How one newspaper engaged readers by amplifying their voices


It doesn’t hurt that The Wenatchee World, in north central Washington state in the United States, has a clear, concise mission statement: To “engage, inform, and inspire our North Central Washington communities.”

And it doesn’t hurt that current Publisher Rufus Woods grew up schooled on his family’s early legacy: economic development of Washington state’s Columbia Basin

For 23 years, the Woods family and its newspaper championed the Grand Coulee Dam and the Columbia Basin Irrigation project, which gave life to the region’s vast agricultural industry. 

In the years following, the Woods family pressed forward, studying regional energy resources and maintaining a heritage of community service and development, paired with service journalism.

Today, Rufus Woods has launched Community Connections, a nice turn of phrase that simply means communities need newspapers more than ever.

Newspapers encourage conversation, tap into issues and perspectives that might otherwise go unshared – and they serve their communities.

“Asking people to build a stronger community seems to be the hook to engage people with this effort,” said Woods, noting with a smile that he and a non-profit community partner have “launched a civic engagement centre in what was our old pressroom.”

The initiative includes first-person columns submitted by a core group of 36 people — with six to eight new recruits coming on each week — who write on topics they are passionate about: education and technology; bridging the culture divide; solutions to homelessness; suicide prevention; recovery from addiction; leadership and economic development.

The second component is profiles, done in question-and-answer format by local non-profit organisations from their own perspective. The newspaper is actively pursuing profiles of young Latino leaders, highly effective teachers, and others who provide a unique community insight.

“Community Connection” pages appear a couple of times each week in print and of course online — with an eye toward a blog format this summer, as well as possible co-created themed newsletters on topics like local history, local food, technology, and others.

“The first-person columns are crowding out wire stories that are less relevant to many local readers,” said Woods, who is the project’s main champion. “I spend a lot of time on this, thinking about things we aren’t covering but that are relevant and interesting for the community.

“This may be more than most people would be willing to do. But in the end, we need to do more curating, convening, and facilitating meaningful perspective and ideas than being just a producer.”

Below, Woods answered questions about how Community Connections serves the audience that is the Wenatchee Valley.

Coleman: Is this project a way to reinvigorate newspapers and news media companies and their communities? Do you have some examples of insights you’ve gathered thus far?

Woods: My intention is for The World to lead the way in creative civic engagement — to be a purpose-driven organisation that connects meaningfully with the community.

We have fewer resources than we did five years ago. As a result, if we stick to business as usual, we will do less for our readers.

This effort is intended to help build a network of individuals who can engage readers in building a greater sense of community. Because of these columns, our news pages are more local, co-created with a variety of community individuals, and as such the newspaper is more of a community asset and less of a newspaper asset.

I think it provides an example of how we might creatively re-envision being a community connector.

The key to success is adapting the project to the needs of the individuals who have compelling community topics to discuss. We ask contributors to take readers on a journey with them in exploring the topic.

We’ve learned that readers respond to writers’ authentic voices. We brand them in the community as (ones) who (want) to make a difference. We encourage them to highlight partnerships and important contributions.

This is not a programme for advocating for personal interest or heavy political perspective — that belongs on the editorial page. We make that clear.

We had tried other ways over the years to encourage people to write, and the typical result was that individuals didn’t want to write news stories. Only when we made the shift to first-person columns did we see people engage.

There are so many topics in the community that we only hit occasionally, and we miss following those issues on an ongoing basis. This allows us to keep readers abreast of some ongoing issues or projects.

Coleman: How did you pick your initial group? How will you reach the youth demographic or those whose voices don’t typically appear at organised meetings?

Woods: The genesis of this project was a successful effort by the Walla Walla Union Bulletin by Editor Rick Doyle and Publisher Rob Blethen. They used a somewhat similar approach to develop writers (who) focused on key content areas that the newspaper could no longer cover adequately. I modified the approach to reflect greater civic purpose.

Our initial group was picked by conversations with news, advertising, accounting, and circulation staff. We identified potential contributors, and I started making contact. We talked about areas that we didn’t cover well or topics that needed more constant attention.

