It’s no secret that the past two decades have seen a major decline in the number of news outlets serving local audiences. The statistics are staggering: Between 2004 and 2019, about 2,100 daily and weekly newspapers folded.
These closures have hit rural communities particularly hard, according to Penelope Abernathy, lead author of the study, “News Deserts And Ghost Newspapers: Will Local News Survive?” Abernathy describes the trend as “double jeopardy” for small communities, which often don’t have the population — or the wealth — to sustain their local papers.
“We have tended to lose local newspapers in small and mid-size communities, and that includes in the rural areas that are economically struggling,” Abernathy says. Research shows TV stations focus heavily on the metro areas where they’re based — so often, “the only time they stray into the rural areas is if there’s been [a] disaster or for some kind of a humorous, interesting feature story.”
As local coverage shrinks, national reporters — often from cable networks and New York- or D.C.-based digital publications — continue to “parachute” into small towns and villages. It’s not just that these reporters get things wrong about rural America, although they do, says Dana Coester, executive editor of the news site 100 Days in Appalachia. “[It’s] more like what they’re saying is absolutely irrelevant to the realities” of the people who live in the oft-maligned stretch from southern New York to northern Mississippi, she says.
100 Days in Appalachia is part of a group of outlets that both preceded and outlasted city-crafted spot coverage of the rural U.S., trying to serve the millions of people who work and live in what’s sometimes dismissed in national conversations as “flyover country.” They are seeking to overturn a corrosive dynamic — a shrinking local media mixed with national reporters creating often imprecise narratives — that has contributed to the polarization and distrust people have in the media today.
Large swaths of the country have been designated either liberal or conservative — solidly Democratic leaning or Trump Country — leaving people feeling typecast, says Sarah Baird, founder of Shoeleather, a clearinghouse where news outlets can tap into a database of reporters on the ground in “non-media hub cities” across the country.
“In Appalachia and other regions that [have] been called ‘Trump Country,’ a big question among a lot of people there who don’t identify that way and have been really angry about being stereotyped [for] years by the national media [is], ‘Are you going to forget about us now?'” Baird asks.
The inconsistent, parachute-style journalism doesn’t best serve rural audiences because it doesn’t respect the issues that are important to those communities, says veteran reporter Farai Chideya, host of the “Our Body Politic” podcast. “What I think is culturally competent, [and what] I’d like to see more of, is people [being] empowered to cultivate long-term sources in rural communities that they treat with the same respect that they treat sources on Capitol Hill,” says Chideya, who has reported from 49 states including predominately white, Black, Latino, and Indigenous rural areas. Chideya laments “journalism’s over-reliance on covering people with traditional sources of power and [not] covering people who are perceived not to have power.”
Abernathy thinks Americans are coming to a better understanding of “what the loss of local news was going to mean to democracy, as well as to the future health of rural America.” Now, she says, “the real issue [is] finding an economic model that will bring the news to those communities that need it the most in order to make wise decisions about issues that are going to affect them today and their children in future years.”
Here’s a look at six outlets trying to do just that.
“Rural places a lot of times just don’t know what’s happening in another rural locality,” says editor Tim Marema, so the digital platform tries “to help rural residents see what they have in common with other rural places and what’s unique about them, and then also to help journalists and policymakers see those common threads as well.”
To make those connections, Marema and his staff focus heavily on data-driven reporting to reach conclusions about rural America versus finding a central casting “poster child” for a particular issue and working backward to a larger picture.
When Covid-19 hit, for example, there was a huge focus on outbreaks in places like New York City and other metropolitan areas. Marema got concerned early on when The New York Times seemed to be “disappearing” wide areas of low-population rural America in its maps of the outbreak, potentially underplaying the risk. “The perception that large swaths of rural America are somehow beyond the reach of the virus is dangerous,” Marema warned in a November 2020 Yonder opinion piece. (The Times, as Marema has noted, subsequently updated its graphics to present a fuller picture.)
Though based in Tennessee, the Daily Yonder’s reach is far broader, with contributors based in states as far flung as Texas, Minnesota, Oregon, Illinois, California, North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Ohio. Recent pieces have covered topics ranging from the pandemic’s effect on the sawmill and logging industries to federal funding for incarcerated students at rural colleges. And there’s also issue-specific arts and culture coverage, such as a spring Q&A with producer Christina Oh about “the promise of rural moviemaking” that focused on her work on “Minari,” the story of Korean immigrants trying to keep a farm going in rural Arkansas.
