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Newspaper For Sale: The Growing Threat of News Deserts in Western Pennsylvania

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For the better half of the last decade, newspapers have been treated as novelties. An under-appreciated resource whose disappearance is problematic, but for reasons that are seemingly pragmatic. To make matters worse, there doesn’t appear to be a solution in sight.

“No one is quite sure how to stop that process from happening,” University of Iowa professor David Ryfe said of the dying local paper. “There are lots of people who are worried about it, but no one has found a solution in the 15 years [since] the digital world has erupted and called attention to the issue. No one has found a solution at the regional or local level.”

Ryfe is the director at University of Iowa’s School for Journalism and Mass Communication. He is also one of the most prominent scholars on local and modern journalism, authoring 2016’s “Journalism and the Public” and 2012’s “Can Journalism Survive: A Look Inside American Newsrooms.”

“All the local newspapers have left is the local advertising,” Ryfe said. “There’s not going to be any salvation for newspapers in multimedia, in digital media, or online.”

According to a 2018 Pew Research Study, weekday newspaper circulation in 1990 was around 62 million nationwide. That number dropped to 55.7 million in 2000 and in 2017 the estimated circulation suffered another decline, topping out at just 30.9 million.

As circulation has declined, local newspapers have had to adjust for the loss in revenue, sometimes by shrinking the size of their staffs, sometimes by selling out or closing up shop all together. 

The Greater Pittsburgh Area is witnessing this potentially dangerous trend firsthand. The area has lost 5 daily newspapers since 2015, with a host of others changing ownership. These changes pose a great risk in both the quality and quantity of local content.

The Downsizing of Pittsburgh’s Local News

Although changes in southwestern Pennsylvania’s newspaper industry have been happening for years, they came to a head in August when the area’s largest newspaper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, announced the 232-year-old institution would stop printing on Tuesdays and Saturdays, bestowing Pittsburgh with the rather misfortunate honor of becoming the largest city in America without a daily print newspaper, although the publication offers a daily online edition.

Over the last three years, a number of daily and weekly newspapers in the surrounding area have also undergone changes.

In 2015, the Daily News in McKeesport and the Valley Independent in Monessen were among the first local papers in the region to cease operations. Both daily newspapers were owned by Trib Total Media, however, it was unable to find a buyer for either publication amidst a fire sale of local newspapers that year.

The company sold 8 publications in 2015, including the Leader Times in Kittanning and the Daily Courier in Connellsville, to West Penn Media, an affiliate of Sample Media Group which has an already established footprint in the area, publishing the Latrobe Bulletin in Westmoreland County.

Within less than a year from the start of its sell-off, Trib Total Media’s largest daily, the Pittsburgh-based Tribune-Review, would cease daily print operations and move to a solely digital platform in December 2016. The Pittsburgh City Paper, an alt-weekly, would also be purchased by the Butler, Pennsylvania, based Eagle Media Corporation that same year.  

The exterior of the Beaver County Times. Photo: David Smith/100 Days in Appalachia

In 2017, Calkins Media, headquartered in Pennsylvania, followed in Trib Total Media’s footsteps selling off its local publications. The Ellwood City Ledger and Beaver County Times became properties of GateHouse Media, a division of New Media Investment Group — the largest publisher in the nation today.

Calkins would also sell the Uniontown Herald-Standard to Ogden Newspapers Inc., a West Virginia-based company with more than 3,500 employees at its more than 40 daily papers. Recently Ogden, announced the purchase of the Washington Observer-Reporter from the Observer Publishing Company. With this purchase Ogden now controls the two largest daily newspapers within Washington, Fayette and Greene counties.

But the selling of small town and regional papers to national media companies isn’t specific to southwestern Pennsylvania. According to a 2016 study by the University of North Carolina, the 3 largest investment groups at the time — New Media, Digital First, and Gannett —  own a combined 900 newspapers in the U.S. with a circulation of 12.7 million.

So, Why Does Newspaper Ownership Matter?

As these local papers are gobbled up by out-of-town companies, things start to change, according to Ryfe.

“The first thing that happens is there is correspondingly less local news that is published in the newspaper,” he said, which he explained is largely the result of downsizing in newsrooms.

UNC’s 2016 report attempts to explain why that’s happening. Researchers found many of these investment groups purchase newspapers that are in debt. In acquiring these debts, the investors usually employ a formulaic approach to management, which is focused on cutting spending and trimming budgets through “laid off staff, frozen wages, reduced benefits and consolidated sales and editorial functions.”

Rebecca Devereaux, 25, experienced the cost cutting measures brought on by a newspaper’s sale firsthand when she worked for Uniontown’s Herald-Standard.

