Washington journalists may be obsessed with President Trump’s Russia connections. Silicon Valley reporters may be focused on the next big tech merger. And New York media types may be hyperventilating about Vanity Fair magazine’s editor stepping down.
But while most American journalists stay inside their urban bubble, the Texas Observer’s staff is laboring in the fields.
Poisonous crop-dusting is on their minds. So are the wildfires that result when agricultural land goes fallow. And so are the many communities that don’t have a hospital within several hours’ drive — or even a nearby doctor.
“There are such fantastic stories to be found,” said Forrest Wilder, editor of the Austin-based Observer, which recently became a mostly digital operation, still publishing in print six times a year.
Now, with funding from the Emerson Collective, the group founded by Laurene Powell Jobs, the Observer has added a full-time rural reporter, Christopher Collins, to its newsroom staff of about a dozen. The Observer will supplement his work with a network of freelancers.
“We’re going to really look for stories in far-flung, underreported — or unreported — areas,” Wilder said.
There are plenty of opportunities: 3.8 million of some 25 million Texans live in rural areas, he said.
The underreporting in rural areas is a nationwide phenomenon, with an increasing number of journalists clustered in New York, Washington and on the West Coast.
And as metro dailies shrink their staffs, rural bureaus are often one of the first casualties, said Al Cross, who runs the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky.
“Larger regional papers used to do this as a public service even though there was no advertising base for it,” Cross told me.
Now, with less revenue coming in as a result of print advertising’s sharp decline, and with year after year of newsroom buyouts taking their toll, rural reporting has taken a hit.
“It’s triage,” Cross said of newsroom decisions about what to cover. Rural reporting rarely is seen as the most critical mission.
But that leaves huge swaths of the United States without coverage. And the buying-up of small papers by chains, more beholden to stockholders than to local concerns, has hollowed out the journalism even more.
The term “news deserts” aptly describes the results: In many communities, there’s no one to cover government meetings, hold officials accountable, or report on events, large or small.
That’s a real problem. Consider the succinct question raised on the Kentucky institute’s website:
“Why is rural journalism important?”
According to recent U.S. Census data, the vast majority of land in the United States is rural and contains about 20 percent of the nation’s population.
After the presidential election, the national media’s consciousness was raised on the importance of covering what some have considered “flyover country,” and some news organizations put more resources behind that coverage. (The Washington Post’s expanded “America desk” is one example.)
But coverage that is firmly rooted in a region has its own value, noted Wilder, who grew up in small-town Texas, as did Collins, the Observer’s new hire.
“A reporter going in for a few days is important, but we wanted somebody who’s out there all the time, and who can approach the subject as something they have lived themselves,” he said.
Many community newspapers have managed to hang on, despite the changes in the newspaper business, said Tommy Thomason, director of the Texas Center for Community Journalism at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth.
“These are the papers that nobody has heard of, but that do such important work,” he said. “Some of these small-town officials think they’ve been elected as deities.”
He tells the journalists who come in for midcareer training that they have a crucial mission: “If you’re not doing it, nobody is doing it.” Many of these papers have a single newsroom employee or, more typically, four or five. (Compare this with the New York Times with well over 1,000 newsroom employees, or a metropolitan daily where the staff might be around 100.)
Accountability reporting in small towns, just as in Washington, often meets with resistance — which explains the title of a book Thomason co-wrote on community journalists: “You Might Want to Carry a Gun.”
Some of that journalism is world-class, as the 10-person staff at the 3,000-circulation Storm Lake Times in Iowa ably proved: Their work on pollution resulting from agricultural changes won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing this year.
Big-city reporting — on politics, government, Wall Street and technology — is indispensable. But so is its oft-neglected rural counterpart.
This column has been updated.
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan