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The writer of the email was curious.
The editor of the Lincoln County Record in Nevada was delighted to have a local story about food stamp usage.
But why had a national publication like the Daily Yonder written an article just for Lincoln County, Nevada? What made their county so special, out of the 3,144 in the United States?
It was a fair question.
First, the easy answer: The food-stamp program is news in Lincoln County.
During the Great Recession, the percentage of Lincoln County residents participating in the Supplemental Assistance Nutrition Program (SNAP, as it is called) more than doubled. Although the county had a participation rate lower than the Nevada or national averages, the federal program was still providing more than a half-million dollars a year in food aid. In a county of only 5,300 residents, that was a fair amount of money coming into the local economy.
After the congressional dustup about food stamps in the debate over the most recent farm bill, SNAP was certainly something folks were talking about.
But still, why single out one county in Nevada and write a story for that county’s local paper?
The answer was that we hadn’t written just one story. We’d generated thousands of different local stories – complete with local leads, data and charts – for most rural counties in the United States. And we had sent the stories to nearly every editor we could find who served a rural community.
By the end of the email exchange, the editor in the small Nevada county probably didn’t feel quite as special for getting individualized attention from the Daily Yonder’s research and editorial contributors. But the Lincoln County Record still had a story that was news for its community.
Using data to generate stories is nothing new for the Daily Yonder. Bill Bishop, one of our founding editors, started that focus more than seven years ago when he and Julie Ardery launched the Daily Yonder.
Our national stories that look at broad trends in rural America – like the difference in urban and rural unemployment rates – help inform the national debate about the future of rural America.
But a critical piece of the discussion about rural America isn’t occurring in national or regional media, or even in specialized national websites like the Daily Yonder. It’s happening in community newspapers and at small radio stations. And that’s where the Yonder wants to be.
After all, locally focused journalists are the ones who continue to serve the interests of rural residents, while big dailies and television stations have pulled their reporters back to their metropolitan hubs.
So we’ve taken our interest in national data trends and found ways to use it to create local stories that small papers and radio stations in nonmetropolitan markets can use.
So far we’ve done stories on food stamps, on the economic impact of Social Security in rural areas, and on the growing college-graduation rate for rural communities. More stories are on the way.
How does this work? Let’s take the food-stamp story as an example.
It starts with basic research with federal data. Our friend and colleague Roberto Gallardo at Mississippi State University looked at county-level data for SNAP usage, including the number of people participating in the food-stamp program and the percentage of the population receiving benefits. Roberto tracked the data over several years and saw distinct patterns for most counties. With that information, we saw how we could make good stories highlighting the rise in food-stamp usage nationally and in each rural county.
Reporter Emily Guerin – who now covers North Dakota for Inside Energy – interviewed economists who helped us understand the root causes and economic impact of food-stamp expenditures in rural counties.
Then Emily and I built story templates that pulled that data into a localized article. Using a big spreadsheet with data and short phrases and other text, we merged email-ready stories and sent them to editors.
A lot of papers used the story. The individual SNAP articles were published or broadcast in about 450 outlets in 45 states. The circulation of just the print outlets was more than a million. In comparison, the circulation of the Los Angeles Times, the nation’s fourth largest newspaper, is about 650,000. By any estimation, the story had a good run and reached a lot of readers.
And, what’s important to us is that it reached rural readers. There’s no single publication you can work with to reach a national audience that lives beyond major metropolitan areas. Like everything else in a rural endeavor, it takes a little creativity to make it work. But it’s worth it.
Many rural editors appreciated the effort.
“With just one staff reporter, this is a story we’d likely never get to, but needs to be printed,” wrote David Schiefelbein, the editor of the Chaffee County Times in Colorado.
A Vermont editor called the story for his county “informative and important.” An editor in California called it “wildly interesting.”
Our favorite responses came from editors who intended to do more localizing with the story, like the editor of the Mountain Home News in Elmore County, Idaho. “I probably will work on developing some graphics for it and add in some local quotes … Good data to get us going,” wrote Kelly Everitt.
Not everyone was pleased. Several editors said they wanted more up-to-date figures, which was understandable but not practical because of the lag time we had between the research and distribution of the story. That’s something we need to fix.
One editor accused us of spreading government propaganda. Sorry, but if you think federal data is propaganda, there’s not much we can say.
And another wouldn’t use the piece because he thought food-stamp abuse was rampant in his Alabama county. “Food stamps buy more beer and crack than milk and bread,” he wrote. That editor invited us to his county to do an investigative story on food-stamp fraud. We figured that was more his job than ours.
So we’re continuing to learn and find new ways to reach rural audiences with good information about issues they care about.
Traditional journalism is facing tough times. But many small newspapers papers are still doing what they do best – providing news about their local communities that readers can’t get from any other source.
Back when I started my journalism career at the weekly Berea Citizen in Kentucky, I was thrilled to see my byline on the front page every once in a while. As exciting as that was, I think I’m even happier that the Daily Yonder’s localized stories have found their way onto the pages of weeklies around the United States.
There it is: “By the Daily Yonder,” in weekly newspapers, right beside stories on church suppers, city council meetings, school-lunch menus and sports rivalries.
Tim Marema is editor of the Daily Yonder.