Two employees at the Herald-Standard hug the day the paper’s entire visual media department was laid off in 2017. Photo: Rebecca Devereaux

A multimedia editor, Devereaux was hired by the paper, which was then owned by Calkin Media, to help increase its video and digital storytelling capabilities, but in 2017, the Herald-Standard was abruptly sold to Ogden. Devereaux was notified of the sale via email while she was on vacation.

“We didn’t know the paper was for sale, at least at my level we didn’t know,” Devereaux said. “It was very sudden.”

Under Ogden, the paper’s entire visual media department was let go, leaving one of Devereaux’s colleagues to ask: “Who is going to hire a 60-year-old photographer?” she recalled.

Since 2004, employment in the newspaper industry has dipped by 45 percent. In 2017, 39,210 individuals worked in the industry, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Reductions in staffing and consolidations of departments, or the outsourcing of certain newspaper functions, are meant to help the papers climb out of debt and start generating a profit, even if short-term, but the UNC study says those “profits derived from the cost-cutting have not been reinvested to improve their newspapers’ journalism, but [are] used instead to pay loans, management fees and shareholder dividends.”

Ryfe acknowledged this profit-driven approach can create a dangerous problem not just for those working in the industry, but also their readers. As more newspapers are absorbed into larger corporations, the coverage turns away from local issues and instead becomes nationalized.

“There used to be a mediating layer of political conversation that was local that had to do with potholes in the street and where to put the waste management facility, very basic problems,” Ryfe said. “The loss of that level of news has contributed to polarization and partisanship at the national level. All politics have become national, strangely enough, as this has happened.”

Ryfe warns the reduction of local reporters covering local government, keeping an eye on the inner workings of a community, can prevent the misuse of power– even if covering a city council meeting may seem trivial to the average person.

“The fact of a journalist being on the beat tends to reduce the amount of political corruption,” he said. Fewer local  journalists could lead to more substandard or negligent decision making from government officials, Ryfe added.

The Creation of News Deserts in Rural Markets

As newspapers downsize or dissolve altogether, an information gap is created, especially in rural communities where access to information doesn’t come as easy as in the nation’s more urban areas.

Metro markets usually have a surplus of news outlets, but also have something many rural communities do not — access to reliable, high speed internet that makes gathering news and information quick and accessible.

According to a 2018 Federal Communications Commission (FCC) report, 68.6 percent of residents in rural areas are without broadband capabilities that meet federal guidelines for minimum upload and download speeds. This includes counties in western Pennsylvania where local news is declining, like Washington, Butler and Fayette. Approximately 14.9 million Americans are without access to high speed internet today.*

The 2016 UNC study highlights an earlier FCC report that found only 10 percent of evening television news shows are committed to local or regional news. In addition, “fewer than 40 percent of residents live in an area where they can receive all-news radio,” leaving newspapers, as sometimes, the only source of local news in rural areas.  

This creates the risk of “news deserts,” or, “places that have such a small market they can support relatively little news at all. And don’t have much news provided for them,” according to Ryfe.

Ryfe acknowledged the internet isn’t the main cause of the daily newspaper’s death and the rise of these coalescing media companies, however, it “exacerbated and accelerated it.”

*In 2015 the FCC Broadband Progress Report raised the minimum download speeds from 4 Mbps to 25 Mbps and minimum upload speeds from 1 Mbps to 3 Mbps. At the time it tripled the number of American households without internet access.

In a Digital World, Local Papers Are Doubling Down on Print

With strained internet access in some rural communities, it may make sense for local newsrooms to focus on the traditional print medium. After all, a 2018 Pew Research study found newspapers still make significantly more revenue from the print advertisements on their pages than on digital platforms — 56 percent of their revenue, according to the study.

But for Mike Palm, the executive editor of Uniontown’s Herald-Standard, his paper is choosing print for a different reason: competition.

“When you’re trying to compete in a digital world, you’re competing with more [media outlets]. The Tribune, the Post-Gazette, all the TV stations, the Observer-Reporter — in the digital realm all those become competitors,” Palm said, speaking before his paper’s owner, Ogden, purchased the Washington Observer-Reporter last week.

“In the newspaper realm — in hard copy– we have competitors, but in this area, there’s not much,” he said.  

Palm’s publisher, Michael Scott, has been with Ogden for 19 years and believes Ogden made the right decision, albeit through a series of difficult choices, when they changed their priorities from online back to print after buying the paper in 2017. That’s when Rebecca Devereaux and her colleagues in the visual media department were let go.

Uniontown’s Herald-Standard publisher Michael Scott. Photo: David Smith/100 Days in Appalachia

“Calkins [Media] was focused on digital,” Scott said, referring to the paper’s previous owner, “and we’re focused on print. Having a good, solid print product, it comes with a good, solid business model where digital does not, and in order to keep the content the level we firmly believe we should be at for a local newspaper, we need to be [in] print.”

