The Media Didn't Fail America — You Just Didn't Know Where To Look

Liz Granger is a Nebraska-born, Chicago-based nonfiction writer and former Fulbright grantee. The views expressed here are her own.
“Who knows what makes an impact anymore? I don’t!” wrote Carson Vaughan, a journalist (and friend) from Broken Bow, NE, population: 3,559, in an explanation of his new op-ed project. “But, I do know that if I opened up a newspaper and found a full-page ad/op-ed stating loudly that my hometown is seen as a hostile place by many, and that was signed by a thousand people who live/lived there once, I'd probably notice.”

Vaughan comes from a place coastal people call “flyover country,” a term many of us who grew up there see, not only as a stereotype, but as a slur. Like me, Vaughan left his Midwest hometown for a bigger city, and like me, he was shocked by the election results. Now, Vaughan is trying to communicate across the divide between urban and rural America by organizing like-minded people with small-town roots into crowdfunding and jointly writing an advertisement that expresses their views. He plans to run his ad, in the form of an open letter, in rural western Nebraska in midsize publications. The project has attracted more than 200 supporters to date.

Vaughan is one of a slate of journalists trying to make sense of post-election America, and analyze how the press performed in bringing the concerns of rural America to the forefront. Some say that the mainstream media lost touch with an economically depressed segment of non-urban Americans. But as Alecia Swasy wrote on Poynter this week, others argue that, “The best coverage of serious issues facing rural America has been delivered” by big papers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post.

This public debate about media failure doesn’t often take rural reporting into account — but it should. A handful of outlets have been producing high-quality media for and about rural and underrepresented communities, before and after Donald Trump’s win. Whatever your stance on the state of journalism in our nation, you need to know about these under-the-radar gems.

For starters, take Belt magazine. In her excellent piece for Refinery29, Anne Trubek explains that the Rust Belt-oriented mag and small press that she founded in 2013, Belt Publishing, has been covering newly hot-button topics such as the white working class and redlining — withholding services like home mortgages in a discriminatory manner — for a long time. Nonetheless, she agrees that more coverage of our nation’s non-coastal, non-urban issues and people is essential. Not coverage by big-city writers “based on their five hours on the ground,” as Trubek describes parachute writing, but by local journalists who understand the daily reality of their communities and are struggling to support themselves.

Enter the Daily Yonder, a publication with a longtime commitment to the nuances of rural life. This online source for news, opinion, and photography from rural America was established in 2007 by the Center for Rural Strategies, a media nonprofit dedicated to improving coverage and dialogue around our country’s vast lands. Editor Tim Marema says that, although he sees great writing about rural areas originating from mainstream newspapers, he finds problems with the way outlets cover news outside of major cities.

“News outlets have been closing their small-town bureaus, pulling their reporters back,” Marema said. “Into that vacuum has stepped a steady diet of talk radio, Fox News, and Focus on the Family. We’ve ceded the communications infrastructure of rural America to the right wing.”

Marema said that the Daily Yonder works to present information in a less partisan, more “evenhanded, honest broker way.” Writers cover Native American affairs, the post-coal economy, religion, agriculture, and broadband access. “If you want to get rural people to agree on something…don’t bring up housing or education vouchers,” Marema laughed. “Bring up broadband.”

Like Marema, Nebraska-based freelance journalist Jacob Zlomke finds gaps in coverage for broad swaths of our country. That’s why during his college years, a few years ago, he spent two summers in a small town, Valentine, NE. Zlomke and three friends “embedded” in Valentine in order to tell stories that the Cornhusker State’s big newspapers missed. The project, which they eventually named Fly Over Me, birthed a website, photo essays, video, and longform features — and the February founding of Flyover Media, a nonprofit that produces multimedia journalism about underrepresented communities. Flyover Media solicits and publishes stories such as this one about ranchers whose livelihoods are threatened by Houston’s sprawl; and this one about the history and culture of U.S. Route 23, between Virginia and Ohio, which is the site of one of our nation’s largest internal migrations.
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Recently, Zlomke has been considering the exchange between readers of urban and rural media. “I think about who the media intends as their audience when they say that we need to cover rural areas better,” Zlomke says. “They’re not talking to those rural areas directly,” but rather talking about them. This relates to where and how journalism is distributed. “There’s not many people in Custer or Cherry County sitting at their desks reading think pieces on BuzzFeed.”

Like Zlomke, Katie Farritor, a coordinating producer for RFD-TV, the television channel of Rural Media Group, finds that non-urban audiences sometimes require different media delivery methods. Founded in 2000, RFD-TV says that it is the “first 24-hour television network featuring programming focused on the agribusiness, equine, and the rural lifestyle, along with traditional country music and entertainment,” according to its website. In 2013, the network launched Rural Radio, its agribusiness and rural lifestyle channel. Unlike her media group’s lifestyle programming on television, Farritor says that audiences tend to consume her company’s news shows via radio “because farmers are out in the field. Most of the time the farmers aren’t listening to us by watching TV. They’re listening from their tractors.”

When it comes to reporting from underserved and rural communities, models vary. Chicago’s 1-year-old City Bureau focuses on news related to the Windy City’s south and west sides; runs a reporting fellowship and mentor program; and offers a weekly conversation and workshop space that’s open to the public. Appalachian Kentucky’s Appalshop, an arts and culture nonprofit, offers community programming such as a film workshop, a radio station, a theater company, a record label, an art gallery, and a summer media training workshop for young people.

I’m sensing an openness to big ideas all around me at the close of 2016, as was the case in the groovy and tumultuous 1969, the year Appalshop was founded. And as the Nebraska-born daughter of parents whose hometowns count 1,200 and 128 persons, I am excited by how many of those ideas center around rural America: Both journalists and regular folks are reflecting on how they relate to small towns. I find Vaughan’s op-ed and chatter of new symposiums and conferences energizing. I’ve been talking to friends who imagine a Peace Corps-like program in which residents from urban and rural America temporarily exchange places. Personally, I wonder about a cooperative model for place-based coverage, like a Netflix for small outlets, an idea inspired by Appalshop’s unlimited monthly subscription to its vast media library.
All of this in service of a term I used to hate: flyover country.

On Wednesday, November 9, the morning after my election party turned into a wake, I listened as a New York Times political podcaster said, earnestly, “We need to understand flyover country. But flyover country is not a place; it’s a state of mind.” I tensed. In that instant, I found myself upset by something other than just my nation’s election of a bigoted pussy grabber. The reporter’s curt dismissal of my homeland, Omaha, NE, offended me. “Flyover country.” I bristled, defenses aroused. I felt an invisible wall rise between me and the voices of my trusted podcast.

Since then, my opinion has changed.

Flyover country is a stereotype and a slur that slid easily from the tongue of a mainstream news reporter. But flyover country is also a term, like pussy, worthy of reclamation and complication. It’s an elegy for cities and towns that travelers once crossed by road and rail, for the neighborhoods divided by urban highways, for empty factories and consolidated schools. It’s fire departments that are too white and 100-yard fields where sports fans roar every weekend. It’s the interconnectedness of this globalized world, worker safety at the packing house, my Latina high school classmate who asked for advice on which gun to buy in self-defense after a racist white man threatened her just after Trump’s victory.

“‘Flyover country’ is the last acceptable stereotype,” a friend boldly claimed over Chinese food last week. Maybe so. Probably not. But that great big empty sure does overflow with stories.
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