The Daily Yonder is published by the nonprofit Center for Rural Strategies, for which Marema serves as vice president. The bulk of its funding is currently through foundation grants, with an annual fundraising drive. Marema says an increase in the percentage of readers reaching the Yonder via mobile devices suggests the site’s reach is expanding beyond desktop readers, whose interest may be work-related, such as people in the public policy or economics fields. There were about 67,000 monthly average site users in 2020 — more than double than in each of the five preceding years, according to Adam Giorgi, director of digital strategy. He attributes the jump in readership to several factors, from greater audience interest in news about the pandemic and the presidential election to a CMS upgrade that “may have driven some SEO gains” to even the Netflix release of the film “Hillbilly Elegy.”
There’s certainly room to grow, Marema says. “There’s somewhere around 60 million rural residents using the Census definition [“any population, housing, or territory NOT in an urban area”] and there’s even more who grew up staying with their grandparents on a farm or a rural place, or [are otherwise] connected to and care about rural,” he adds. “If we can expand to reach that general reader, that’s part of our goal for sustainability.”
Southerly’s tagline is “Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South,” which neatly sums up its unique geographic and coverage focus. Recent pieces dug into the backstory on Lake Charles, Louisiana, which shrank more than any other U.S. city after being pounded by back-to-back hurricanes, and how Black grocers in Pensacola, Florida, were working to address local food insecurity that has worsened during the Covid crisis.
During the 2016 election, Durham, North Carolina-based founder and editor-in-chief Lyndsey Gilpin found herself angry at “how the South was being portrayed and stereotyped and all the parachute journalism that we all know and do not love.” With an extensive history of writing about the environment, she moved back to her home state of Kentucky to report as a full-time freelancer. Eventually, she started Southerly. “I knew there was a gap in consistent coverage of environmental issues in the South, especially in rural areas,” Gilpin explains.
Now, Southerly covers about a dozen states, reaching from the Gulf Coast of Texas up through Appalachia. “There’s more news deserts in this region than a lot of others … The mission [is] covering climate change and environmental issues in a way that makes it more accessible to people, no matter where they live,” Gilpin says.
Southerly has a very small core of about half a dozen women on its masthead and relies on freelancers and partnerships with public radio and like-minded outlets, such as The Daily Yonder, to expand its scope. It also offers all its stories, sometimes with photos, free for republication to local papers that may be stretched thin.
We have to constantly [try] to fix the narrative that national media imposes on us.
As of earlier this year, Southerly had about 20,000 readers per month and 8,000 newsletter subscribers. While it tackles the thorniest of environmental issues, Gilpin says she’s mindful of the fact that “when journalists come to report on a lot of places in the rural South, it’s constant comments about how hopeless it is.”
“We have to constantly [try] to fix the narrative that national media imposes on us,” she adds, noting that the national media should hire local journalists when they want to cover stories about rural America.
The News Reporter of Whiteville, North Carolina, came into Les High’s family in 1938, and it shared a public service Pulitzer for coverage of the Ku Klux Klan in 1953.
Whiteville, about an hour south of Fayetteville, is the seat of Columbus County. It used to rely “almost solely on tobacco, timber, and textiles, and all three of those have suffered,” High says of Whiteville and its surroundings, which he describes as a “very rural” community and one of the poorest in the state.
The News Reporter’s coverage extends from being the local government watchdog and doing investigative work to feature stories. To do that vital work, what was once just a traditional print newspaper has had to branch out beyond twice-weekly home delivery and rack sales. “We have an email with headlines and links that goes out every weekday [at] 3:00. We’ve got an app [and] a digital replica,” says editor Justin Smith, who also bought the paper and became publisher in August. “We’re not on Snapchat yet, we’re not on TikTok — but we’re thinking about it.”
To reach even more people, Smith also anchors a regular “Columbus Report” segment on Facebook Live, which is a “review and preview” of the paper’s latest stories. As High puts it, “We’re going full steam ahead with the concept [of] ‘digital first; print bigger and better later.'”
The News Reporter, which has more than 8,100 subscribers, values its role as the paper of record for its rural readers and also takes seriously its accountability role in Columbus County. For example, in 2019, the late writer Allen Turner did a series on how the county board of commissioners wasn’t keeping adequate records of its many closed sessions. The paper filed public records requests, sought opinions from experts, and produced enterprise reporting that showed officials were violating at least the spirit of the open-records law. The work garnered the North Carolina Press Association’s Henry Lee Weathers Freedom of Information Award.
The paper has also gone up against the county sheriff’s office regarding transparency in releasing incident reports. In April, the county paid more than $32,000 to a law firm that represented The News Reporter and a trio of other outlets that won their public records suit against the sheriff’s office for withholding incident reports from the media.
