Flatwater Forum: The future of Nebraska news

Four leaders in novel Nebraska newsrooms gathered before a group of 100 attendees Wednesday to talk about the next phase of journalism in the state.

The event, sponsored by Humanities Nebraska and Nebraska Cultural Endowment, took place at the Ashton building in the Millwork Commons neighborhood in North downtown. 

The in-person panel was joined remotely by two leaders of national efforts to build and sustain journalism.

The speakers were:

Myles Davis. Executive Director, NOISE (North Omaha Information Support Everyone).  North Omaha Information Support Everyone is a Black-led news organization developed to address the information gap within North Omaha. NOISE is a multimedia platform prioritizing web and social media while supporting coverage with radio, print, SMS alerts, and events to make news more accessible. Growing up in North Omaha, NOISE Executive Director Myles A. Davis has strong connections within the North O community. Being able to share information that empowers and strengthens Black Nebraskans is a privilege that he holds dear. With over five years of digital marketing experience and networking skills, Myles has guided NOISE in making meaningful and lasting connections with it’s readership and community partners.

Holly Edgell, managing editor of NPR’s Midwest Newsroom. Edgell leads NPR’s regional hub that creates greater capacity for local, in-depth and investigative news reporting at Nebraska Public Media, in partnership with Iowa Public Radio, St. Louis Public Radio and KCUR 89.3, the NPR radio station in Kansas City which is the home station for the partnership. Prior to joining NPR’s Midwest Newsroom, Edgell was project manager and assistant editor for Side Effects Public Media and WFYI in Indianapolis, Ind. She supported health and education community engagement efforts and acted as supervising producer for the popular podcast, “Sick.” She also served as editor for the Sharing America, a public radio project covering the intersection of race, identity and culture.

Jim Friedlich, Executive Director and CEO of the Lenfest Institute. Jim oversees the Lenfest Institute, a nonprofit organization that invests in innovative news initiatives, new technology, and new models for sustainable journalism, in addition to owning the Philadelphia Inquirer. Mr. Friedlich served previously as CEO of Empirical Media Advisors, a consulting firm focused on the digital transformation of major news organizations. Friedlich managed the global advertising sales, consumer marketing and business development of a The Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones & Company. He served on the Board of Directors of CNBC International, as well as joint ventures with Nikkei, Handlesblatt, and The Financial Times.  

Lisa Heyamoto, Director of Teaching and Learning, LION Publishers. Lisa Heyamoto oversees LION’s Google News Initiative Startups Lab, which helps news businesses work toward sustainability. She was previously a reporter at The Seattle Times and The Sacramento Bee, and has been a longtime journalism educator at the University of Oregon. She also co-founded The 32 Percent Project, which explores what drives and disrupts trust in the news media. Lisa is based in Eugene, Oregon.

Patrick Janssen, News Director, News Channel Nebraska/Flood Communications. Janssen leads news coverage for News Channel Nebraska, which includes eight radio stations and two TV stations that broadcast across the state. News Channel Nebraska is one of a handful of outlets in the country that directly competes with the major broadcast news corporations. Janssen is a Nebraska native who started in radio, first as the sports and news director at KTCH in Wayne. From 2007 to 2020, he worked in broadcast media, media relations and the entertainment industry on both the east and west coast. He came back to Nebraska in 2020 to work as the digital director for News Channel Nebraska, getting bumped up to news director in 2021.

Matt Wynn, Executive Director, Nebraska Journalism Trust. Matt Wynn is the Executive Director of the Nebraska Journalism Trust, which launched and funds the Flatwater Free Press. Most recently, he was an editor on the investigative desk at USA Today, where his investigation into the proliferation of model bills in statehouses was awarded the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting. Prior to that, he was the Director of Investigative and Enterprise at MedPage Today. He also spent time as a reporter at the Omaha World-Herald and other newspapers.

