From area roots, Richard Watts looks to grow innovate local news model

·5 min read

Jul. 2—A former journalist himself, Richard Watts of Hinesburg, Vt., knows there's a crisis facing local news, and he hopes to address this dilemma by linking news outlets with colleges across the country.

Watts, director of the Center for Research on Vermont and co-director of the reporting and documentary program at the University of Vermont, helped launch the school's Center for Community News on June 22. The initiative aims to inspire collaboration between local news organizations and students by weaving together a network of community journalism programs.

Watts, 62, who grew up in Putney, said local news has been on a decline for nearly 20 years, leaving many small towns and cities without newspapers.

Indeed, since 2004, the U.S. has lost more than 2,100 newspapers, according to a 2020 report from the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Roughly two-thirds of counties have just one daily newspaper, while more than 200 lie in a "news desert," with no local newspapers at all.

Many of the factors contributing to the crisis, Watts said, are associated with the rise of digital media, causing a decline in readership and eating up most of the ad revenue. According to a 2021 article from the Pew Research Center, newsrooms across the country have seen a loss of 30,000 jobs since 2008.

"The ultimate goal is to safeguard our democracy in the sense that if you have local news, citizens are more likely to engage and be informed," Watts said. "Having local news increases the people's trust in institutions and makes it more likely to have competitive elections."

Though now in the Burlington area, Watts has ties to the Monadnock Region, having attended High Mowing School in Wilton for high school. His mother, Kathleen Heidi Watts of Westmoreland, was an education professor at Antioch University New England in Keene for 30 years until she retired.

Watts graduated from the State University of New York at Cortland in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science and got his master's degree in newspaper journalism at Syracuse University in 1989. In 2006, he received his Ph.D. in natural resource planning at UVM.

His varied career has included serving as an organizer for the New York Public Interest Research Group, a nonprofit public education organization, and a reporter for the Addison County Independent, a newspaper in Middlebury, Vt. He also was a gubernatorial campaign manager for former Vermont governor Howard Dean.

At UVM, Watts teaches environmental studies, media studies and Vermont history.

His career, first as an organizer and later as a journalist, is coming in handy with his new role in the Center for Community News, he said

"It's just really exciting to bring together the various skills I've developed."

Many academic and community news programs already exist in the United States, including UVM's own Community News Service, also founded by Watts in 2019. Through these programs, students gain experience in professional journalism and provide content to local newspapers.

But, until now, nobody has collected all of these partnerships in one place, Watts said.

"If I was a university and I wanted to start one of these programs, I wouldn't know where to begin."

So, he said, the Center for Community News will provide a blueprint to encourage more colleges to start community news partnerships, by developing a series of case studies with input collected from programs around the country.

He noted that these programs represent a symbiotic relationship between students and publications. Students learn valuable skills, like interviewing, writing and interpreting information. At the same time, newspapers benefit from more content and wider community coverage that may not have previously been feasible.

Meg Little Reilly, the center's advisory board chair, said the initiative presents an opportunity to adapt to shifting economic and technological news tides.

"By matching the resources of colleges and the passion of students with the needs of local newspapers, we can institutionalize these collaborations to create a resilient future for trusted sources of local information," Reilly said in an email.

The initiative is supported by $400,000 of funding, half from donors to UVM's College of Arts and Sciences, and the rest from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a national nonprofit that provides grants for journalism, communities and the arts.

In addition to his passion for local journalism, Watts is a big proponent of eco-friendly travel.

In 2016, he co-founded Sustainable Transportation Vermont, a blog that shines a spotlight on automobile dependency in the state and promotes alternative travel methods that use less energy and leave a smaller transportation footprint.

Watts, who has three grown daughters, said he lives in a two-driver, one-car household with his wife, Allison Cleary. But he rarely drives, instead choosing to commute to his job at UVM via bicycle, pedaling the 12 miles into Burlington.

As a commentator on public policy and social issues at Vermont Public radio from 2018 to 2021, he did a piece detailing the benefits of his cycling commute.

"For me it's one of the most enjoyable things to do, being in the fresh outdoors," he said. "But it's also purposeful."

Now that the CCN has launched, Watts said the next steps are identifying as many community news partnerships as possible. He plans to take a year-long sabbatical from UVM to develop the center and gather research.

William Falls, UVM's dean of the college of arts and sciences, said in an email that Watts understands the role the university and its students can play in addressing the challenges facing small news outlets.

"I'm grateful for Richard's hard work, commitment, and creativity in making the Center a reality and look forward to seeing the Center grow into a national model for local journalism," he said.

In this endeavor, Reilly said, Watts is the perfect person to have at the helm.

"He is a preternatural connector of people and organizer," she wrote. "To know him is to know everyone in his orbit...That's the essential project of the Center for Community News: to bring people together to ensure that our efforts to build these news-academic partnerships aren't done in isolation."

Hunter Oberst can be reached at 355-8585, or hoberst@keenesentinel.com.