Scott estimated the Herald-Standard’s current circulation to be approximately 50,000 and said they have 115 distribution racks throughout their coverage area. Calkins Media had previously removed all of the racks.

Photo: David Smith/100 Days in Appalachia

Scott believes newspapers made a mistake when “they offered their product for free” online. Yet, paywalls have not proven to be the answer for rural markets either.

“Newspapers have not made money online. Their revenues have been flat as a whole and that includes the larger regional newspapers like the Boston Globe and Dallas Morning News,” Ryfe said.

According to the Pew Research Center’s 2016 State of the Media Report, weekday print circulation in 2015 still made up 78 percent of a newspaper’s distribution. Fifty-one percent of adults who choose to read a newspaper do so in a print-only format, compared to 5 percent who prefer digital-only.

But those findings aren’t conclusive for the industry as a whole. In the same report, Pew found audiences are still gathering a large portion of their news from online sources when compared to the print newspaper. Regardless of whether a consumer first saw an article on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or LinkedIn, only 20 percent of the original content came from a daily newspaper, while 25 percent came from radio and 28 percent came from digital publications and apps.

While the Herald-Standard is doubling down on print, its neighbors to the north like the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review are betting on digital, but author and New York University journalism professor Samuel Freedman said those publications will have to find a way to make readers want to pay.

“You need to make the content strong enough that people want to pay for it,” Freedman said of the success of online paywalls. “What can you provide to your [readers and advertisers] that they can’t get anywhere else?”

The Counter Argument

With all of the external pressures on the industry, whether a newspaper is family-owned or held by an investment firm can be irrelevant. Statistics may indicate a reduction in the size of local newsrooms and, in turn, a reduction in local news coverage when they’re gobbled up by larger corporations, but that isn’t always the case.

“There’s nothing magical about local ownership,” Freedman said. “It is about who owns the paper. [The] problem isn’t that they’re outsiders, it is if there’s no commitment towards journalism.”

A former New York Times columnist and reporter, Freedman pointed to billionaire Glen Taylor who bought Minneapolis’ Star-Tribune as an owner who has aggressively worked to grow the audience of his paper, vowing to make it a “statewide” publication.  

Freedman agreed that there should be concern over media conglomerates buying up all of the publications in one geographic area, since history has shown they often have the “short-term” goal of debt cutting rather than growth. But as a former writer for New Jersey’s Courier News, owned by Gannett and part of the USA Today Network, Freedman said his own experience wasn’t that of drastic cuts.

“Everyone hated Gannett [at the time], but we were never removed [from a job] and were never strained for resources,” Freedman said.

Some local newsrooms today are finding benefits to being owned by the same large media company. Ellwood City Ledger managing editor Patrick O’Shea noted he utilizes a type of “network journalism” with the Beaver County Times.

Patrick O’Shea, managing editor of the Ellwood City Ledger. Photo: David Smith/100 Days in Appalachia

As a former employee of the nearby paper, O’Shea said he has previously established relationships at the Times and he will often use local and regional stories from their reporters to fill his pages at the Ledger rather than national news. He said this type of resource sharing has been valuable for him.  

According to Ryfe, this is common practice when chains buy local newspapers. “These companies buy up papers in a geographic area so they can ring different kinds of efficiencies out of the chain. That means they share content across the newspapers.”

If There’s Still Hope Despite Ownership Then What’s the Big Deal?

When newspapers are bought by a larger conglomerate, the regional approach they sometimes implement with their coverage can lead to resentment from local residents.

Joyce Blaho, a former marketing and advertising employee of the Herald-Standard in Uniontown, believes the paper has quashed its local content with their extended Mon Valley coverage.

“The paper isn’t the same since being bought out by the Nuttings,” she said, referring to the owners of Ogden Newspaper Inc. Blaho isn’t alone in her newfound discontent.

Photo: David Smith/100 Days in Appalachia

Sara Meyer, who works at the Free Carnegie Library in Connellsville, Pennsylvania, doesn’t read the local Daily Courier because she believe it is “too depressing.” For her, the coverage is unappealing, too many stories about car crashes and arrests.

“Every patron that comes in tells me a story,” Meyer said, who prefers to see more human interest stories in her daily newspaper. “Something like that would help balance all the depressing news.”

Meyer, who has a brother-in-law that works at the Herald-Standard, is empathic, though. She said she understands that local newsrooms don’t have enough manpower to successfully cover the area. Yet, she still can’t bring herself to purchase either paper regularly.

“I can’t justify buying it when I can get everything online,” she said.