Moderated by Matthew Hansen. Matthew Hansen is the editor of the Flatwater Free Press, Nebraska’s first statewide nonprofit news source. Hansen, a 16-year veteran of Nebraska newspapers, has previously worked as a reporter at the Lincoln Journal Star and then a reporter and metro columnist at the Omaha World-Herald. During his time in newspapers, he travelled to Cuba and Afghanistan and won multiple state, regional and national awards for investigative stories, feature stories and columns. He was the 2015 Great Plains Writer of the Year. Most recently Hansen has served as the managing editor at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute, creating a new website focusing on early childhood education. 

Highlights of the hour-long conversation

INTRODUCTION: Not a single organization present existed 20 years ago, Hansen pointed out  — when the state had twice as many working journalists. Since the Flatwater Free Press started planning the event in November, two more news organizations have launched: The Nebraska Examiner and Nebraska Sunrise News.

Friedlich talked about the work of the organizations present, highlighting that they tackle different angles and serve different audiences. “You’re playing an extraordinarily strong hand…you have a great ecosystem, you have great people.”

Heyamoto drew parallels between the energy in Nebraska and the role of LION. 

The organization’s goal, she said, is not to replace what was, but to support the next chapter of news.

“That’s what you’re doing here in Nebraska, you’re building that ecosystem. The evidence of that is in this room, today.”

On distributing content for free

Edgell talked about NPR Midwest’s recent piece on “quiet title” actions, which allow people to questionably lay claim to property rights.

Like many new newsrooms, they distributed the story at no cost to media partners across their four-state coverage area in English and Spanish.

All told, she said, 15 publications ran the piece. 

The story was shared on Twitter by major national news organizations, she said, increasing awareness beyond their member newsrooms.

“To me, this is the way that we survive,” she said. “Ultimately, until somebody tells me stop sharing all this content, I’m not going to.”

On representing groups that have been ignored

The first time Hansen took notice of NOISE was during the protests after the murder of Goerge Floyd.

“You guys were there. You were at the protests,” he said, before asking how the role of NOISE differs from that of legacy media organizations.

Davis said that, during NOISE’s coverage of those protests, they looked back at coverage of Will Brown and other historical atrocities.

Historically, journalism didn’t represent black and brown people. The stories reflect that, and paint a misleading and troubling view of those monumental events. 

“All of our reporting was based off of being historically correct and accurate, but also painting a picture of how people wer feeling in the moment… not just giving such a biased view of what was going on,” he said.

On clickbait

Not having to rely on clicks is different from ignoring them, Edgell said. Her team still focuses on headlines with solid search engine optimization and keywords, but the work itself has to be meaningful.

Janssen said the idea of crime stories as clickbait is different in a small town than a big city. In a small town, he said, everyone knows the three children who were hurt in a house fire. That sort of coverage isn’t something to be looked down upon, and is a major part of News Channel Nebraska’s mission.

Flatwater, meanwhile, was built to escape clicks as a metric altogether. By giving content away, the organization limits the journalistic desire to measure success based on mere size of audience.

Davis talked about a recent NOISE story about a dangerous intersection. The story wasn’t popular, he said. But it was important.

A salacious headline like “Who else has to die?” might have gotten better engagement. But it’s not worth it, he said. 

Instead, NOISE uses design to draw readers in.

On standing out in a crowded market

An audience member compared the current media landscape to the old days of a few newspapers and a handful of TV stations. How, in these circumstances, can organizations make their stories “shine?”

News Channel Nebraska achieves that by focusing on places that aren’t covered. Small towns and, in the case of Telemundo, the state’s Spanish speaking population, don’t often have journalism done on their behalf, Janssen said. 

Edgell said her team focuses on the conversation around their work, involving audiences in new ways around the high-quality work they produce.

“You find what you’re really good at, and you do it really well,” she said. “And then you engage.”

Davis said he brings his public relations, social media background to bear. 

“When I think about it (social media) for small businesses, it’s the same way I think of it for our newsroom. How do we build connections?” he said.

Wynn said Flatwater is built with exactly that in mind. By doing a few, in-depth stories, the organization can focus on distributing them to the broadest audience possible.

“Our way is to do less,” he said. “I spent 15 years doing more than less. We just do less… and then make that thing as shiny as we can.”

Watch the whole forum below

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