The News Reporter has streamlined its pricing system, hired new reporters, and tried to strike a balance between hard news and folksier crowd-pleasers, like the saga of a rooster that started prowling around the courthouse, becoming something of a local mascot until he eventually relocated to an “unidentified farm.” (He was reportedly a hit on The News Reporter’s Instagram.)
It’s incumbent on a lot of the community outlets like us to really do the hard work and make sure that the stories of rural North Carolina are being told.
The way Smith sees it, there “really are two North Carolinas” — the one including the Piedmont Crescent that encompasses most of the state’s urban areas, major universities, and population, and the other “that’s basically everybody else.” The state’s big dailies, The News & Observer in Raleigh and the Charlotte Observer, “they’re in that other North Carolina,” he says, “and so I do think it’s incumbent on a lot of the community outlets like us to really do the hard work and make sure that the stories of rural North Carolina are being told.”
Like the American West it has covered for more than 50 years, High Country News has changed over time. The main goal, however, remains the same.
The outlet was originally founded by a conservation-minded rancher from Wyoming, the late Tom Bell. “The whole idea of High Country News was to cover the rural small town and wide-open West that doesn’t get coverage from coastal media or national media or big-city news outlets,” says executive director and publisher Greg Hanscom.
High Country News initially focused on the Northern Rockies and Plains before branching out to the entire Rocky Mountain West, the Pacific Northwest and Southwest, and more recently to Alaska and California. It proudly lists the many awards it’s garnered for its coverage, most recently including the 2020 Polk Award for Education Reporting and the 2020 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for “Land-Grab Universities,” a data-rich look at how Indigenous lands were confiscated and sold in the name of higher education.
The beginnings of High Country News were a bit humbler than such award-winning partnerships with the Fund for Investigative Journalism and The Pulitzer Center.
A few years after he launched his small publication, Bell ran out of money, Hanscom says. Bell informed his readers he was closing shop. A few weeks later, “The envelopes start arriving in the mail — [a] check for $10 here and $20 there, $5 here. And his readers [were] saying, ‘Don’t go. We need High Country News.’” Now, with about 30 employees, including 12 in editorial who are dispersed across the West, High Country News is an approximately $4.5 million-a-year nonprofit operation. “About $3 million of those dollars come directly from our readers in the form of subscriptions [and] donations,” Hanscom says.
Via its website and monthly magazine, High Country News features an Indigenous Affairs desk run by Indigenous journalists. Its coverage delves deeply into broad-based issues like immigration, public lands, and climate.
High Country News also “has done some really important work around militias and so-called ‘sagebrush rebels,’” Hanscom notes. “I think after January 6th, there has been some renewed interest in, like, ‘Who are these people?’”
In an analysis published shortly after the Capitol riots, headlined “The Washington, D.C., siege has Western roots and consequences,” assistant editor Carl Segerstrom wrote, “The anti-government occupations bookending the rise and fall of Trump’s presidency show the mainstreaming of right-wing extremism in the United States. They also portend the potential for future conflicts here in the West.” That piece wasn’t the first installment in HCN’s coverage of extremism in various parts of the West: In mid-2020, Kalen Goodluck, a contributing editor, wrote about how New Mexico police “have long flirted with radical right-wing vigilantism,” and that same summer, Correspondent Leah Sottile examined how “Extremist pastors are using the COVID-19 pandemic to push their conservative religious ideologies.”
With Trump out of office, High Country News is focusing on topics like the Biden administration’s next moves regarding national park land and open space that conservationists said came under threat in the last five years.
As managing editor Jeff Young explains it, Ohio Valley ReSource is a “regional journalism collaborative” that includes seven partner public media stations in Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia. It focuses primarily on “the economic and associated energy transition that’s underway in the region” thanks to the decline of the coal industry.
The coal mining territory of Appalachia is home to some of the poorest communities in the U.S. outside of the Mississippi Delta and some Native American reservations, Young notes. “If you look at the statistics on poverty and unemployment and economic despair, eastern Kentucky is right up there, so it’s a place that really needs and deserves good journalism,” he says. “There are amazing stories there, and unfortunately, a lot of parts of our region are at risk of becoming ‘news deserts’ … We’re building on the strong traditions that our partner stations have and the strong community relationships they have.”
The work of the collaborative, which celebrates its fifth anniversary this year, takes many forms: Broadcasts on local public radio and TV stations, as well as NPR’s national programming; stories on the web; a newsletter; a podcast, “Welcome to Appalach-America;” a book, “Appalachian Fall,” published by Simon & Schuster; and more.
