Gary Abernathy is publisher and editor of the (Hillsboro, Ohio) Times-Gazette.
I don’t read many of the online comments following my op-eds because I’m an old-fashioned journalist who prefers signed letters to the editor, or even phone calls or emails. But friends and family told me that my last Post op-ed apparently inspired a lot of responses ridiculing me and, by extension, editors of small-town newspapers everywhere.
I won’t whine about being criticized. Have at it. But maybe I can explain a little more about small-town newspapers — which I have often said are the last newspapers practicing old-school, non-sensationalized journalism — and in so doing perhaps help the head-scratchers better understand Trump country.
One particular response to my op-ed, summarizing probably hundreds of others, surmised that for newspapers like ours, the “biggest news is a new Dollar Store opening and the most column-inches are taken up by the crime report and obituaries. So sad.”
I laughed, in part because the comment hit close to home. In fact, we have done stories on dollar-store openings. In some tiny communities in southern Ohio, the opening of a dollar store is real news because it means that local residents no longer have to drive 30 minutes or more to buy some important household and grocery items.
The reality of life in rural flyover country is lost on those who mock us. These are the places where Donald Trump won the presidency, where people know they are ridiculed by East and West Coast elitists who have little understanding of the meaningful issues — the real news — that affect their lives. Trump identified a common enemy when he took on the media elite, and rural America flocked to his side.
A recent Reuters article on the lack of concern across southern Ohio about the Trump-Russia controversy identified three people at a restaurant in Jackson, Ohio — an hour from Hillsboro — who, when asked about the brouhaha, “stared back blankly.” One of them replied, “I have never heard anything about it.”
How could this be? One reason might be that they have more important things to do than sit glued to cable news. But in addition to the scarcity of grocery choices in some areas, broadband Internet has yet to reach many parts of southern Ohio. One government initiative with wide public support in Trump country is an effort to expand broadband access to more rural residents.
To this day, rural America continues to be portrayed in major media, both news and entertainment, as backward and uneducated. The media often reports that Trump won a majority of voters without college degrees, which is taken by Trump supporters as just a nicer way of being called stupid.
Many people in rural America ply their trades quite successfully without a framed degree in sight. Considered uneducated by the mainstream media, many make more money through farming and various trade skills than most college graduates, and the news that matters to them most is the weather forecast.
Small-town newspapers report hard news and local political controversies. They do investigative reporting and in-depth analysis. They win awards from the Associated Press and other media organizations for their efforts.
But, yes, small-town papers also do stories on dollar-store openings, because sometimes their presence as the only store in town is real news that will affect lives. They do stories on a new doctor coming to town because it often means that specialized treatment will be offered for the first time, which is real news for patients who no longer have to travel to faraway cities.
They feature stories on school bus route changes, real news to parents who might have to get up an hour earlier or make new child-care arrangements. They do features on World War II veterans to honor past generations, and they do features on the achievements of youngsters in 4-H to encourage future generations.
This is the America that Trump embraced. The media’s Russia fixation may not be fake news in the way that Trump uses the phrase. But for millions of Americans, Trump’s claim strikes a chord because the Russia hysteria is not real news, either, not compared with the issues that impact their daily lives.
And when someone tells them they should care more deeply about Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Russian lawyer, yes, sometimes they will just shake their heads and stare back blankly.