Rural journalism the future of community journalism

In today’s media world, newspapers must fight local complacency by proving they are relevant — and needed

Does the reportedly mixed reaction to the death of a small weekly newspaper on the Lake of the Woods show we have entered “the golden age of ignorance,” as Minnesota Public Radio blogger Bob Collins declared?

Perhaps, if newspapers can’t convince communities that they are an essential civic asset.

Collins’ declaration came in a follow-up to MPR reporter John Engler’s report on the May 7 demise of the Warroad Pioneer, one of three weeklies in Roseau County, on Minnesota’s northern border. Engler paraphrased New York Times reporter Richard Fausset: “He said he spent a week in Warroad, talking to locals about the paper closing. He admitted that most folks, outside of the Pioneer staff and their husbands, didn’t seem too broken up about it.”

Fausset disputed that, in an interview with me: “I talked to a lot of people who were very worried the newspaper was going to quit. What MPR reported does not accurately reflect what I found in the town. There are a number of people concerned about what happens next.”

Engler did a little of his own reporting on the point. After paraphrasing Fausset, he wrote: “Out on the streets of Warroad, a handful of locals backed up his assessment,” and cited one who “gets his news from Google, ‘just like everybody else.'”

That comment reflects “monumental ignorance,” said Reed Anfinson, former president of the National Newspaper Association and publisher of the Swift County Monitor-News in Benson in central Minnesota. “There is no local civic reporting from Google. Google captures our work and pirates it – if it is available.”

Anfinson also said, “A reporter finding some disgruntled, or disinterested, people and using them to imply definitive assessment of the community’s feelings about the newspaper, I find troubling.”

Publisher Rebecca Colden told me, “There were people coming in throughout the day who said just the opposite.” Interviewed before Fausset was, she said, “I think Richard’s saying they’re just complacent with the value of a newspaper. They like it, but they don’t value it as they should.”

That feeling, Colden said, helped her decide to close. She said she met with many people in the community, looking for ways to rejuvenate the paper, but “The challenge was that there is a complacency within these small communities, that they just feel like the paper will always be there, especially a paper of this age.” The Pioneer lasted more than 120 years.

And it wasn’t as if she hadn’t warned the whole town, in stark fashion. Colden said the Pioneer was the first of many Minnesota papers to run a blank front page in 2017, asking readers to imagine that there was no local paper. She told me that she did the sort of accountability news coverage that readers expect, and “They’re gonna miss all the information they didn’t know they needed.”

Colden said she could have borrowed more money and taken the risk of converting to free, total-market circulation, “but I need to know that there’s really community buy-in to do that, and . . . the community buy-in was really lacking.” She said that showed in school news, a local-paper staple: “Teachers and coaches just throw some things up on social media rather than send it to the paper.”

Engler reported that Fausset was assigned to “tell the story of the prototypical American small town losing its voice.” If so, he seems to have made a good choice; the paper is like many rural weeklies that have closed in the last 15 years: in a small town outside a county seat, with a shrinking advertising base and independent ownership that couldn’t or wouldn’t negotiate a sale or merger.

We don’t know the whole story. Colden said she couldn’t work out a deal with the paper’s former owners, Page1Publications, who have five nearby weeklies, including one in Roseau County. That was after she’d considered going to free distribution, and then tried to compete more directly with the county-seat paper, the Roseau Times-Region, 22 miles away. As often happens, local loyalties trumped other factors, she said: “Because of that community loyalty over there, we were never able to capture that advertising base.”

She said her local ad base has shriveled because Marvin Windows and Doors, the main local employer, has “a new generation of workers” more willing than their predecessors to shop in other towns. “It doesn’t bug them to drive two hours to go to Walmart,” she said, so more than a dozen of Warroad’s approximately 50 storefronts are empty. “We’re really a community in transition.”

But on the other side of Roseau County, in a similar small town, the Greenbush Tribune is thriving, owner and newspaper broker Julie Bergman of Page1Publications told me. Yes, having five papers in a cluster gives them economy of scale, but the Greenbush editor is a local man, Ryan Bergeron, who came back home to take the job. Bergman said he makes sure that the Tribune has content that is relevant to its readers.

“In order to survive, you have to have something in the paper that people want to pick up,” Bergman said. “They’re going to learn something.

Whatever the causes of the Pioneer’s death, it “is more than a one-off loss of a newspaper,” Anfinson told me. “I am hearing from newspaper publishers and executive directors of state newspaper associations that their concerns about the future of small-town weekly newspapers is growing.”

Almost a year ago, Anfinson was featured in a Rural Blog item headlined, “Times get tougher for rural newspapers.” Now it seems even tougher. As the old saying has it, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Newspapers must prove to their communities that they are relevant, and needed. As Bergman said, “There needs to be more education.”

Rural journalism

New federal policies may bring big changes to communities

Big changes in Washington will mean big changes in your county, and we’ve been covering them on The Rural Blog.

President Donald Trump’s pledge to deport undocumented workers could lead to a labor shortage in agriculture, in which an estimated 16 percent of the work is done by people who are in the U.S. illegally, The Associated Press and CNN reported.

