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  • Writer's pictureKaren Young

Bridging The Divide Between Rural/Urban America

Last week I attended a conference at the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago. It was called “Bridging the Divide: Forging the Ties Between Rural and Urban America.”  I learned about some wonderful people doing wonderful things around the country. 


Someone noted that rural people often have personal experience in cities, but city people often DON’T have personal experience in rural areas.  So, while negative stereotyping happens on both sides, it is much more prevalent on the urban side. This is surely true.

However, I was disappointed that virtually all the discussion here was about rural areas. There was little mention of urban areas, and little about how to actually “bridge the divide” between the two, except on a very personal level. (I did miss a couple of events/sessions for various reasons, but I attended most of the conference.)


I was also surprised that, with “politics” in the sponsor’s name, there was NOTHING about politics on the agenda, at least if your idea of politics involves organizing and winning campaigns for candidates or policies, or holding officials accountable. There was some mention of existing policy, but nothing about how policy gets changed. The type of divide-bridging I am most interested in, like forging broad statewide coalitions to pass Medicaid expansion, did not exist in this universe.


Since today is Message Monday, I thought I’d share some interesting things that came out of the conference’s panel on media, called What Realities Are We Reading: Local News Deserts and Polarization.


Notes from the Media Panel


Someone noted that even if we can “bring back” some of the many local news outlets that have disappeared, they won’t replace the existing right-wing ecosystem of Sean Hannity, Christian media, etc. that, while it exists in the city, seems to have a particular hold in the country.    Someone also mentioned the “pink slime” sites that look like credible news outlets, but are actually completely fake.  Lesson for me was, real news outlets will have to compete hard for hearts and minds, and find ways to reach “those people” who have been captured by that ecosystem.


Press Forward Funds News Renaissance


Silvia Rivera of the MacArthur Foundation mentioned that we must support information systems that aren’t exactly media, for example, a WhatsApp group that was formed to disseminate real information about Covid 19.  She also mentioned a new program at MacArthur called Press Forward. 


The goal of this initiative (which is investing $500 million from a collective of funders) is to catalyze a local news renaissance that will reshape the local news landscape and re-center local journalism as a force for community cohesion, civic participation, and government accountability. Good news!


Finding Local Media


Someone, I’m not sure who, said that young people aren’t sure how to find their local media. It might have been a young person.  I found this heartbreaking.  Surely local media outlets have strategies to reach the younger demographic?  I hope someone will convene some focus groups and get to the bottom of this.  Perhaps we need a national guide to local media and a strong promotion campaign for it.  People outside media tend to focus on production more than distribution, but the power of media happens only when it finds an audience.


I know that when I moved to Milwaukee last year, I quickly found both the relevant “legacy media” of newspaper, weekly paper, radio and TV news, as well as online sources that focus on local and statewide news and culture.  Every city I know has at least one scrappy local-focused entity, like Outlier Media in Detroit.  I’m sure it would be harder to make that happen in a small town or rural area.


The Daily Yonder, one of several good rural-focused and farm-focused publications I know, said that they syndicate their stories widely, and what they do is “make rural America visible to itself and to others.”


While the challenges are great, at least there is some understanding that local news and media matters when it comes to taming polarization and building community, and there is new support for improving the local media landscape.


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