Poverty and Opportunity in Rural America
The decline of newspapers and other local coverage has been felt especially hard in rural areas. One effort helping to fill this gap is the Daily Yonder, a nonprofit source of news around the issues impacting the 55 million Americans living in rural areas. Spotlight recently spoke with Daily Yonder editor Tim Marema about the Daily Yonder’s reporting, media coverage of rural areas and the broader issues of poverty and opportunity in these places. This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Can you give an overview of the Daily Yonder’s work and how it began?
The Daily Yonder started in 2007. It is a project of the nonprofit Center for Rural Strategies. Rural Strategies formed in 2001 to help rural policy groups and others concerned about rural America communicate and talk about issues in a manner that might lead to improved policies.
A lot of this early work involved engaging journalists, and the original co-editors – Bill Bishop, Julie Ardery and I – were thinking, “Why don’t we start doing this work ourselves rather than indirectly?”
The primary goal is to fill an information gap and let the people who know the most about rural communities, which is the people who live there or have a direct experience there, tell us what’s going on.
What does a good Daily Yonder story seek to accomplish?
I would measure a successful story in terms of how it becomes part of public discourse. That’s the first thing. There’s no one type of story, but a lot of what we do and what I enjoy is using county-level data to see how rural counties are comparing to more urban ones around measures like SNAP enrollment, jobs and education levels. We want to explain numerically what’s going on in rural areas that makes them unique or stand out from other parts of the United States.
Are you offering potential solutions to these challenges through your journalism?
We don’t offer our own solutions most of the time. What we try to do is work with the groups who are addressing those issues and who have policy shops who dig deeply and offer solutions. We are trying to work with the people who know how to talk about it for 5,000 words so we can talk about it for 500.
The hollowing out of local newsrooms is something we’re acutely aware of at Spotlight. Is a decline in rural coverage something you’ve seen over the course of the Daily Yonder?
I was working on special projects for the Center for Rural Strategies before becoming editor in 2012. During that time, I often sent communications e-mails to reporters.
I hadn’t done one in a few months, and I distinctly remember sending e-mails to dozens of reporters, and the bounces just kept coming back with “unknown address” or “I’m no longer with x.” It was remarkable. I had sent out dozens of e-mails in the past and had never seen something like that where so many people were not at the same job.
This was around 2009-2010, and it was my first inkling of how deeply the recession alone was proving to be an earthquake in an already unsteady industry.
What are some of the consequences of this lack of media coverage?
You really notice the closing of bureaus and movement away from places newspapers had covered as a point of pride. For instance, the way the Courier-Journal used to cover Eastern Kentucky.
That was crucial for coverage for locals, but I think an even bigger impact is that info got back to Frankfort and Lexington and Louisville. Policymakers would see those stories. That has dwindled quite a bit.
The problem is in the suburbs as well. For instance, the Knoxville News Sentinel in Knox County, Tennessee had reporters in Oak Ridge and some down in Blount County, which is near the Smokies. They would have columnists in a particular community. That’s gone. The saying is, “When urban America sneezes, rural America catches pneumonia.” The impact out there is always greater.
Is nonprofit journalism doing a good job at filling this gap?
I think it’s a good and important step. It’s important to connect people at the state level, not just within a county or at a national level, and you see some of that happening. For instance, a lot of states now have some kind of nonprofit investigative reporting organization. They are filling a sweet spot in coverage that exists between the hyperlocal and the national.
If there was one aspect of the coverage of rural communities that you could change, what would that be?
There’s always the portrayal of rural communities as exotic or quaint. There are positive stereotypes: We all eat homegrown tomatoes and help each other raise barns and children. But then there are the negative stereotypes of uncultured and uneducated barbarians. You can see examples of that kind of coverage going back to at least the 1880s in Appalachia.
More concretely, the one thing that really concerns me right now is an effort by some think tanks and organizations to effectively encourage divestment from rural areas, with the arguments that there is bad return on investment and these places aren’t driving economic output.
I don’t know how they feel like that’s an OK thing to say. It would be clearly outrageous if you said to an ethnic group that based on this formula, “they are taking more than they are giving back.” But if you said it about all of rural America, it’s just prudent policy. And I think that’s one of the most dangerous conversations going on right now. These arguments aren’t just going to stop with cities. You’re priming a dangerous argument about the role of government if you are just measuring based on what people are giving back.
What is an aspect of rural America you wish people focused more attention on?
There is a fair amount of evidence that rural places, on average, turn out good people. That doesn’t necessarily mean that those individuals stay in rural areas. They grow up. But the Raj Chetty data around equality of opportunity shows that there are large swaths of rural America doing above average jobs raising kids who earn more than kids in similar circumstances in urban areas. There is something about these communities that is beneficial for children, especially low-income ones.
A major theory is that there is less economic segregation in rural areas. Kids go to school together. There are fewer private schools and less stratification. And that’s good for turning out well-adjusted human beings.
There are a lot of stories like that which aren’t being highlighted when we talk about rural America. And I think it’s interesting that people like Chetty are finding ways to quantify what a lot of us have lived. I would like more people to know about some of the positive traits that come from growing up in smaller communities.
Tim Marema is editor of the Daily Yonder.