Residents’ complaints throughout the Greater Pittsburgh Area echoed Meyer and Blaho’s. ‘The content is poor.’ ‘The paper isn’t representative of the neighborhood.’ ‘A subscription expired and the product wasn’t worth renewal.’ One elderly Aliquippa woman did admit she still reads The Beaver County Times, but “only for the obituaries.”  

If residents are not buying their local newspapers, local publishers can’t afford to stay in business. Even more ironic is a number of people in these communities interviewed for this story admitted while they don’t read their local newspaper, they’d be more upset if the paper closed its doors entirely.

And that is the paradoxical problem local newspapers are facing today: people want them, but they don’t want to pay for them.

“[Readers are] expressing a kind of ambivalence. They value journalism and yet, relatively few of them are willing to pay enough money to sustain this journalism in their community,” Ryfe said.

O’Shea has been the managing editor of the Ellwood City Ledger since the GateHouse Media merger in June 2017.

He said there were 5 staffers in the Ledger’s newsroom at the time. Now, it is operated by O’Shea along with one other full-time reporter, a part-timer and an 80-year-old contributing writer. The paper itself is laid out in Austin, Texas, at New Media’s Center for News and Design– a design hub that serves 90 daily newspapers and 203 weekly papers, according to their website.

 

O’Shea said he’s not sure if any of the Ledger’s 2,500 readers are aware of the staffing reductions that have taken place under GateHouse’s ownership, but said the lack of empathy between readers and newsrooms “plays a role” in some of the hardships facing the newspaper industry. Residents are “almost always understanding” once the situation is discussed, O’Shea said, but those conversations can be few and far between.

Ideally, O’Shea would like to utilize additional staff to help allocate time to tackle more in-depth stories, but said he isn’t holding out hope for the increased resources.

“If it were up to a local administration, I think there might be more chance of that happening,” he said, “but unfortunately, when you are part of a larger organization, the attention isn’t really there.”

“This is a service the [residents] rely on. This is a business they rely on,” he said. O’Shea believes if the paper were to shut down, “it would leave a serious hole in the community.”

The only problem is someone still has to pay for the news.

This story was supported by The Pittsburgh Pitch, a project of 100 Days in Appalachia and the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University.

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New Research Challenges Idea Behind ‘Deaths of Despair’

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Photo: Pexels

Low-income Americans are dying at a higher rate than high-income Americans. In fact, the life span of low-income Americans is becoming shorter – a trend largely attributed to drug and alcohol-related deaths, which has been called deaths of despair.

“The least well-off Americans have seen their wages become stagnant, their jobs become obsolete, their neighborhoods crumbling in various ways. And so there’s a thought that that leads to despair for less-educated Americans and they turn to drugs or suicide,” explained University of Michigan professor Arline Geronimus.

Geronimus was the lead on a new study that argues higher rates of death among low-income Americans are due to inequity, not despair. She talked about her research in a conversation with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s health reporter Kara Lofton.

Lofton: But your research actually challenges that theory [of despair], correct?

Geronimus: That’s correct. My theory doesn’t necessarily challenge that the increase is due in some way to the fact that life has gotten much harder. I mean, resources have gotten fewer, for the working class and for the least-educated Americans. But it challenges whether their response to it is despair, as opposed to working that much harder to make ends meet, to support their families, to overcome the obstacles in their way. 

There’s a rich literature suggesting that when you work so tenaciously against barriers or difficulties or trying to make ends meet or working multiple jobs, that [in] itself can lead to chronic physiological stress reactions in your body that over time cause wear and tear in your body and can lead to sort of accelerated aging, the early onset of a variety of chronic diseases, cardiovascular diseases, cancers. And so you might also see this increasing inequity in life expectancy if what was happening was people are working so hard and under uncertainty and hard conditions that it wears away at their bodies.

Lofton: So you’re basically pointing to research that shows that chronic stress can impact the body’s health responses. So how healthy somebody is, is impacted by their stress in their lives.

Geronimus: Right and also how chronic it is, or unremitting, the different kinds of stress people think of stress is sort of just a feeling. But it’s more than a feeling. It’s a biological reaction and it can be triggered by feelings. But it can also be triggered by environmental factors, toxins in your environment, by sleeplessness, by working night shift jobs, from anxiety about how you’re going to make ends meet, how you’re going to get food on the table, how you’re going to pay the expensive hospital bill. You know, people have this vague notion of stress, but the stressors I’m talking about, include that idea of stress, but so much more.

Lofton: So I mean, but let’s tease this out a little bit. If you are chronically stressed about how you’re going to get to work, and how you are going to put food on the table for your family. I mean, doesn’t that contribute to a sense of despair?

Geronimus: It can, but the distinction that I’m making is despair, first of all, is entirely a feeling. And especially if you talk about deaths of despair, and look to suicide and opiate overdose, and put those together, it kind of paints this picture of people who just give up and tune out – just unproductive and depressed – and either literally kill themselves or kill themselves over time – or take risks that could have killed themselves very quickly.

