Help us define Ground Level

If you’ve been reading this blog you know that MPR News’ Ground Level project is focusing lately on Todd County. But we’re also thinking through what happens after that and who in the long run is the audience and what is the subject matter.

I had coffee at the Stomping Grounds coffee shop in Staples last week with Cheryal Lee Hills, executive director of Region Five Development Commission, to help me think about those questions.

First, who’s the audience for our journalism?

The easy answer is anyone interested in how Minnesota communities try to maintain or revive their vibrancy. At this point, it strikes me that includes two groups.

One is the people on the ground, engaged or getting engaged in what’s happening where they live — people like Jeff Holm, Sue Hix, Jay Swanson, Elaine Phillippi and Elly Rittenour in Baldwin Township who are trying to figure out how to plan better in their 36-square-mile community.

But a second, broader part of our audience is made up by the surprisingly large and not entirely coordinated industry of people and organizations trying to help folks like those in Baldwin Township and Todd County. We’re working with the Bush Foundation and the Initiative Foundation, of course, but there’s a million more out there — other large foundations like Blandin and Wilder, smaller community foundations, non-profits like 1,000 Friends of Minnesota and Minnesota Design Team, the University of Minnesota’s extension operations, governmental entities like Hills’ that do planning for multi-county areas, local governments and more.

Thousands of Minnesotans are engaged in helping people build livable communities, trying to bring out the potential. The web of connections among those people is complex. As Hills told me, sometimes her regional development commission flies at 100,000 feet and offers planning and coordination; at other times it’s on the ground implementing and providing money for specific projects. It all depends on what’s appropriate for the time and the topic, she says.

I’d like to think Ground Level can help in the conversation.

So, second question, what’s the subject matter of Ground Level’s journalism? My answer today (again, thanks to Hills for the metaphor): Anything that helps people who are getting their hands dirty.

That might be literal where a community garden is playing a part in a sustainable food network among farmers and local buyers. But it’s meant to focus on real people on the ground in real places. It doesn’t mean simply saying a committee was formed; it means looking for ways to illuminate, to inform, to enlighten, to show people things they perhaps didn’t know about their communities.

I think that happened in Baldwin Township, where we’ve gotten encouraging feedback from residents figuring out how much they want to do collectively to deal with unplanned growth.

It can happen in Todd County, where residents are wondering how to maintain a sustainable community as the proportion of elderly grows steadily.

In Brainerd, residents are exploring how to take better advantage of their natural setting. In Crosby, residents want a better downtown. In Cook County and elsewhere, people are pushing for greater access to broadband.

In general, we’re interested in any place where people are thinking hard about creating livable, sustainable places to live, tackling the big questions of transportation, energy use, housing, land use, food use — in other words, wherever Minnesotans are taking action to make better places to live.

I’m eager to hear whether this resonates with readers, both those with their hands dirty and those who are trying to help them.

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