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March 22, 2017, 12:45 p.m.
Audience & Social

From coal to broadband to Trump’s budget, The Daily Yonder reports on rural life for the people actually living it

“Rural is like good art — you know it when you see it.”

Donald Trump’s unveiling of his budget blueprint last week — and the ensuing analysis and criticism — was probably the first many urban readers had heard of the Appalachian Regional Commission, one of the initiatives he proposes cutting completely.

But The Daily Yonder has been reporting on these issues for a long time. The urban-rural divide has been one of the biggest points of discussion following the election, in which rural voters overwhelmingly chose Donald Trump. And while large news organizations have pledged to pay more attention to that division — at the beginning of the year, The Washington Post assigned a reporter to the divide specifically — the Yonder focuses on the people who have a connection to rural communities because they live in them, used to live in them, or work in them, by reporting on specific issues in depth. A sampling of recent stories: “Trump’s Slow Start on Ag Policy Reignites the Fight Over Meat-Packing Rules,” “Two Examples of Bringing Affordable Broadband to Rural Markets,” and a review of a new documentary on dairy farming.

The Daily Yonder was founded in 2007 by Bill Bishop, author of the prescient 2008 book The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart, and his wife Julie Ardery. It’s run out of the Center for Rural Strategies, a nonprofit based in Whitesburg, Kentucky and Knoxville, Tennessee, that does communications work around rural policy and helps rural advocates with media work. Bishop is now a contributing editor, and Tim Marema, a VP at the center, is the editor of The Daily Yonder. The site’s only other full-time staff member is assistant editor Shawn Poynter. Most of the content the site runs is written by freelancers, “paid and volunteer.”

“We’ve been trying for a long time to get rural America in the news,” said Marema, a native Kentuckian. “We weren’t expecting that it would be quite like this” — meaning the renewed attention rural areas have received through the election and the Trump administration. But he sees this as a moment when many of the issues that small communities are facing may finally reach a broader audience. “There are lots of things within rural America that are national news stories or that relate to national or international news,” he said.

Marema and I talked about what “rural” really means, the election, and whether it’s viable for big newspapers to hire more rural correspondents, among many other topics. Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.

Laura Hazard Owen: How do you define “rural”?

Tim Marema: How much time do you have?

The first definition for us is cultural: that small towns and rural areas are distinct in certain ways, and each place is different, but they have some things in common with each other around the United States, whether you’re talking about Appalachia or the colonias or Northern California. It’s about population density. It’s about the difference in public services, which are usually much less available. It’s about the scale of the community and how well people can get to know each other. And it’s about local culture, local stories. From that standpoint, rural is like good art — you know it when you see it. We think that there are a lot of people who may be in a suburban setting but grew up rural, or the city has grown up around them, and they have a rural culture internally.

Rural and urban are completely interdependent; how urban America does directly affects rural America. I think the opposite is also true, though not always as well understood, that when rural communities do well, cities do better, too. There’s an interrelationship and a back-and-forth.

Owen: When you talk about culture, what do you think some of the key aspects of that culture are, and how do they differ from urban culture?

Marema: I would never make the claim that one place is any better or worse than any other from a cultural standpoint. The great thing about America is that there are differences and we can all benefit from each other.

The first thing that makes rural distinct is the scale of the population. It’s possible to know everybody who lives in your town. It’s possible to have three generations of kids go through the same school and be taught by the same teacher. It’s possible to go to church with the guy who fixes your teeth and the mechanic and the mayor. There are multiple layers of interconnection — and those same things happen in a big city, but if you randomly take 150 people out on Park Avenue and see whether you know them or not, the odds are going to be low.

If I do that in my town of 1,200, though, I’m going to know half those people at least. Knowing people personally makes human interaction different, in my opinion. In good rural communities, people have a shared sense of identity, a shared sense of history, and frequently a sort of “let’s not worry about who’s doing it, let’s just get this done” kind of attitude.

That is facilitated by the relationships that I referred to. There are fewer organizations, generally. A rural area is less likely to start a new group for each issue that arises; there are more general-purpose organizations that might work on a lot of different issues, from education to stream cleanup to a public park project.

Churches tend to be more important as community institutions. In some communities, the church is the only formal institution, and so it takes on a larger role in community activities and services. And in most rural areas, there’s a traditional culture that’s passed on in some form. You’ll see that in the Delta, Appalachia, Indian Country, the Southwest, and Minnesota. The farming identity of a state like Minnesota — that’s its own culture as well.

Owen: Does The Daily Yonder seek to reach people in all of those different areas that you mentioned equally? To be relevant to all of them?

Marema: There are issues that are relevant to all of them: clean water, good schools, decent roads, a chance for your kids to find employment if they want to come back after they go to college, if they go off to college.