That’s a very different thing than what I’m talking about, which is engaging with tenacity and even kind of hopefulness, the difficult obstacles –  going to the two jobs, waiting for the bus, you know, not just going off and getting a drink. But that’s kind of what, in jargon is called “high-effort coping.” [It] itself can harm your body if it’s chronic. When the going gets as tough as it’s gotten for the least educated Americans over the last 25-30 years, if they choose to try to engage and support their families and themselves anyway, it’s sort of like batting their head against the wall.

Lofton: So you actually do talk about this quite a bit this idea of educational inequity and the role that educational inequity plays in sort of health disparities. Can you talk to me a little bit about that?

Geronimus: In our study, we looked at the least-educated Americans at any given time. So it’s not just [having] less than say, than [a] high school [education]. Because if [it] were, if you didn’t graduate high school 50 years ago, that might not be a big deal. But if you don’t graduate high school now, it certainly is, in terms of your opportunities. And over this period of time, because we’ve moved so much to a high-tech economy and an automated economy and a globalized economy, people with the least education are having the hardest time now finding jobs in our current economy. And even those who have them, and have had them even consistently, their real wages have stayed stagnant for 30 years, while prices of housing, food, health care, everything’s skyrocketed. So if your wages have stayed the same, your life is harder, even if you are employed.

Lofton: So what is the takeaway? What do you hope the study will contribute to the general conversation around the data that shows that Americans are not living as long as they used to?

Geronimus: That it shows that the main drivers of [death among low-income Americans] are cancers and cardiovascular diseases and internal causes. And that points in different directions than if you think people are despairing and taking drugs. And you would come up with different policies to address it. And as a researcher, we would pursue different avenues in researching it. And if in fact, it’s related to keeping on keeping on, even in the face of early onset of diseases and low wages and great uncertainty and illness in your family. That certainly points in directions that are different than ‘let’s just make sure we get opioids off the streets.’

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from Marshall Health and Charleston Area Medical Center.

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Q&A: Why We Need Better Reporting on Rural America

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Journalists Sarah Smarsh and Ken Ward Jr. discuss the state of rural journalism at Robert Wood Johnson's Life in Rural America symposium. Photo: Shawn Poynter, courtesy of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Is there room to tell more complete stories about the diverse circumstances and perspectives in rural America? We better hope so, says Kansas native Sarah Smarsh, author of the bestselling memoir “Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth.” Smarsh speaks with veteran coal reporter Ken Ward Jr. about the relationship between good journalism, community health and our collective future.

Journalists Sarah Smarsh and Ken Ward Jr. have made careers out of telling complicated but compelling stories.

Smarsh is up for a National Book Award for her memoir “Heartland,” which examines her rural Kansas upbringing. Ward just received a MacArthur fellowship (a.k.a. the MacArthur “genius” award) for his long career covering the coal industry from its Appalachian epicenter in West Virginia.

Ward interviewed Smarsh in May in Charleston, West Virginia, at a national rural-life summit sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a national funder of health-related projects. (Disclosure: The Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes the Daily Yonder, receives funding from the foundation.)

The reporters talked about American journalism’s portrayal of rural people and the need for Americans to build a more accurate and complicated understanding of rural communities and issues.

The following question-and-answer format article is based on that interview. It has been edited for length and clarity.

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Journalists Ken Ward Jr. (Shawn Poynter courtesy of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.)

Ken Ward Jr.: You’ve been doing a lot of traveling around and talking to people in rural America. I sense that there’s a different conversation going on there [than we hear about]. What are people in rural America talking to each other about and talking with you about that maybe the chattering class needs to listen to?

Sarah Smarsh: The story that’s told about [rural places] is largely a false narrative, and there’s great dissonance between the prevailing stereotypes and tropes about rural America and what’s actually happening on the ground. If you’re a cable news network, and you like conflict, and you want to whip up the idea of cities versus country (which drives up ratings and enforces some sort of unfortunate cultural identities), then you put up a map of the United States where each state is colored either red or blue, as though that monochromatic color would represent everyone in that state.

Actually, in 2016, in just about every state, almost 40 percent, so almost two out of five people, voted for the candidate who lost in that state. So we’re sort of rendering invisible millions of people when we use terms like “Trump country” and reduce regions to political monoliths.

So ultimately, those maps I think are very misleading. When I’m talking to people on the ground, it is a much more promising picture than you would think from CNN or MSNBC. People are coming together as communities across even political boundaries and working in a space that I would call localism, like how do we solve these problems locally when we’re feeling not only misunderstood but perhaps even scorned and scapegoated on a national level?

