That money will only fund the center for three years, but leaders of the initiative say they expect more to come. 

“There's no question that the Knight (Foundation) is the premier journalism funder in the country, and this kind of contribution leads to more,” Watts said. 

Watts plans to take a yearlong sabbatical from UVM to develop the Center for Community News. He expects it to build a comprehensive database of academic and news collaborations throughout the U.S.

UVM will hire two additional employees within the Center for Community News, one of whom will be tasked with developing the database, and the other to showcase and promote these programs in a newsletter. 

UVM’s Community News Service partners with nearly half of Vermont’s approximately 40 news outlets to provide them with reporting free of charge, Watts said. It lists 14 partners on its website, including VTDigger.

In addition to training students, the Community News Service runs training programs for non-students external to UVM, producing “citizen reporters” who serve as part-time volunteer reporters in their communities. 

“We provide writers to supplement these local news outlets, and at the same time, we're also training journalists of the future,” Trombly said. “So it's both helping papers now and hopefully helping papers in the future.”

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Ella Ruehsen

About Ella

Ella is a student at the University of Vermont, where she is majoring in environmental studies and was recently elected editor in chief of the Vermont Cynic, the school’s independent student newspaper. She previously was a reporter and news editor at the Cynic and interned last summer at the Burlington Free Press.

Email: [email protected]

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