We’re trying to identify issues in common among all of those areas. We also try to uncover unique things about specific places. In a story that has more regional issues at play, like say a story about coal country: We know so much more about Appalachia, and we’re here, so it’s the easy lift a lot of times. I would like us to be more representative of the nation overall.

I’m running a column by a former underground coal miner, Gary Bentley. He says he wants to tell true stories about underground mining, instead of painting those workers in romanticized terms. He is helping a lot of folks, including me, understand why miners are so passionate and proud of their work. In the process, he’s helping folks see coal mining from a different perspective. It gets it out of that political fight and into a place where anyone would say, “Damn, that guy does an amazing job. No wonder he’s so proud.” If you don’t understand that, you’re going to have a very hard time talking about anything else, like the economic future of Appalachia.

Owen: Who are your readers? Are most of them people who are actually living in rural areas? It sounds as if there is a large component of people who maybe grew up that way but moved away?

Marema: We’ve got layers of readers. People within rural communities around the country read us. They’re very likely to be engaged in some kind of community group or issue. They’re socially active, people who are connected to civic or political organizations.

We reach small press — weekly newspapers, primarily — and sometimes they will reprint stories or use data that we compiled on a county. We have readers all the way up to the biggest newsrooms in the country. For those journalists, I hope that we’re useful as a listening post in place to explore what might be newsworthy from a national perspective.

We also have readers who work at national philanthropies, who are funding work in rural America and urban America. We have a national network of rural service and policy groups. Those are everything from housing organizations at the local level all the way up to the National Rural Health Association in Washington D.C., which has thousands of members. And finally, we have policy makers. We know that congressional staff read the Yonder, and that people will send things from the Yonder to congressional staff.

We’ve also had good readership within federal agencies and federal departments on different policy things. Broadband has been a big one. In the Obama White House, there was a White House Rural Council that was chaired by Tom Vilsack, the secretary of agriculture, and there was staff within the White House that we knew were reading the Yonder.

Owen: Does the Rural Council not still exist in the White House?

Marema: We’ve heard very little from the Trump administration about rural. The Rural Council was created by Obama’s executive order. I know [former] Secretary Vilsack hopes that it will continue. I don’t see any evidence that it has. It’s very much a disservice, since rural America was part of the coalition that elected the current president. He should be paying more attention.

Owen: Yeah — I wasn’t going to jump into this part right away, but I’m obviously interested to see how you’re thinking about the Trump administration in your coverage. We’ve heard so much about the urban/rural divide, especially in the national media, since the election took place.

Marema: Yeah. We’ve been trying for a long time to get rural America in the news. We weren’t expecting that it would be quite like this.

We observed early on that rural America was not recovering from the Great Recession at the same rate as the rest of the country. We did monthly jobs stories by county, ran a map, analyzed change in jobs from year to year over a several-year period. What we found is that metro America got back to pre-recession employment levels years before rural America did.

I’m not at all saying we predicted the election. I sure didn’t, anyway. But our reporting on jobs showed over and over again that rural communities were facing a different economic reality than large cities. The current wisdom is that this economic difference had something to do with the election results.

“Rural” has become sort of shorthand, especially in TV media, for everywhere except, you know, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. It’s shorthand for a difference in political belief that is more widespread than just rural/urban.

The story about the rural vote is much more complicated than the rural-versus-urban split in American politics. Our argument has been that when candidates figure out how to speak to rural audiences and when they engage with rural voters, parts of the suburbs are [also] going to respond to that. That’s what I mean about rural as a culture: It’s important, culturally, to pay attention, to be perceived as supportive of rural areas and to just engage. To show up.

We’ve done polling on several past presidential races among rural voters in battleground states. What we saw is that Democratic candidates didn’t have to win rural in battleground states [to win the election]. They needed to get it a little closer — under 10 points, maybe. When they did that, then the urban advantage was more than enough to win the election for them.

Obama did that, twice. Obama was more popular than John Kerry was among the voters in our poll. But Kerry and Hillary Clinton were not able to make a race out of rural, and therefore their urban advantage ultimately did them no good, or wasn’t enough.

Owen: What are some of the things that presidential candidates need to be talking about more?

Marema: The first thing is showing up — literally appearing in rural America. The Democratic strategy seemed to be that they were going to motivate the urban base and that was going to overwhelm what the Republicans did elsewhere. I think that there was just a complete disconnect from that cultural standpoint. Hillary Clinton did a very interesting policy document about rural that I think would have been very helpful. But people vote identity and culture more than policy these days.

Culturally, Trump got it. “Free trade’s stealing your manufacturing jobs.” “Regulations are killing your coal industry.” “We’re going to bring these good coal jobs back.” He even told Pittsburgh he was going to bring steel manufacturing back. Everybody knows that’s bullshit. But it acknowledged the deep economic problems that are in many rural communities and the feeling that no one is listening.