Ward: I’m wondering is it really even appropriate to talk about one rural America, and to assume that farmland in Kansas and the people who live there have all the same ways of doing things, and thinking, and talking as people in the coalfields of southern West Virginia, or steel country in western Pennsylvania and Ohio? Is there room in this space for what could be lots of different rural Americas?

Smarsh: There had better be room if we want to understand ourselves accurately as a country. Unfortunately, the way the power structure works is whoever gets to set the narrative often has a blind spot to the spaces with less power. Sometimes, it’s with direct malice, but sometimes it’s just for a sort of ironic ignorance at the top that the story is told in a way that is reductive to a dangerous extent.

Of course, there’s not just one rural America. I happen to be a white, fifth-generation wheat farmer. I grew up on a flat expanse in the middle of a country. I happen to have been born into a sort of stereotype, in terms of imagery. My dad has been a construction worker for decades. He wears a hard hat, and he’s got a farmer’s tan, and he struggles to get dental care. We carry with us the symbols of rural America, and yet what those symbols would represent to someone about who we are, let’s say politically, would be actually the opposite of the way that my particular family votes and believes in things. My dad’s favorite politician, by the way, is [U.S. Representative] Maxine Waters [D-California 43rd].

Ward: What are the health concerns that you think rural Americans have, based on what you’ve heard in the places you’ve been or the place that you’re from?

Smarsh: I was just talking in Hutchinson, Kansas [population 42,000]. It’s only 30 miles from the farm that I grew up in [in central Kansas] They have a local health initiative called Heal Reno County. It was a beautiful evening, standing room only. One hundred people showed up to talk about this not very sexy topic of health.

Every single person in there, during the hour-long Q-and-A engagement, was saying, “Why isn’t our state expanding Medicaid?” This is so counter [to national media representations of rural]. A TV studio in New York would be stunned that that’s the line on the ground. Then I can just hear right now comments on some national news, at the bottom of the story, “Well, then why did they vote against it?” Or, “Why did they vote against their best interest?” That presumes, again, that this places a political monolith. What I try to tell people, when they want to cast an entire state or region in one particular way politically or culturally, “If you right now do not feel represented by our federal administration, then perhaps logically you can imagine that within the smaller political unit of a state, or even a county, or city, you could live there and not be represented by the people who are in office.”

Ward: How do you have a dialogue with someone who starts off with, “That’s what you get for voting that way”?

Smarsh: The first way that I come at any conversation about community progress is humility about not presuming that I know better than the person walking in his or her shoes. I come by that humility easily in the political sector because I was raised with somewhat different political views than I and my whole family hold now. I wasn’t a worse person then, and I’m not a better person now. I’m the same person with extremely different sets of information.

Journalists Sarah Smarsh and Ken Ward Jr. (Photo by Shawn Poynter courtesy of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.)

Ward: Where can we find information to better understand what’s happening in rural America?

Smarsh: I think that part of how we rectify this concern of different sets of information is local news, but it’s also the national news paradigm that increasingly… It’s like this perfect storm, where so much local reporting has fallen and not yet been built, even though there are great efforts going on to that in the digital era. The big dogs that were left are where people increasingly turn for all of their stories and narratives, and that is the national networks. If you’re sitting in your recliner in small-town Idaho, and somebody in New York is telling you a story about your place as though it’s the truth, this is sort of a disconnect. We have half the country watching Fox News and half the country watching MSNBC. While I’m all for increasing efforts on the local level, there is something that is so toxic in that top-level system being broken from the rest of the information sphere that that’s, I think, a bigger problem to contend with.

Ward: How does class figure into your work?

Smarsh: Actually, the first thing that I wrote that quote-unquote, went viral … was an essay called “Poor Teeth” about lack of access to dental care. It centered on my dad’s struggle. Well, my dad had a cavity turn into an infected root, and then ultimately it turned into sepsis, and almost killed him. In 2014, a lifelong construction worker has a nearly fatal bout with a rotten tooth, basically. That’s in the richest country on Earth.

So many people contacted me. Thousands of people sent me messages about that story that said that somehow that had never quite been articulated. I was thinking, “What in the world? How we are at this moment in our supposedly advanced society when people just haven’t even felt…” There is such a veil over the truth about economic inequality in this country, and the ways in which it intersects with race, gender and a whole bunch of other aspects of identity, that in 2014, all I did was articulate it, and then people were like, “I’ve never heard someone say this.”

The trick that we do socially and culturally to ensure that veil stays up has to do with shame. My dad felt ashamed to talk about his teeth and very bravely let me do so with his blessing, but when you’ve got to keep up these appearances, like, “This is bootstrap America and I’m getting by on my own,” that doesn’t leave much space for the vulnerability of, “And meanwhile there’s poison in my blood because I can’t afford a dentist.”

