One resident said their county rarely appeared in the news cycle. Another said they were paying hundreds of dollars for broadband Internet service.
These were just a few of the takeaways from a qualitative study that examined how Surry County in Virginia dealt with being both a news desert and a broadband desert.
“We really wanted to take a look at this as a combination. Because frankly, that intersection hadn’t really been explored in academia, and really not all that much in mainstream publications either,” said Nick Mathews, one of the researchers behind the study in an interview with the Daily Yonder, which looked at Surry County. With a population of slightly more than 7,000, there is no daily or weekly newspaper, and as of June 2019, only 3.65% of Surry County residents had access to broadband internet.
The study, titled “Desert Work: Life and Labor in a News and Broadband Desert,” was conducted by Mathews, an incoming assistant professor of Digital Journalism at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and former long-time journalist, and Christopher Ali, the incoming Pioneers Chair in Telecommunications in the Bellisario College of Communications at Pennsylvania State University.
What the two researchers found out is that there are multiple layers of labor involved in consuming news within the community studied: informational, infrastructure, and emotional.
“In the news and broadband desert of Surry County, residents felt ignored and expressed feelings of fear and frustration,” according to the study. “Not only are there no news workers stationed in Surry County, but residents perceive that Surry County rarely is mentioned in regional newspaper, television, and radio reports.”
Additionally, without reliable broadband internet service and without news organizations available to promote business endeavors, residents told the researchers they feared for the county’s economic future and a decline in population.
“In this intersection, where people do not have a newspaper that really covers their area [and] have a lack of broadband access that makes it easy for them to connect to the outside world, in many ways their life is harder,” Mathews said.
For example, Mathews said that in some instances, due to caps on data, families were forced to choose between allowing their children entertainment or using the Internet for work.
In terms of newspapers and the lack of one, he said that it shows that residents have to “fend for themselves.”
“They in many ways have to act as reporters,” he said. “They had to have their own Rolodex if there was something going on in the community, and no one’s covering it, they have to essentially rely on other residents. So if you don’t have those connections, if you haven’t lived in the community for quite some time to have those kinds of relationships with somebody who actually does know what’s going on in the community, how you gain news is purely by happenstance.”
The local Dollar General, he said, became the de facto news hub, in which community members would gather to share information about what was going on.
“This gentleman basically said these clerks were the reporters for this county because they were able to gather all this information. And that stuck out so much to me,” he added.
Mathews will be conducting a further study on the issue, and he said he hopes others take up similar research in rural America.
“There’s not as much attention being paid to rural America and rural areas around the world as we need,” Mathews said. “Rural areas and rural people, in general, are misunderstood. Their lives are not understood. People do not understand what’s going on in their everyday lives – when they are dealing with issues when there is no news coverage when there is no broadband access. People don’t understand necessarily how that impacts somebody, how it silences them, what it means for them emotionally, and what it means for their county’s future.”