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On a sweltering hot September day last year, nearly 50 people gathered in a brightly lit community center off a narrow two-lane road in Hayneville, Alabama, a small town about 30 miles southwest of Montgomery. They were there to talk about a largely invisible issue, one that nearby rural black communities have been struggling with for decades: a health crisis caused by the lack of basic sewage infrastructure.
As the founder and editor-in-chief of Southerly, a nonprofit media organization that covers ecology, justice, and culture in the American South, I organized the discussion based on a series of stories we co-published with the Montgomery Advertiser, a long-established local newspaper, and Scalawag, a newer regional magazine. Over two hours, community members and stakeholders discussed the rise of hookworm and other poverty-related diseases in the rural South often found in developing countries; the effects of climate change on rural communities; potential engineering solutions to unaffordable, failing sewage systems; and the racial, economic, and environmental injustices that persist in low-income communities of color.
At times it was tense, even uncomfortable. A few folks went off on tangents about other issues stressing them, like healthcare access or local politics. Others pointed fingers of blame at activists calling in outside help. Rush and her daughter — and several others who are directly affected by failing or nonexistent sewage systems — remained silent.
Even though we were discussing ideas for solutions, we solved nothing. But that wasn’t the point. Southerly’s series shed light on an issue that media and those in power have ignored for decades, and for one of the first times, people who live with failed septic tanks and exposed human waste in their yards on a daily basis were in the same room to talk about how this problem that caused them so much anger, shame, or frustration, and how policymakers and experts might fix it.
I facilitated the discussion, but mostly I was there to listen. I launched Southerly because there is a glaring hole in dedicated coverage of the complex relationship Southerners have with their natural resources. Many people in this region don’t get to speak for themselves, and the media sorely misrepresents or overlooks their experiences. This is particularly true in rural areas — communities where extractive industries go to get their permits easily approved, places that need economic development initiatives most, areas that have been exploited throughout history. These are the vulnerable communities often left out of the national or regional conversations live.
When a major media outlet does swoop in to cover a story — be it about a coal ash spill, a hurricane, or a presidential election — complicated issues like economic development, natural resource access, and class and race relations the coverage often boils down to a simple quote that perpetuates negative stereotypes. The stories’ frames can push inaccurate and incomplete narratives about the places we love and call home. Through our weekly newsletter and reader-supported publication, Southerly publishes investigative, in-depth, well-rounded journalism to fill those gaps — to tell the full story of this beautiful, complicated, ever-changing region so residents and decision-makers can act on its behalf.
The rural South is not a monolith, and stories about it require nuance and context to be accurate and informative. Rural Southern areas are large and growing. Sixty percent of America’s rural population lives east of the Mississippi River, and nearly half of those residents live in the South, according to the 2016 Census. The communities are diverse: racial and ethnic minorities made up 20 percent of the population in 10 Southern states in 2017. And the landscapes around them are rapidly changing: the latest National Climate Assessment shows that the effects of climate change will heavily affect rural communities, which must adapt their transportation and infrastructure systems with fewer resources and less funding than many urban areas.
Southerly offers these perspectives and confronts harmful stereotypical narratives. That starts with how we frame stories. Every piece provides regional and national context, so that a reader in New York City or urban Arkansas or rural Alaska can understand it. But we aim the stories at Southerners who have for too long been missing consistent coverage of ecological issues. We recently published a story on how local governments in Appalachia are struggling to provide basic services like law enforcement, infrastructure upgrades, or healthcare because of the declining coal severance tax revenue they relied heavily on for decades. We ran a story in mid-March about Kentucky’s burgeoning hemp industry and its potential to become a cash crop but focused on the work of a cooperative to protect small-scale farmers rather than solely on hemp’s potential to replace tobacco, which many other outlets focused on. Last year, we covered the dearth in representation of rural black residents on electric cooperative boards and highlighted a group working to engage cooperative members.
It’s not just the journalistic content that matters — it’s also who writes and reads us. Building a sustainable publication that compensates journalists fairly, publishes a diverse array of voices, and prioritizes on-the-ground reporting is critical. So is being accessible to the communities we’re writing about. Since Southerly began as an email newsletter, our audience initially swung younger and more progressive. While that’s a powerful demographic, it’s only one group of Southerners we’re hoping to reach. Another important one is rural communities all over the political, economic, and geographic spectrum. To build trust with new readers and collaborate with local news outlets struggling to find adequate resources and funding, we’ve made our stories available to local newspapers to reprint and have partnered with local media on several projects. We plan to host events in rural communities to discuss civic engagement, trust in journalism, and timely topics.
Earlier this year, I moved to Eastern Kentucky. Every day I notice another breathtaking aspect of the environment around me: the clear starry sky, the fog nestled between the hills, the shades of green moss. I also see the harm extractive industries have caused: the acid mine drainage that turns the creek down the road a sickening orange, the contaminated water residents can’t drink, the economic devastation from the downturn of coal. They are constant reminders of all the work to be done: the ample stories that haven’t been told about Southerners who know and care about the places they live.
Lyndsey Gilpin is founder and editor-in-chief of Southerly. Her work has appeared in outlets such as High Country News, Harper’s, the Washington Post, Grist, Outside, and the Atlantic. She is from Kentucky and holds a master’s degree from Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.