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NULab Faculty Meg Heckman Addresses the News Desert Crisis

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News Desert U—a working group of journalists including NULab faculty Meg Heckman, Teri Finneman of the University of Kansas, Amanda Bright of the University of Georgia, and Pamela Walck of Duquesne University—formed with the goals of dismantling the “silos between academia and industry” and creating real solutions for the news desert crisis. The news desert crisis refers to communities, either rural or urban, with limited access to credible and comprehensive news and information.

This group of professionals offered an online conference in October, entitled “News Desert U2: Solutions”, that brought together local news experts from around the world to brainstorm solutions for the news desert crisis. During the conference, participants divided into teams for teaching, research and service to address the following questions: How can we better teach students about news deserts and how to solve them? How can we better help the industry with practical research and getting our research to them? How can we better partner with the industry to provide training for reporters/communities? Below is a brief summary of some of the solutions discussed at the conference:


  • Build infrastructure for stronger, more multifaceted collaborations across institutions and with community partners
  • Work across international borders to share best practices related to news desert mapping and community engagement
  • Create columns for state newspaper association newsletters summarizing significant findings in news desert research that would benefit working journalists
  • Facilitate university involvement in improving public policy related to local news


  • Collaborate with other majors (like PR, data science, medical schools and natural science) and build strong connections with local high school programs
  • Create short-term externships for students to do intense news desert work over breaks and craft a curricular model that allows students to work their way through a partnership with a news desert over more than one semester
  • Create a position within a journalism department as a steady presence with a news desert community to maintain institutional memory
  • Facilitate community listening, tours, meet and greets, and surveys to generate specific topics that students should report on to serve news deserts


  • Ask community journalists to serve as guest speakers in college classes rather than relying so heavily on speakers from major publications
  • Identify smaller community papers as equally significant and important places to work throughout the curriculum for journalism courses
  • Start conversations with medical schools and business schools on creating incentives for new graduates to move to small towns

Going forward, the News Desert U group plans to meet quarterly and continue its work to find solutions to the news desert crisis. The group also offered funding opportunities to conference attendees who were interested in tackling initiatives, resulting in at least four projects planned to be implemented in 2024.

You can read the full report of the conference here. 

You can read the full story on E&P here.

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