Recent stories include coverage of the loss of jobless benefits that affected hundreds of thousands of people after the governors of West Virginia and Ohio ditched federal unemployment programs initiated during the pandemic; how Appalachians are coming to terms with “racism, Covid, and the trauma of 2020” through theater; and the future of coal-fired power plants that need environmental upgrades.
Ohio Valley ReSource has teamed up with the NPR investigative desk for major projects. In one case, the team did a deep examination that determined West Virginia Governor Jim Justice — a former coal baron — “had failed to pay roughly $15 million in taxes and mine safety fines.” Justice paid off the taxes, but not the fines. “Eventually, after we reported on it several times, the Department of Justice intervened to file suit and collected $5 million” in overdue fines, Young says.
In another case, a joint operation with NPR turned into a two-year investigation of the resurgence of black lung disease. Under lead NPR reporter Howard Berkes, the reporting became the subject of a Frontline documentary and spurred congressional hearings into the revelation that “federal regulators and the mining industry knew more than 20 years ago that toxic silica dust in coal mines was leading to severe and fatal lung disease.
For Ohio Valley ReSource staff embedded at partner stations, about 70 percent of their time is spent on regional stories that air widely, while the remainder is dedicated to “whatever it is that local station needs,” Young says. “What we’re trying to do is just increase the capacity for these stations,” Young says.
That meshes well with how much more potential Young, himself a native West Virginian, thinks public radio has to fill the information gap in a fast-contracting news business. “There’s a lot of focus on shiny new things right now — the new digital start-up that’s going to ride in and save the day, and that’s great,” he says. “But I think we have perhaps not fully appreciated the value of what we have in a nationwide system of public radio stations which, with a little investment and a little time, can really [have] a better shot at overcoming some of the headwinds that we face in journalism now.”
Just about a year old, the nonprofit Mountain State Spotlight in West Virginia has grand plans. “Mountain State Spotlight is a statewide news organization that’s going to provide stories of immense local importance in communities around the state, but of statewide and national interest,” says Ken Ward Jr., a MacArthur grant recipient and ProPublica Distinguished Fellow who launched Spotlight with two former colleagues, Greg Moore and Eric Eyre. All three spent years at the Charleston Gazette.
“We worked at a newspaper that had a proud tradition, but had gone through a bankruptcy, and I got tired of seeing empty desks popping up around me in our newsroom,” Ward says. While the Gazette was once able to cover the state with rich reporting, “we increasingly were no longer able to do that.”
The Mountain State Spotlight that Ward and his co-workers envision does cover the whole state, drilling down on the struggles — and successes — of West Virginians through a nonprofit model that Ward sees as the best hope for sustainable local news organizations. It includes the West Virginia Legislature, environment, and poverty as top priority coverage areas.
Broadband access, a major issue in rural communities across America, is a focal point of Mountain State Spotlight’s coverage. Reporter Lucas Manfield wrote a story about a local cooperative that tried to tackle the problem on its own. “In looking at something like broadband, there’s a couple of things that are important: One is to keep hammering away at the problem. Don’t just do one story [and] drop it,” Ward says. “When you find things that actually can work, report those, too, because it’s an example that other communities can pick up on and [try] to use to improve their own situation.”
Ward says the best local journalism has a sense of the place it covers. Ward also thinks the whole profession needs a mindset change so “it’s no longer [thought] the only way to have a successful career as a big-time journalist is in New York or Washington.”
Discussing the need to keep news local — and grounded — gets Ward, who’s lived in West Virginia all his life, fired up. With Spotlight staff currently operating out of Charleston but endeavoring to cover the entire state, Ward says the challenge is to remember “who you’re writing for and who are you writing about, and are you trying to do both? Or are you simply trying to provide a national audience a sort of almost infotainment about a place [that] they will [see] as ‘the other’?”
While Ward readily admits Mountain State Spotlight doesn’t yet have a vast readership, other metrics point to growth. That includes having gone “from pitch to publish in less than six months in the middle of a global pandemic,” establishing over two dozen republishing partnerships, mostly with small weekly and daily print papers, and attracting more than 800 small-dollar donors and nearly 4,000 newsletter subscribers. They’ve also added a managing editor, reporter, and development manager to the original team of three co-founders and four reporters.
“We are not messing around,” Ward says. We “believe West Virginia needs this [and] supports what we’re doing. This is a great opportunity [to] build something from the ground up and not have [to] tear something else down to start over.”