Ward: One thing that I struggle with is, to what extent some of these must-pull-myself-up-by-bootstraps sort of narratives are internalized and coming from us, and to what extent they are being overly reinforced by some national media portrayal?

Smarsh: I think that it is both coming from popular culture and news media, but it also arises from within the very community. That’s why I go back to why narratives matter and words matter because the hell of it is, you can start believing the lie about yourself. The way that this keeps us from progressing as a country is, again, we are dealing with things without looking right at some of the most glaring problems.

Ward: How is the way we tell stories important for matters of health?

Smarsh: I think when we talk about health, it’s easy to think of this as a wholly physical concern, but health and wellness, of course, as you all know, goes beyond that. There is something that I would call just a… I hesitate to use the word spiritual because I don’t necessarily mean that in any context that remotely involves God or religion. But if you just think of your being, your sense of your relationship to the world, the universe. If every story being told about you is that you’re backwards, ignorant, your community is dying, why don’t you just leave, and meanwhile, you’re doing the work of picking the lettuce in California or raising the wheat in Kansas that’s on the plate of the people who are carelessly levying those condescending comments, that is a bitter pill to swallow spiritually and psychologically.

I don’t know how to back this up other than my own lived experience. That has reverberations in the way of wellness and health, whether it’s that shame or a sense of not being validated somehow. It’s related to a general malaise and a need to self-medicate. The stories that we tell about ourselves and about specific populations within our country, they affect the wellness of those communities.

This article was originally published by the Daily Yonder.

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Rural America

‘Cities v. Country’: Focus on Divide Means Rural Voices Go Unheard

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Sarah Smarsh, left, was the keynote speaker at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Life in Rural symposium in Charleston, West Virginia. Photo: Shawn Poynter/Courtesy of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

You probably wouldn’t suspect it, but journalist Sarah Smarsh’s dad’s favorite politician is Maxine Waters.

Nick Smarsh is a fourth-generation wheat farmer and lifelong construction worker from rural Kansas, Waters a decidedly liberal congresswoman from southern California.

Granted, Nick Smarsh isn’t likely among the majority of rural Americans in his unabashed admiration for Waters. But he’s certainly not alone.

Debunking stereotypes of rural America – as monolithic, as “Trump Country” – was a primary topic of conversation at the Life in Rural America Symposium held last month in Charleston, West Virginia, in conjunction with the release of the “Life in Rural America: Part II” report by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health from surveys of 1,405 adults living in the rural U.S.

The message emanating from Charleston was clear: Rural America is politically, racially and economically diverse. It’s the mountains of Appalachia, Midwest farmland, the Mississippi Delta, the Great Plains, Hispanic and Native-American communities scattered throughout the country, Mormon communities in the west. Out of that diversity come a myriad of narratives.

Sarah Smarsh, left, was the keynote speaker at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Life in Rural symposium in Charleston, West Virginia. Photo: Shawn Poynter/Courtesy of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

As keynote speaker at the symposium, Smarsh, author of the bestselling Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, shared her father’s affinity for Rep. Waters. And she joined a chorus of speakers and other attendees in emphasizing the importance of hearing the many voices of rural America.

“A problem well-stated is half-solved,” Smarsh said of the issues rural Americans face today, quoting inventor Charles Kettering. But it must be articulated from within.

Narratives, if genuine, matter, she said. “Because the hell of it is, you can start believing in the lie about yourself.”

Debunking the Mainstream View

Certainly, symposium panelists acknowledged, there are issues common to the whole of rural America. Among the “Life in Rural America” report’s findings are that 64 percent of rural residents believe that better long-term job creation would be most helpful to their local economy, 61 percent believe that improving the quality of local schools would be most beneficial and 55 percent point to improved access to health care.

The report also suggests that the solutions lie within rural communities. While a majority of those interviewed in the survey acknowledged that assistance from the federal and state governments is required, more than half said they’re active in solving problems in their community – with younger adults reporting higher levels of participation – and two-thirds said their neighbors have helped them in times of need.

Ed Sivak, executive vice president of policy and communications for the Hope Enterprise Corporation, presented data that could help move rural communities toward equity. Photo: Shawn Poynter/Courtesy of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

“The way I look at it,” said Ed Sivak of the Mississippi-based Hope Enterprise Corporation, a nonprofit community development financial institution, “there ain’t nothing wrong in rural America that can’t be fixed by what’s going right.”

Smarsh spoke of the “promising picture” of rural America that she encounters in her travels – of people coming together as communities across political boundaries and “working in a space of what I would call localism, of, ‘How do we solve these problems locally, when we’re feeling sort of not only misunderstood but perhaps even scorned and scapegoated on a national level?’”

