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July 24, 2017, 9:32 a.m.
Business Models

Wyoming regional media nonprofit WyoFile has been diving deep into local news for almost ten years

“Wyoming is a microcosm of a lot of what is happening in America today. It represents a subset of American society that I think we’ve learned you can only ignore at your own risk.”

As the saying goes in Wyoming, the state is “a small town with very long streets,” according to Matthew Copeland, a longtime Wyoming resident and freelancer who recently assumed the post of chief executive and editor at digital news outlet WyoFile.

The state’s small-town nature contributes to the success of a news organization like WyoFile, a statewide local news nonprofit that dives into stories like infant mortality on the Native American reservations in Wyoming, the impact of immigrants on the state’s economy, and investigations into the developers of a $10 million Department of Energy federal stimulus project, who were later hit with criminal charges by the U.S. Department of Justice.

“Our aim is to create a more informed and engaged public that is passionate about the people, places, and public of Wyoming,” Copeland said.

Frequently supported by the Knight Foundation and also by big Wyoming donors, WyoFile shares its content for free with state and regional media.

“There are a lot of loyal readers of the Sheridan Press, the Laramie Boomerang, the Green River Star,” Copeland said, naming some local towns’ papers. “Those are trusted voices and critical outlets. We can help inform those communities and engage those communities and provide a level of depth and insight they wouldn’t otherwise get.”

WyoFile was launched almost ten years ago by a group of veteran Wyoming journalists funded by businessman Christopher Findlater to provide more in-depth coverage of issues on an online platform for Wyoming, by Wyomingites. In 2009, WyoFile — a play on words describing someone who loves or admires the state of Wyoming, according to its website — switched to nonprofit status.

Rone Tempest, the former Los Angeles Times bureau chief in New Delhi, Beiing, and Paris, served as the site’s first longtime editor and was succeeded by Dustin Bleizeffer, who recently completed a Knight Journalism Fellowship at Stanford University.

Now Copeland is leading a team of three full-time editorial staff (there are also several dedicated freelancers, as well as folks in operations and layout/copy editing) into the next chapter for WyoFile. As national news organizations largely based on the coasts turn their attention toward “Middle America” — some even planning nationwide bus trips — Wyoming is catching some journalists’ eye. Copeland, who says the state “represents a subset of American society that I think we’ve learned you can only ignore at your own risk,” welcomes the attention.

“I think there’s a lot more room for collaboration,” he said. He encourages national reporters to “come in and talk with the editors of a local paper or the journalists on the ground, figuring out how you can learn from each other [about the local issues]…but also how we can serve both missions by getting journalism into as many hands of folks as possible.”

The cautionary tale of understanding a community versus swooping into a story has been reinforced by WyoFile’s coverage of the area’s Native American reservations, including a five-part series about early childhood healthcare. In 2013, WyoFile even ran an article about the impact of national coverage misrepresenting life on reservations.

The reservation “is not a community you’re going to parachute into and learn any substance of overnight,” Copeland said. “There’s a great deal of well-earned suspicion of journalism outlets and institutions of authority in general, but more importantly, they’re very complex issues.” He said this speaks to WyoFile’s larger mission: “to get beyond the simple digestible explanations and into what is actually going on and what are the forces.”

However, missions need money to work. WyoFile seems to have found a viable operational model. The team identified three viable revenue streams, with funding split almost equally among them: foundation support, managed donor support/large gifts, and annual support/smaller gifts. The nonprofit also tried to launch an underwriting campaign and lists some supporters on its website such as Outlaw Inn in southwestern Wyoming, Wyoming Medical Center, and the Wyoming Humanities Council, though Copeland said the campaign has not been as successful as their other revenue branches.

The Knight Foundation has been a consistent supporter of WyoFile (disclosure: Knight is also a supporter of Nieman Lab), as have local foundations. In 2010, WyoFile was sponsored by the Lander Community Foundation in Lander, Wyoming, to win a Knight Foundation Community Information Challenge Grant. Two years later, WyoFile partnered with the Wyoming Community Foundation in conjunction with another Knight Foundation Community Information Challenge Grant. Most recently, Knight included the organization in a $1.5 million matching grant with 56 other nonprofit news groups ending in January 2017.

The local foundational support is a reliable anchor, Copeland said.

“The foundation piece of the pie is actually a pretty sizable philanthropic community, more so than I think folks would anticipate,” Copeland said. “Certainly our most reliable sources over the years have come local.”

As the site deepen its Wyoming ties, it’s also looking to expand their national networks.

“We are always engaged in the work of trying to figure out how we can adapt our content in a way that is the most effective for the most number of people. By adapt our content, I don’t mean change the core of it. At our heart we will always be fact-based, in-depth journalism; that part is nonnegotiable,” Copeland said. “But how you present that product can and necessarily needs to adapt as folks consume information differently. Part of that is technical; a big part of that is human. That’s always been a part of WyoFile’s history. That will be more of an emphasis going forward, for sure.”

Image of a 1988 auction at a ranch in western Wyoming by Angus M. Thuermer Jr. of Jackson Hole News/WyoFile used with written permission of WyoFile.

POSTED     July 24, 2017, 9:32 a.m.
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