The goal was to make it easy (400 words, about a specific topic they are passionate and knowledgeable about, on a monthly or quarterly basis), with the first column focusing on their background and why the topic is meaningful.

Reaching other demographics is key. I’m talking to tribal individuals about bringing their voices to this project. I’ve also reached out to individuals in our Latino community and have gotten positive response.

Virtually everywhere I turn, I can find subjects that deserve ongoing discussion that we can’t cover but that we can facilitate through this process.

Coleman: What type of feedback have you received? What advice would you give others who want to launch a similar programme?

Woods: The feedback has been quite positive so far. I have been approached regularly by people wanting to comment on this project and expressing delight with the community feel of the paper, suggesting that people are hungry for authentic dialogue and personal connection in our communities.

From my perspective, newspapers can either continue down the road of being news commodities or focus on a value proposition, such as building community. This does not mean abandoning our journalistic ethics in the slightest.

Building community in my book is completely consistent with hard-nosed journalism when merited, celebrations of success, and engaging readers to contribute knowledge, perspective, and ideas.

Doing this well requires a fair amount of work, but the rewards so far have been encouraging. Building on this civic engagement effort will create opportunities for us to bring civic engagement to a new level — through face-to-face forums in partnership with other institutions that are committed to building community.

Walla Walla does a similar project by targeting specific topics and writing letters to potential contributors. That is a lower-cost way to go and it works pretty well for them.

The most inspiring contributor so far is a woman who spent decades with addiction and criminal issues (29 times in jail, twice in prison, 15 times in recovery). She runs the YWCA’s training cafe and writes about people who are making the transition to become productive citizens.

She’s not the most polished writer, but she tells wonderful stories and captures the heart of the humanity of her subjects.

Another recent Community Connections column almost couldn’t be more authentic: Titled “Wenatchee, then and now,” Wendell George, a former Wenatchee Valley College Trustee and widely respected elder in the Colville Tribes, penned this contribution:

My wife, Barbara, and I both graduated from Wenatchee High School. I moved to Wenatchee from the Colville Indian Reservation when my dad, Moses, took a job with the State Highway Department after World War II. He wanted to live in Wenatchee because that is where our ancestors lived. 

We are from the Entiat tribe, which is one of the twelve tribes making up the Colville Confederated Tribes. My great-grandfather, Chief Chilcosahaskt, remained at the Entiat Valley and my grandfather Lahompt (Chief Koxit George) was the first of our family to move to the Reservation.

My Dad was the last of our family to be born in a tepee and the first to father a college graduate, me (Washington State University).

I have written and published two books, “Coyote Finishes the People” and “Last Chief Standing.” My intent was to make more people aware of our tribal people especially our culture and history.

I will continue doing this in this column, using excerpts from my books and contemporary events concerning our tribes. I’ll use my experience from growing up on the Reservation and spending the last 40 years as a rancher, tribal planner, member of the Colville Tribal Council, and CEO of Colville Tribal Enterprises Corporation.

My email is: Lem lempt (thank you).

Wendell George

Woods’s welcome letter to Community Connections participants speaks volumes about his commitment to helping make life better for Wenatchee residents — and to the humility with which he approaches his role as newspaper publisher:

Folks: I very much appreciate your interest in sharing your expertise and knowledge with the community as part of what we call the Community Connections Project.

If this project is successful, I believe we can build stronger communities by connecting people with ideas and information that will build a greater sense of ownership and commitment to the place we call home.

It’s important to me that we set a constructive tone with this project because I'm committed to avoiding the toxic discourse that has taken over most of the media.

I’m interested in seeing what we can accomplish locally by working together, and I know each of you shares that commitment, which is why I’ve reached out to you.

Please consider yourselves my thinking partners in this rather unique effort. I’m open to your suggestions about how we can make this work to strengthen our communities. I expect to learn much from you.

Said Woods of Community Connections: “It’s been the most rewarding project I’ve been involved with in my career. It’s an antidote to the national media ugliness that focuses almost exclusively on what’s wrong in our society and who’s to blame and ignores the tremendous contributions of human beings on a daily basis.”

It doesn’t hurt when 21st-century newspaper leaders remember and embrace their obligation — and privilege — to lead and to serve.

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