The story that’s told in the media about rural America, she asserted, is largely a false narrative. “There’s a great dissonance between the prevailing stereotypes and tropes about rural America and what’s actually happening on the ground,” she said.

“If you’re a cable news network, and you like conflict, and you want to whip up the idea of cities versus country – which drives up ratings and enforces some sort of unfortunate tribal identities – then you put up a map of the United States where each state is colored either red or blue, as though that monochromatic color would represent everyone in that state.”

In fact, Smarsh pointed out, in the 2016 election around 40 percent of voters in a majority of states selected the candidate who lost that state in the presidential election. “So we’re sort of rendering invisible millions of people when we use terms like ‘Trump Country’ and reduce regions to political monoliths.”

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Rural communities are staking claim to their future.

Ines Polonius, CEO of Communities Unlimited, Inc, a not-for-profit that provides economic-development assistance in southeastern states, said that community development should begin with a focus on assets, not deficits. This approach “begins to shift mindsets, and it begins to create hope.”

Polonius spoke of structuring “entrepreneurial ecosystems” that allow communities “to build their economies from the inside.”

“A lot of times what we find is that as we identify leaders that have really creative ideas and we bring them to the table, they’ve never been in a position where they’ve had the opportunity to lead,” Polonius said. “They’ve never had an opportunity to be in a room with other leaders and actually work together and work through implementation.”

Lisa Mensah, president and CEO of Opportunity Finance Network, a national association of community development financial institutions, or CDFIs, joined Polonius in a panel discussion of capacity building and advancing economic opportunity.

In a recent op-ed piece for The Daily Yonder, Mensah reported that 85 percent of the nation’s 353 persistently poor counties are rural. CDFIs, Mensah wrote, play a critical role in lifting rural economies. They have “proven experience and the conviction that decent housing, clean drinking water and life enriching community facilities and opportunities can happen in even the remotest and poorest areas.”

“We know how to solve problems in rural infrastructure, housing, banking, small business and healthcare,” Mensah wrote, and underscored in Charleston. “The solution is capital, resources and perseverance.”

Jen Giovannitii, left, president of the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, joined a panel at the Life in Rural symposium to discuss how rural communities can move toward solutions. Photo: Shawn Poynter/Courtesy of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Jen Giovannitti, president of the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, which provides grant assistance throughout southwestern Pennsylvania and West Virginia, spoke of the importance of making disruptive investments in rural communities – by investing, for example, in CDFIs.

“Banks are not providing all of the services that we need for small businesses, housing and health care,” Giovannitti said in a post-symposium interview. CDFIs are making that investment.

She cited as an example investing in young family-practice physicians, dentists and pharmacists who want to settle in a rural community. They’ve accumulated enormous debt from their education and the cost of starting out on one’s own can be prohibitive. Banks consider them a poor risk.

Investing in those practices, Giovannitti said, is an investment in both the health and economy of that community.

“So this, for us, disrupts the system,” she said. These young health care professionals “might not be able to make that happen in a traditional setting. But these intermediaries,” the CDFIs, “can make it happen.”

A Seat at the Table

The well-stated consensus in Charleston was that the foundation for development in rural communities is capacity building and leadership training. But there then must be a seat at the larger table.

“One of the reasons why rural America doesn’t get the resources it needs is because it is not really at any of the tables where those decisions about rural America are made,” Brian Dabson, a research fellow at the University of North Carolina School of Government, said.

“We go through the motions of putting our arms around and saying we care for each other,” Dabson offered, “but that’s not the reality in the way the large-scale resources are allocated. It’s who’s got the power. And until we redistribute that power, then we’ve got to put a Band Aid over it and deal with it at the local level and take care of ourselves within that unfair context.”

Demanding “equal voice, equal power,” he said, is of the essence.

“We don’t want to be in denial,” Dee Davis, founder and president of the Whitesburg, Kentucky-based Center for Rural Strategies, said, “but we also know that you really can’t build a way forward unless you’re working with an understanding of your assets and lifting them up.”

He’d made a list of assets discussed throughout the day that he felt are “worth hanging onto.” Among them: diversity, family, heritage, humor, entrepreneurial spirit, common purpose, striving for a better world for one another’s children … that “the mountains are our grandfathers” (“I want to be a mountain for someone,” Davis avowed.) … “that we aren’t supplicants, that we have standing to negotiate” … “our connections in systems and connection in story.”

Davis was encouraged by what he’d heard and experienced this day.

“People are very certain of who’s going to make it and who’s not,” he said. “But we should be a little careful in making these projections, because there are a lot of balls in the air, and we’re not sure how they’re going to fall.”

Editor’s Note: The Center for Rural Strategies produces The Daily Yonder, a publishing partner of 100 Days in Appalachia.

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