The economic decline forced the local paper, the Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune, to reduce local coverage in its print edition. Still, residents wanted to find ways to stay up to date with news and information — especially as it relates to economic recovery.
Incourage chief executive officer Kelly Ryan said residents turned to her foundation for solutions and, more specifically, jobs. “The heart of our work is helping residents of this community take responsibility of their own future,” Ryan said, adding that the community must be informed in order to assume that responsibility.
In 2008, Incourage applied for the Knight Community Information Challenge sponsored by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The challenge rewards projects that help fill community information needs, foster community engagement, and help residents participate in the creation and sharing of news and information. Incourage was among the winners selected out of 123 applicants that year. Ryan said the $240,000 grant was spread out over three years, and the amount was matched by Incourage.
Initially, Incourage proposed using the grant money to create an online news site, but Incourage board chair and former Daily Tribune publisher Helen Jungwirth said after attending a Knight media seminar, the group began to question how many people would be even able to receive digital access. They went back to their community and, with the support of MIT’s Center for Civic Media, conducted a series of focus groups and distributed a survey to learn how residents obtained their information. More than 800 people participated.
“It was the right pivot for them,” said Mayur Patel, vice president for strategy and assessment at Knight Foundation. “They chose to spend time understanding the needs of their community and to build access and skills through public dialogue.”
Liz Everson is responsible for Incourage’s knowledge and information management, and she said she was surprised at the extent of the digital divide revealed in the surveys. For example, nearly 55 percent of low income residents between the ages of 18 and 24 did not have a home computer.
Through the focus groups, Incourage saw that Wood County residents take an active interest in solving community problems and finding accurate, relevant information in their decision making. In the city’s recent mayor race, Everson said more residents attended the public forums. “Folks believe in themselves,” she said. “They’re taking power and doing something with it.”
Instead of just creating an online news site, Incourage has partnered with local schools, libraries, and technical colleges to bring digital literacy to residents, including 6,000 school children who now have free access to computers and the Internet. Incourage has also integrated information gathering skills into its workforce training initiative by launching a new information platform called What’s Up. Designed by the MIT Media Lab, What’s Up aggregates news from local calendars about events, job training, and community services, and makes the information available through multiple channels including online postings and text messages.
Last fall, Incourage purchased the old Daily Tribune building from Gannett using funds designated for community improvement. The 20,000-square-foot building was built in 1960 and sits along the riverfront in downtown Wisconsin Rapids. Ryan said she wants to see residents help determine the future use of the building through community planning meetings. Public tours are also planned, with Jungwirth as guide. Ryan said she would like to see a business plan in place in a year for the building and to move forward with that implementation.
In its four year journey from winning the grant to discovering what the community really needs, Ryan said, “At the end of the day, it’s all about the people who live there.”
The foundation will continue to invest in workforce training and make new information resources available. Jungwirth said that true community work is about listening to the residents. “To know what’s best for your community, you have to ask them.”