At Keene's 'Radically Rural' Summit, A Focus On Fake News

Sep 27, 2018

Today is the first day of the Radically Rural Summit in Keene, which will bring together hundreds of people working on a variety of issues in rural communities. The two-day summit will take place in venues throughout downtown Keene. One focus of the conference is the impact of "fake news" on rural America, with three sessions on local journalism. The Keene Sentinel is co-hosting the event. The newspaper’s executive editor Paul Miller spoke with NHPR’s Peter Biello about the conference and efforts in the newsroom to build trust with the community.

[This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.]

How has "fake news" affected your newsroom?

That's a good question. I think if nothing else it's turned our radar on and it's caused us to get back to the focus of trying to be better than we have been. I think for a long time we've taken a lot of things for granted. We're getting back to some of our core roots. We sweat the small stuff because, at the end of the day, we don't want to give anybody any reason to think that we're involved in any of this fake news culture out there, or that we don't take this seriously.

That means really focusing on making sure that we're telling both sides of a story and maybe holding those stories or not publishing those stories until we've fulfilled that responsibility. It's caused us to fact check a whole lot more than we were, even though it’s built into our processes here. Now we're double and triple fact checking, we’re fact checking letters to the editor. We didn't used to take a lot of time to do that unless there were some real red flags that went up.

When your news organization gets accusations of inappropriate bias in e-mails or on Facebook how do you go about responding to those?

Most of that comes through in our Facebook feed. Three or four years ago we moved all of our reader comments to Facebook because it removes the anonymity of it. It led to a more friendly and a more civil discourse. And we're not afraid to engage our commenters and our readers who comment there, although some of it is, I think that's a place where people can really come at us.

Are you doing anything in your newsroom to combat the distrust that some in your community might feel?

We’re being more open. This is about building connections. It's about building loyalty. The extent to which we engage our community and our readership is important in that regard now. We're involved in a lot of events.

For example, Friday morning, as part of this Radically Rural symposium that we're doing, we're going to have an interactive two hours with the community in which we'll walk them through, in real time, a page one meeting. We're going to go over a story budget. We'll get to design what their version of what page one will look like. We'll print it out. We'll come back here and watch the presses run and see what our people did. Bringing them into the fold, being very open about what we do, I think that matters.

Are our local publications like The Sentinel perceived to be more or less trustworthy than, say, national publications like The Washington Post or The New York Times?

Oh I think absolutely. I know that the Poynter Institute released a new study fairly recently that talked about how approval or interest in local media is up, almost to historic levels like back in 1976 when other organizations were measuring that. I think that's just because we're closer, there's an intimacy with the local news versus the mainstream media. It's all about experience and people that we serve, our readers have been around for a long time. Our newspaper is the fifth oldest continuously published newspaper in the country, so we have a lot of deep roots with them and they have with us as well. 

What do you hope people who attend your session on fake news come away with? What do you hope they understand about local journalism in rural communities after that panel?

I think part of it is that it's a chance for us to prop up our industry a little bit and remind them, because I think what we're dealing with here is a perception of something not being quite right or a perception that bias exists. If somebody has that concern we want to hear from them and we want to know why they're feeling that way or seeing something like that.

We want to remind people that what we do is real and it's grounded and it's based on fact and it's based on sourcing. Those are important qualities. We don't always get it right, but we're human, we’re honest. And we want to be open to scrutiny. That's part of it, that's part of the exchange. We learn from our readers all the time. They hold us accountable.