Owen: How do you decide which issues you’re going to cover on the site? What are the big areas you want to focus on? I think you mentioned coal as one of them.

Marema: There’s energy in general: oil, gas, coal, solar, wind. All of those require lots of open space. Generally, our experience in coal country is that profits go out to somewhere else; they don’t stay here. So with these new technologies, how can rural communities benefit from the energy they’re helping provide for the nation and not have the economic benefits flow entirely out to Wall Street stockholders?

Education. We have a lot of people who are working on the status of rural schools, how they’re funded, and what the role of the federal government is with rural schools. We look at community development generally, but especially in housing.

And then within USDA, a very small part of the budget is with rural development, and that includes stuff like utilities, water, sewer, telephone, power, broadband, housing. This is all under the rural development undersecretary, maybe the deputy undersecretary of development, and there’s nobody there now — you know, it’s empty. So all these things are on autopilot.

But there’s lots of programs there that address rural that we try to cover. Arts and culture. And if you want rural people to agree, bring up the issue of broadband. It’s a universal agenda item for any rural place I’ve ever been, and so we do a fair amount of reporting on it. We’ve done a lot on broadband. One thing we’ve done there is work with scholars who’ve done research that’s been helpful to rural broadband advocates. We commissioned research on the economic impact of broadband in rural areas, for example, and then helped spread the findings. We’ve profiled innovative internet service providers. We’ve helped people representing rural areas get their concerns to a wider audience, including policy makers.

We’re talking about folks who are living with dialup. Teachers who can’t turn in their grades, students who can’t get their homework done, nonprofits that can’t submit a grant proposal because their network keeps timing out before the application transfers. And we’ve backed up those stories with data, so those individual stories can’t be dismissed as aberrations.

It’s the personal connection that still gives me the greatest satisfaction. I’ll see someone who says, “Hey, I used that Yonder story in a presentation I made to my county commissioners,” or “I loved that story about the bean seeds that have been passed down for generations in the family,” and then they start telling you about the seeds they got from their granddaddy or something. Or someone will say, “Thank you for that column you wrote taking on someone who said rural people should just move if they aren’t satisfied with the local economy. It helped me get my thoughts together and not feel alone.” Or “Help me get in touch with that woman who wrote a column last week; I want to talk to her about what she tried in her community and how that might work here.”

Owen: Which of your stories tend to do the best?

Marema: Well, probably over the past year or so, the story that had the most traction was a column that our publisher, Dee Davis, wrote at the height of the Syrian refugee crisis. He said, send the Syrian refugees to rural America. We need ’em. We need people.

If you say, “Well, we’re more alike than different, we’ve got similar values, and let’s all get along…” You know, anybody’ll tell ya that’s not gonna be your top story of the day. To follow the click is to be controversial and combative. That’s not really our style. So I think something that appealed in that story was that it had this good message — rural can be this welcoming place for Syrian refugees, or any refugees, or immigrants, that there is opportunity here — plus it hit on the immigration issue, which is contentious, and it hit on the Syrian refugee idea, which was contentious. That formula made it take off.

We need stories like that, because that’s how people find out about us. There are lots of things within rural America that are national news stories or that relate to national or international news. Energy is an obvious one. I don’t quite understand what makes some things work and others not. And you know I should never be saying that to you… [laughs]

Owen: No. I don’t think anybody knows.

Marema: I’ve seen guys with enough resources that they do an A and a B headline on a piece and see which one gets more clicks and all. I’m trying to respond to that need. I came up in a straight inverted-pyramid newspaper style, and clearly that is changing.

Owen: What is your background?

Marema: I grew up in a very small county in Kentucky. I went to Berea College in Kentucky and worked at a weekly there for several years. I went to graduate school at UNC Chapel Hill in journalism. I worked at two papers in Durham. My first job was with an afternoon paper — that’s how old I am. And then I helped start the zoned edition of the Herald-Sun, as it’s called now — those papers merged — for Orange County and Chapel Hill. That was in the late ’80s, early ’90s, and then I went back to Kentucky and worked at a media arts center called Appalshop, which is where I met Dee and Marty and the folks I’m working with now.

Owen: What is The Daily Yonder’s relationship with local newspapers? It seems as if so many of them must be gone from the communities that you’re covering.

