GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Allison Donahue spent years working as an investigative reporter and state capitol reporter, only occasionally venturing out to cover a community story. But it was those local articles that she saw the most impact.
“I could see how it made people feel to have local news being deeply reported and their issues that they experience every day being reflected and that was always important to me,” Donahue said.
That desire to not only cover but deliver quality, local journalism led her to work with the Grand Rapids Community Media Center and become the new program manager of The Rapidian. The hyperlocal news service has been relaunched in the city. It began in 2009 but took a step back after suffering cutbacks to its funding and staff in 2019.
Now some four years later and with the backing of the GRCMC, The Rapidian is back to doing what it set out to do 14 years ago: Keep local news local. The news service’s content is completely done by Grand Rapidians and those living in the metro area.
“And we’re focused really on providing a platform for community members to tell their own stories, stories that reflect actual communities and what goes on in their communities,” Donahue said. “We’ve heard from folks that they feel left out of the mainstream news media and local media. And we want to give them a platform to fill that void and share their story the way they feel is reflective of themselves.”
The Rapidian is a part of a national program called The Documenters Network, which provides tools and training to citizens in order for them to understand and report on activities in their neighborhoods. Some of the training courses include how to take notes in a public meeting, how to fill out a Freedom of Information request and how to write news articles.
“Just really giving people the tools for what they feel like they need to learn. It’s really like the Journalism 101 but if they want to go deeper we can set that up,” Donahue said. “But it’s really based on the feedback we’re hearing, mostly from documenters right now on what they need.”
She also said that The Rapidian has already added 35 documenters to the system and 20 of them have already sat down in local government meetings.
And while The Rapidian is building its staff and committing to providing local journalism alongside other outlets in the city, Donahue said that the news service isn’t competing with anyone, but rather hoping for collaboration.
“Having documenters and having partnerships between news organizations where documenters can help fill in those areas and cover meetings will really help support all local news and I think that’s really important to me,” she said. “I have so many friends in Grand Rapids who are journalists that I want to help make their jobs easier and help create a better news product all around for Grand Rapidians.”
The courses are designed to bring in more and more documenters but they are also available to those who are interested in journalism or just want to get some media literacy experience.
“You can definitely just be a part of our community and meet other people who want to be more civically engaged,” Donahue said. “I would say that’s really a big part our mission, is just getting people interested in local politics, in local government.”
As of now, The Rapidian has enough funding for the next three years, courtesy of the GRCMC. Donahue said that the next step would be securing funding from philanthropic sources who find the local journalism and community as important as she does. Other communities have already reached out to her about setting up their own version of the Documenters Network in their area.
“In my head sometimes I’m like, ‘Am I just, like, too much of a fan for community building, like are other people really in this same mindset?’ But then I have these conversations and I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, we all kind of want a return to community and kind of slow things down a little bit,'” she said.
The Rapidian is holding its final orientation meeting of the year on Dec. 5 where citizens can get initiated into the network and begin collaborating with the news service. You can sign up for The Rapidian’s newsletter on the GRCMC website.