That’s just one farm-and-food issue that could spark disputes among Trump and other Republicans, NPR reported. Those include breaking nutrition legislation out of the Farm Bill, the bill’s conservation-compliance rules, regulation of confined animal feeding operations and protection of bees and other pollinators.

Trump has talked about an Obamacare replacement that would allow insurance companies to sell across state lines, but that’s more complicated than it sounds, and it might be bad for rural buyers, Jackie Farwell reported for the Bangor Daily News.

Repeal of Obamacare could also quash a program that is penalizing 769 hospitals this year for shortcomings on patient safety, Trudy Lieberman wrote for the Rural Health News Service at Our blog item linked to the list of penalized hospitals.

More importantly, depending on the replacement, repeal could hurt or kill struggling rural hospitals, many in areas that Trump carried, Kaiser Health News reported, and we excerpted it at

Kaiser’s main example was a hospital in Pennsylvania, a state that just started a pilot project to pay six rural hospitals a set amount each month instead of reimbursing them for federally covered care, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported.

Trump’s key landslide in rural areas, and major news outlets’ failure to anticipate it and its effect on the election, prompted The Washington Post to add a reporter who will focus on the divides between rural and urban Americans. Jose DelReal, Alaska native and Harvard grad, might appreciate some competitive help from rural papers; read about his assignment at

One last Trump note: Jim Stasiowski is known among community journalists for his column on newspaper writing, but his latest effort warned that Trump’s success could prompt local candidates who use the “Trump approach of loud, bold, insulting statements to gain early attention for an otherwise long-shot campaign.”

Drug abuse: Why is opioid addiction so rampant in rural areas? A story by Luke Runyon of Wichita Public Radio suggested that rural areas are the perfect breeding ground for opioid addiction. We paired it with a New York Times county-by-county map showing drug-overdose rates at

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified 255 counties, mostly rural, that are the most vulnerable to an outbreak of HIV or hepatitis C from intravenous drug use. Many local officials have resisted establishing syringe exchanges as a way of heading off such outbreaks, but in several counties, they have changed their minds, reports Mary Meehan of Ohio Valley ReSource, a regional journalism collaborative of public broadcasters in Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia. In Kentucky, which has many “dry” counties, a study of meth-lab discoveries boosted the case that drug use is less prevalent in areas where alcohol sales are legal.

Drug use is discouraging economic development in some rural and micropolitan counties because too many prospective employees can’t pass a drug test. The Washington Post reported on that phenomenon in a story about how U.S. manufacturing has changed.

Newspapers: The Rural Blog is also about journalism and community newspapers, which are threatened in most states by local officials’ efforts to get legislatures to slash public-notice laws. The Public Notice Resource Center noted how the Georgetown (Ky.) News-Graphic presents public notices like news stories on a special page “designed to capture readers’ attention and promote the kind of serendipity that distinguishes newsprint from electronic formats.” We picked it up at

You may have seen the New York Times story about the Enid (Okla.) News & Eagle catching hell from readers and some advertisers for endorsing Hillary Clinton; we picked it up at

The rise of fake news has proven, that now more than ever, quality reporting is essential to keep people informed, especially in smaller communities. That was a key point of an article that longtime journalist Kathy Kiely wrote for (Bill) Moyers & Co., citing some local news startups:

The editor-publisher of the paper judged the state’s best weekly for the last nine years became president of the Kentucky Press Association and immediately challenged his colleagues to do better. We wrote it up at

Potpourri: One of the most republished or adapted Rural Blog items recently was one about a New York Times analysis of TV-show followers, with a neat map. It showed that television, which once unified American culture, now defines its divisions:

Portable Wi-Fi devices at libraries allow patrons to “borrow the Internet,” the Daily Yonder reported.

Rural liberal-arts colleges are fighting enrollment losses by improving connections with their communities, The Wall Street Journal reported:

Abusive teachers are able to skip from state to state as local schools cover up their misdeeds, USA Today reported:

State police are an important part of law enforcement in rural areas, but low pay and aging officers are creating shortage of troopers in many states, reported Therese Apel of The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss. We excerpted her story at

If you do or see stories that resonate across rural areas, please send them to me at [email protected].

political coverage Rural journalism

Trump policies to impact rural areas

Rural votes played a big role in Donald Trump’s victory, and he plans some big changes that will have a big impact in rural communities.

Extractive industries do most of their extracting in rural areas, and Trump promised “to topple just about every major energy and environment policy enacted in the past eight years,” Robin Bravender reported for Environment & Energy News.

The Obama administration policies most likely to be reversed are the Environmental Protection Agency’s redefinition of “waters of the United States” in the Clean Water Act, strongly opposed by farm interests, and the regulations to limit carbon-dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants.

But there is little that Trump can do to bring back power-plant markets that coal has lost to cheap natural gas, experts said in an earlier blog item. In it, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the No. 3 coal state, said it is “hard to tell” whether a reversal of Obama’s policies will bring back the industry. Trump hasn’t said exactly how he would help coal, we noted at, an item that also noted his support of oil pipelines.

