Elliott School helps with a Kansas town's image

1:47:41 PM CDT - Friday, February 11, 2005

By Amy Geiszler-Jones

Grey Montgomery, editor of The Daily Union newspaper in Junction City, thinks his hometown is at a crossroads.

That's why, Montgomery said, his family's paper is conducting a civic journalism project with WSU's Elliott School of Communication that asks area residents to help sculpt Junction City's future.

"When I returned in 2002, Junction City was hitting rock bottom," Montgomery said. The 1990s had not been a good decade for the city, located about 100 miles northwest of Wichita, along Interstate 70.
A flood had wiped out about 1,000 of the city's housing units. The Army had pulled out its major Big Red division from nearby Fort Riley, taking about 6,000 to 7,000 troops from the post. The loss was much bigger than just those troops. The community also lost the families and other personnel employed by the Army to help support those troops, and the multiplier effect was that businesses closed and other folks moved away.

The city of 17,000, however, is in a position to grow, Montgomery said. The city has become more aggressive in recruiting other employers, and the Army plans to station a brigade with about 9,300 soldiers at Fort Riley, he recently told a group of Elliott School students who will help with the second phase of the project.

In the first phase, completed last semester, students from Sharon Iorio's communications research class conducted a telephone survey and follow-up focus groups of Junction City residents about Junction City's present and future.

"The students were very engaged in the process," Iorio said. "They took hold of this project and made it their own. They helped write the survey questions and did the calling. They also led the focus groups."

Using the research lab in WSU's Interdisciplinary Communication Research Institute, the 13 students made 2,080 calls to randomly selected phone numbers. The 202 people answered the survey of 28 questions that quizzed residents on a variety of community-life issues.

The questions ranged from the quality of nighttime entertainment to affordable housing to the downtown's vitality to a willingness to pay more taxes to promote economic growth. The focus groups were centered on the themes of image, economic development, planning, education and entertainment.

The results, which were reported in a lengthy series in a Sunday paper in December, indicated that Junction City residents are ready for a change, and 47 percent of the survey participants said they would support higher taxes for that change.

After gauging how residents feel about Junction City's image and its future, The Daily Union is now moving into a more in-depth look at issues. It plans to cover 12 different issues through a series of stories that will run from one to seven days on each issue.

Students in Les Anderson's advanced reporting class are helping research and report those stories. When Montgomery recently visited Anderson's class to talk about the project, Anderson stressed to the students the importance of this project. "You can't half-ass this," he said. "We're doing this for the Junction City paper."

This isn't the first time WSU's Elliott School has engaged in civic journalism projects. Twice in the 1990s it paired up with The Wichita Eagle on elections and political issues.

That track record was one of the reasons The Daily Union chose to work with the school, said Montgomery, a University of Kansas graduate.

"Wichita State had probably the most complete offering available," he said. "Combining the survey and research experience that Dr. Iorio had, with a large journalism program, Wichita State had the experience in doing this, where the other schools (nearby Kansas State University and KU) didn't. The university's past partnerships were very valuable."

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