November 3, 2017

In February 1942, The Atlantic published an essay by Arthur Morgan, a civil engineer and educator who had previously served as the first chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority. Morgan argued that all Americans should care about the future of struggling small towns, which he said had become “orphan[s] in an unfriendly world … despised, neglected, exploited, and robbed.”

I first learned about Morgan’s essay on The Rural Blog, which highlighted Brian Alexander’s homage to Morgan in a “featured post,” noting that it was a “fascinating read worth your time.” It was, and I’ve found that to be a consistent theme with the topics and issues that Rural Journalism posts about on a daily basis: The curated collection of stories by and about rural America, from mainly journalists who live and work in small communities, has been worth my time.

The Rural Blog turned 10 earlier this year, and I wanted to find out what Al Cross — who directs the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues — thought about the changing media landscape, rural coverage since the election, and how he manages to stay on top of seemingly hundreds of stories on a daily basis. Our conversation is below.

You and Heather Chapman post the most interesting articles from outside of major metropolitan areas, and I always find myself learning something new. I'm curious about your daily news diet. What do you read on a daily basis to stay up on top of rural America, which is a huge topic?

We have a long list of sources: Major newspapers, political newsletters, daily alerts from interest groups and other sources, trade journals, journalistic aggregators, newspaper associations, and, of course, a Google alert for “rural” (which is U.S.-only; otherwise we’d get a lot of stuff from other countries, where “rural” is a term used more widely).

How do you both select the articles that you place on your blog and in your newsletter? I imagine there are lots of stories that can be included.

Our watch-phrase is “rural resonance,” something that could have relevance beyond a locality, coupled with news judgment about importance, avoidance of incrementalism, etc. We also like to highlight good rural journalism, and sometimes the pure entertainment value gets something on the blog.

After the election, I read several very good pieces — here's one — about the need for journalists spread out across America, but over the past decade, journalism has been hit hard by cuts (and those cuts have hit rural areas the hardest.) What changes have you noticed in the ways national and local journalists cover — or talk about rural journalism — since the election?

That could be an article in itself. I think on election night some smart journalists at major media outlets realized they hadn’t spent enough time in rural precincts. Here’s an excerpt from a chapter I wrote, “Trump and Rural America,” for a book to be published by Routledge early next year, "The Trump Presidency, Journalism and Democracy:"

After the election, some major news organizations realized they had missed what was going on in rural and small-town America. They didn’t pay enough attention to rural areas, Todd said, and “We have a trust problem in rural America.” (Mullin, 2017) Todd also said major news outlets downplayed Clinton’s rural unpopularity to avoid appearing sexist: “What we all knew as reporters, and didn’t fully deliver, was how hated the Clintons were in the heartland. … If we sort of were straight-up honest and blunt about, 'Hey, do we understand the level of hatred that’s out there?' and you know, all the 'Hillary for Prison' signs that are out there, we certainly would have at least made the viewer know, ‘Hey, you know, she’s not well-liked in some places in this country in ways that’s times 10 when it comes to Trump.’” (NBC podcast)

In reaction to the election result and feelings that they had missed something, some major news outlets responded. The New York Times moved some national reporters around to better grasp the people and factors that elected Trump. The Reuters wire service named Los Angeles correspondent Tim Reid a political correspondent covering the Midwest and Southeast. The Washington Post started “About US,” news and commentary about the nation’s changing demographics. The Post and NPR each named beat reporters to explore the rural-urban divide.

And what of rural news media? Soon after Trump took office, Civitas Media, which owns dozens of weeklies and small dailies, placed a button on its papers’ sites to display his tweets and news about him. “It wasn’t an endorsement of Trump; it’s just that Trump communicates so much by tweet,” said Gary Abernathy, whose Ohio paper was owned by Civitas at the time. He said the idea came from an information-technology professional at company headquarters.

What's missing in the national news coverage about rural areas?

The Times and Post have done a good job getting beyond the superficialities, and The Wall Street Journal has done some excellent work with data, but there’s just not enough rural coverage. And national news outlets aren’t the biggest problem when it comes to rural news; it’s the hollowing out of regional dailies that once tried to cover entire states but have been forced to cut that out so they can take care of their home bases, where their economic bread is buttered. At the Institute, we try to help smaller papers fill that gap, but the lower you go on the circulation list, the fewer the resources.

Who is doing it well, and what stories are really resonating with you these days?

The WSJ’s use of data to show that America’s breadbasket had become its basket case, resembling the problems of urban America 30 years ago, is probably the best overall take in the last year. Paul Overberg, who once did data journalism for USA Today, was the key to that, I think.

A recent report from UNC states that more than a third of the country's newspapers have changed ownership since 2004. As jobs and ownership shift, what have you noticed has changed in the types of stories that rural news outlets cover?

I’m familiar with Penny Abernathy’s work, which is very important, but neither of us have taken a qualitative look at content. My curbstone opinion is that fewer big stories are getting done simply because there are fewer reporters and editors. One chain I know wants to spend no more than 32 percent of its revenue on payroll, and one paper it recently bought was spending 42 percent, so there was a huge drop in resources there, and there’s no reason to believe it’s not happening elsewhere. Even the country weeklies, which have a local-news franchise that is rarely invaded by any meaningful competitors (radio or online; no TV stations in such places), are still in competition with every other source of information for the time of readers. People in such places increasingly commute to jobs in urban areas, and our research in two very rural Kentucky counties showed that the longer the commute, the less likely the person is to be a regular reader of the newspaper in the county where they live.

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Mel leads audience growth and development for the Wikimedia Foundation and frequently works with journalism organizations on projects related to audience development, engagement, and analytics.…
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