While Trump’s opposition to the water rule cemented his support among farmers, they worry about his opposition to trade agreements, which help U.S. agricultural exports and crop prices. Philip Brasher of the Agri-Pulse newsletter did a story the day after the election and we excerpted it at

Farmers are also worried about Trump’s stand on illegal immigration. Ironically, his election drove down the price of the Mexican peso from 6 cents to less than 5 cents, which could lead to more illegal immigration from the country, Bloomberg News reported. We excerpted it at

Trump held rural rallies to spur turnout, a strategy that supposed experts questioned but proved to be a sort of organic turnout operation, as I told Patrik Jonsson of The Christian Science Monitor the day after the election. We excerpted his story at Our day-after rural roundup of the election results is at

Katherine Cramer, a political-science professor at the University of Wisconsin, became a leading interpreter of Trump’s rural base because of her 2015 book, The Politics of Resentment, based on a long series of interviews with people in 27 Badger State communities. The Washington Post wrote her up, and then she did her own piece for the Post. We excerpted both, respectively, at

Cramer wrote that rural people in Wisconsin resent the political and economic dominance of Milwaukee and the capital of Madison, and their attitudes toward rural people. “They perceived that city folks called people like them ignorant racists who could not figure out their own interests,” she wrote. “To them, urban types just did not get small-town life—what people in those places value, the way they live, and the challenges they face.”

The Rural Blog is mainly aggregation, but we do the occasional story, and did the Sunday after the election, when Chuck Todd of NBC News featured comments from a leading farm-policy journalist on “Meet the Press.” Chris Clayton of DTN/The Progressive Farmer said in an MSNBC interview with Todd and others that Trump’s big rural margin may have been bolstered by resentment at repeated references in the news media to Trump’s popularity among both rural and lesser-educated voters.

“Rural America is not uneducated, even though maybe there are fewer people with college degrees than there might be in the metropolitan areas,” Clayton said, and his remarks stung Todd and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Brooks said, “People with college degrees voted very differently than people with high-school degrees, but when you say it, when you actually don’t have a college degree, you hear, ‘Oh, they think I’m stupid.’ I’m guilty of that because I use that shorthand too. And you saw so much sense of moral injury when you went around the Trump world.” Read our blog item at

The highly unusual election prompted more than the usual editorial commentary in rural newspapers, and we picked up some of it on The Rural Blog. You can read examples from both sides at and

I, for one, am glad the election is over and we can get back to more normal coverage. If you do or see stories that are relevant across rural areas, please send them to me at [email protected].


Rural journalism

The paper’s on the roof? Here’s what you’re missing

You can read this on two levels. Scott Hollifield, editor of a small community daily in North Carolina, writes an entertaining column about what happens when his neighbor’s paper ends up on her roof. It’s a fun read as he takes you through what she’ll miss if she never sees that paper – everything from a local crime story to feature pictures of a circus train coming through town to her horoscope to the daily adventures of Snuffy Smith (If you’re under 30, don’t even try to understand who that is). In other words, as he was looking at his neighbor’s paper on the roof, he wasn’t looking at a delivery snafu … he was looking at a slice of community life his neighbor would never experience unless he got his circulation folk to deliver another paper. The column is a fun read, but it reminds us of what we’re all about – we are not just producing a product for profit, we are also chronicling the life of a community. And with every edition, we need to prepare a one-minute elevator speech that goes something like this: “Did you see today’s/yesterday’s paper? Then here’s what you missed: “We told you why our schools are cutting three positions from the teaching faculty, we showed you some great images of Pastor Jackson helping his kids build a snowman, we printed several letters of people sniping at each other about moving the date of the county fair, we provided the only pre-season rundown of the girls’ basketball team written anywhere in the world and we gave you enough ads to save you thousands of dollars. And that’s just for starters….” In other words, what we’re doing matters to the community. And like this editor in North Carolina, we need to tell our readers what they’re missing when they miss the paper.

Rural journalism Story ideas

Some Census resources for community newspapers

No state gained more new congressional seats than Texas this year. The Census Bureau has begun the process of releasing information and the first data released is on the populations of the states and the percentage change in that population over the past 10 years. Check out the interactive map that tracks population change, population density and apportionment. And if you find it all confusing, check out this YouTube video on the apportionment process made by the Census Bureau. See also Al Tompkins’ Poynter article about how journalists can mine census data for story ideas. You might also want to check out Investigative Reporters and Editors’ 25-minute webinar to help journalists make sense of the Census. The webinar costs $5 for IRE members and $10 for non-members.

Rural journalism

Center for Rural Strategies publishes interesting research on rural areas

Typically we point to specific articles in Around the Web. But here’s something different: The Center for Rural Strategies in Kentucky publishes some fascinating research in its online newsletter The Daily Yonder It’s all about rural counties in the United States and much of it applies to Texas. The latest, for instance, is about the serious lack of university degrees in rural areas and what that means for economic development. To keep abreast of the latest research, much of which you can localize for your newspaper if you’re located in a rural area, go to the Daily Yonder’s Twitter page and follow their work. You’re almost guaranteed to come away with good story ideas and sources to interview for those stories.