Last week, Oklahoma Media Center released a groundbreaking academic study sharing research findings on how Oklahomans consume news in rural news deserts and underserved metro communities in the state. Rob Collins, executive director of OMC, answered questions about the study and the upcoming training and grant phase.

How long have you been with Oklahoma Media Center?

I began collaborating with OMC as a regional editor when the Local Media Foundation and the Oklahoma-based Inasmuch Foundation launched our statewide collaborative in 2020. Jim Brady started running OMC as a consultant (before joining Knight Foundation as vice president/journalism), and I was hired as project manager in January 2021 to help the industry I love in another way. Now OMC is an independent 501(c)(3). OMC’s board of directors changed my title to executive director this year, and we just hired Zachary McGrew to help as program coordinator.

Tell us how this project came about

Dick Pryor, general manager of KGOU Radio at the University of Oklahoma, suggested OMC was uniquely positioned as a nonprofit to encourage improved awareness and active citizenship that is fact-based and solution-centered. This project was a unanimous decision for our collaborative. Our strategic planning process supported by Democracy Fund earmarked this multiphase ecosystem engagement project for this year. Our funding partners at the Kirkpatrick Foundation wanted scientific polling, and OMC’s board encouraged partnering with academic research. Trusting News was the obvious choice to contract for training, and Inasmuch wanted to support the Ecosystem Engagement Fund for our newsrooms, which are all understaffed and need more revenue.

Why is work like this important in Oklahoma?

When I travel for conferences, I feel like we have two Americas: rural and urban, and there’s a great divide between the two. A lot of people want to know more about rural America, and my grandparents were wheat farmers, so Okies totally understand that cultural disconnect with blue states. The industry struggles are similar in every statewide ecosystem study of each media landscape, but this project takes a baseline of scientific polling from CHS & Associates and builds qualitative academic research from Rosemary Avance and Allyson Shortle with interviews, focus groups and open-ended surveys of news deserts and underserved metro communities statewide. This hasn’t been done before, and we think it’s scalable in other states.

What are you looking forward to most in the training and project phase?

Joy Mayer is a national expert as Trusting News director and founder, and she’s drawing a packed training Sept. 22 at Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication on the OU campus. We’re thrilled to help Oklahoma newsrooms execute data-driven projects under their guidance. We’re using real data to inform this training and pinpoint actionable items that we can measure for impact. We really want to move the needle on trust and financial support of local news.

Where has trust come up in your conversations with newsrooms in the past 2 years?

Trust in the media is near an all-time low. We have great journalism, but many citizens do not read, believe or trust the media. Social media exacerbates our nation’s shortcomings in civic literacy to the detriment of our democracy. And we need to recognize there is distrust in many established institutions — it is a larger societal issue vs. just a media issue. However, media partners must play a role in creating an environment that leads to civic-minded decency, community, effective communication and a healthy, functioning democracy. And part of that is explaining the importance of an independent, watchdog press as a public good.

How would you describe the state of media in Oklahoma? What are some challenges and what are some bright spots?

One of the biggest challenges for the future is staffing. When it comes to well-trained journalists with experience covering public policy, our bench of up-and-coming talent is dwindling. It used to be difficult to fill journalism positions more in smaller communities, and now it’s a serious challenge for larger metro publications as well. On the bright side, the state of media in Oklahoma is growing collaboratively with shared values and building trust within an industry traditionally taught to merely beat and scoop each other. As we shed antiquated thinking, we’re learning the value of partnering and expanding the scope of our audience to reach citizens with relevance where they are living rather than assuming they are coming to us.

What is your advice for other collaboratives or statewide groups looking to do a project like this?

Find a low-ego coalition of willing participants with shared expectations and values for the greater good. Speak far and wide to potential stakeholders and thought partners about the project through networking and communicate those conversations throughout the group, and don’t forget to listen. Get recommendations for reputable in-state polling. Do your homework to find respected academic allies with the passion and bandwidth to research in this endeavor. Target supportive funders sharing this interest for research and engaging with audiences to bridge the divide. If this can be accomplished in a deep red state like Oklahoma, it can be done anywhere.