Marema: I don’t have the numbers to back this up yet, and I have someone trying to look into this story, but I find that I’m more likely find a paywall on a weekly newspaper than on a regional daily. They may have been slow enough that they didn’t try to give it all away for free like some of us did, so they may be doing a little bit better, in terms of how they’re handling the digital side of things. Weekly newspapers are still really important in small towns, as are local radio stations. Practically every county has at least one paper. I don’t have any numbers on how many have gone out of business. I would not be surprised if by some measurements they may be doing better than large regionals, because their market never got beyond the county line. The big metros have sort of retrenched back into their core urban areas and a lot of weeklies never expanded to begin with, so they’re not losing ground in that sense. They’ve got more of a monopoly on the truly local moves, and the pullback by larger media from rural areas makes the local paper more valuable to readers.

But I also know that staffing is always tough, and the quality varies greatly from place to place. We’ve done stories that we localize with county data and distribute to weeklies for them to use.

Owen: How much do you see your role as being sort of explaining rural issues to an audience that is not familiar with them already? Like, is it frustrating when I call and ask you “What does rural mean?”

Marema: No, it’s not. It’s not the people who call, it’s not the people that read us. Those folks in general are making an honest effort to, you know, explore something and have an open mind about a topic. I get irritated at the stereotypes and easy shots. Incest jokes. How many teeth you have. Hookworm. Where do you get your shoes — on and on and on. White rural America is the last category of American you can insult with impunity; there are no consequences to it.

Sometimes I will take on things that bother me. You know, the argument, “Why don’t we just move? If we want that service, why don’t we just go somewhere that has it?” That’s like you said to somebody in Brooklyn, you know, you want a park? Central Park is there. You know, that doesn’t make sense to somebody who’s living their life in a locale and has every right to. Sometimes, that kind of attitude irritates me.

But in terms of explaining: We have to. We have to say, here’s how rural is being defined for this story. You know, I probably should do that more. And, you know, explaining why broadband is such a big deal for rural communities. There’s kind of a background I need to supply that’s a great tool for shrinking distances. But that never seems odious to me at all. It makes it feel good when I can explain why something’s important to rural America and why somebody ought to care about it.

Owen: What are some of the issues that you would like to see the national media covering more, or covering better?

Marema: My views on that have honestly have changed a little bit recently. I think that the media may be talking past each other. Part of the nation is getting its information from The New York Times and The Washington Post and NPR, and that has nothing to do with the part of America that’s getting that information from Fox News, which is very popular in rural and in red states generally, I would add — not just rural. I don’t know what the answer is to that. I don’t think covering a topic in a different way addresses that problem.

There are tremendous economic justice issues. There are large environmental issues — you know, the devastation of energy development and what that’s done to rural regions. The Gulf Coast from the Horizon spill. All of those things, they get coverage — I would like to see some that was from a rural perspective of what it means to lifestyles and people who have to live there. A lot of what we see comes from a kind of urban environmentalist frame: that, you know, we need to preserve this place because it’s beautiful and pristine and I want to go hiking there. As opposed to: We need a working landscape where people can make money off the natural resources while they are being good stewards to them. I would dearly love to see a little more awareness of that.

Owen: We’ve seen a call for news outlets to hire more reporters who were not brought up and trained in urban settings. I’m wondering what your thoughts are on how that could work, how viable that is.

Marema: I don’t know, because I don’t quite know where the jobs are. I talk to journalism students from time to time and ask them what they’re going to do. With the level of hiring that’s going on, I don’t know how you’d make an impact with new people coming into that.

Owen: You don’t think there are enough jobs?

Marema: Yeah, that’s one part of it. You can’t move people into the industry the way you did in the early ’90s. The other part of that is also that a good reporter, with a background who is going to add diversity to the newsroom and the content, needs two or three editors who have the same goal and can nurture that person toward that.

My experience within news organizations is that that is difficult. If you went in as a new reporter and you had one editor say, you know, “go do something on deer season,” that might or might not fly further up the chain. I wonder how the hierarchical structure of it would work.

Owen: Where do you find the people to write for you? And how many people do you have on staff?

Marema: We just have two full-time staff, me and an assistant editor, and we have a little bit of administrative function that’s provided by Rural Strategies, so that keeps us more in the news end of things than we might be if it were really just the two of us on our own.

The bulk of what we run is written by correspondents, paid and volunteer. We find them in a lot of different ways. I have found people through seeing something they wrote for another publication or for a local publication; I’ve found them through the groups that read us; and some have come in over the transom, people who have found us and give us pitches. And then I write as well.

Owen: You get most of your funding from private philanthropies, but you have a small online fundraising campaign. Do you want to expand that?

Marema: It’s a small but important part. We’ve got a lot of nonprofit people reading it, and that’s not exactly your big fundraising crowd.

Long term, that needs to change. We need a platform that reaches a much wider audience, both in terms of our sustainability but also in terms of the people who need to be in the discussion and the voices that need to be heard. Our goal is that that will happen and that the Yonder will be part of it when it does.

Photo by Mariano Mantel used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     March 22, 2017, 12:45 p.m.
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