Microsoft picked four communities in America last fall for a pilot project to preserve local newsrooms.

A collaboration between the Yakima Herald-Republic, its Spanish language newspaper, El Sol de Yakima, and Radio KDNA, the initiative launches today. Our goal is to reach new audiences and demonstrate the value of local news as the community seeks solutions to four crucial challenges.

To do that, we’ll utilize technology, training, legal assistance and seed money from Microsoft. The Yakima Valley Community Foundation will administer funding for the program.

As the initiative unfolds, we hope to attract community financial support for local journalism at the Herald-Republic, El Sol and KDNA.

Four projects building throughout the year will incorporate audio, video, data visualization, live events and traditional storytelling formats. Here’s the sequence:

1. Access to health care in the Yakima Valley, first quarter.

Access to health care in the Yakima Valley became more of a challenge after Astria Regional Medical Center closed in January, leaving Yakima with one hospital. The COVID-19 pandemic arrived a couple months later.

Some of the questions we hope to answer:

  • Who goes without health care in the Yakima Valley and why?
  • What are the social and economic costs of inadequate health care access in the Valley?
  • Since early this year, Yakima has had one hospital. Can Yakima Valley Memorial, supplemented by two small rural hospitals run by a nonprofit emerging from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, meet the health care needs of the Yakima Valley?
  • How do clinics and community health centers fit in?

But those questions are just starting points. As the project unfolds, we want to hear from you about the issues you face and the stories we should report.

2. Expansion of The Vanished, second quarter.

The Vanished launched on yakimaherald.com in early 2019 as a place to collect Tammy Ayer’s reporting on missing and murdered Indigenous people. The site serves as a resource center for those who’ve lost family and friends and includes the most comprehensive Central Washington list of missing and murdered women we could assemble.

To make The Vanished more effective and give it greater reach, we’re rebuilding it as a standalone website and expanding our coverage beyond the Yakima Valley. We plan to build a Pacific Northwest case directory, begin a regular podcast and create a library of short videos documenting those who have been lost.

3. Gangs and kids in the Yakima Valley, third quarter.

Gang coverage in Yakima County and elsewhere traditionally focuses on the same three stories — gang hierarchies and the violence they commit, gang territories and gangster profiles.

But since 2019, gang-related shootings have killed at least four teenagers in Yakima and left other children wounded. It’s time to begin talking about gangs and kids.

We need to document the cost of gangs when they disrupt young lives — the cost to schools, the courts, the criminal justice system, the Yakima Valley economy. And even more important, we need to illustrate the harm they do within families.

From there, it’s time to begin reaching out to communities that learned to protect their children from gangs or reclaim them from gang life. Understanding gangs isn’t enough; as a community, we need to develop a plan to protect our children from gang violence.

4. Economic opportunity in the Lower Valley, fourth quarter.

The Lower Yakima Valley is home to the Yakama Nation and many smaller, underserved Hispanic communities. In places, the poverty is breathtaking. But in others, there is a strong entrepreneurial spirit.

Essentially, we need to answer two questions: How bad is Lower Valley poverty and how are entrepreneurs escaping it?

This project will be led by Radio KDNA.

We need your help

This project cannot succeed without your support. We are investigating the challenges you face finding health care, protecting your families and earning a living.

You have experiences to share, and stories to suggest. We will ask for involvement throughout the coming year.

Together, we can make the Yakima Valley a healthier, safer and stronger community.

To make a charitable contribution to the Yakima Valley Community Foundation's Community Journalism Fund, visit the foundation's website and select the Give Today” button. On the sidebar, click on “Find Opportunities.” Enter “journalism” in the word search and the fund will pop up.

Donors can also send checks and stocks directly to the Yakima Valley Community Foundation, said President and CEO Sharon Miracle.

Greg Halling is executive editor of the Yakima Herald-Republic. He welcomes your ideas about the Microsoft journalism initiative. You can reach him at ghalling@yakimaherald.com or 509-577-7703.