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Nonprofits paying reporters

It's a new news game.

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There's a growing body of news about news, and much of it is bad. Large questions are raised about how much and what sort of news media will survive here in the age of the Internet. Newspaper folks feel a chill.

Under the circumstances, it is surely good news that certain nonprofit groups have been paying for certain local Arkansas newspapers to hire additional local reporters. Arkansans need to know what's going on in their own backyards, and the information isn't available on Yahoo. But it's bad news that the program ends next month, and the once-struggling papers will return to the struggle.

The Arkansas Community Foundation is a 35-year-old nonprofit group headquartered in Little Rock. A couple of years ago, ARCF was approached by a national non-profit, the Knight Foundation, about ways to help local papers. The Knight Foundation is a spinoff of the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain. ARCF enlisted the help of the Arkansas Press Association in providing reporters for local papers. "They were very excited," Sarah Kinser, communication director for ARCF, says. "They said we could really make an impact on the reporting of local news." The idea was similar to that of the national Teach for America program.

ARCF received a two-year $252,000 grant from the Knight Foundation, and matched that with $252,000 of its own, contributed by supporters. Five reporters were hired: Richard Irby in Salem for Areawide Media, which publishes weekly newspapers in Sharp, Fulton and Izard Counties; Sarah Morris at the Stuttgart Daily Leader; Eric Nicholson at the Texarkana Gazette; Matt Shelnutt at the Madison County Record; and Heather Sprinkle at The Courier in Russellville. They produced stories on an animal-cruelty case that drew national volunteers to North Arkansas; on De Queen's becoming a majority-Hispanic city; on lifelong friends who get together to clean up local cemeteries.

But the grant money is running out. Two of the five reporters, Irby and Shellnutt, will continue at their respective papers under different financial arrangements, both having been promoted to editor. Kinser said she believed that arrangements had been made also for Morris and Sprinkle to continue reporting at their papers. Nicholson is going to Dallas, as a blogger for the Morning News.

Kinser said ARCF was keeping its eyes open for new funds for a local-reporter project. "We know how to do it now," she said.

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