The Future of the Presidency, Journalism and Democracy, just published by Routledge. For the full version, click here.
By Al Cross
Director and Professor, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky
The presidency of Donald Trump not only increased the divisions between rural and urban America, but also among people who live in rural communities. That, in combination with social media, has accelerated the decline of non-metropolitan newspapers, the most important source of local news and information for 60 million rural Americans.
“Cultural/religious values are the real divide,” Cheryl Wormley, publisher of The Woodstock Independent in Illinois, wrote in an email reply to my informal survey of small-town newspapers. Her town of 25,000 is one of Chicago’s outermost suburbs, 67 miles from the Loop. “What we call urban dwellers today live and work in a very diversified economy,” she wrote, and continued: “They are more accepting of federal government involvement in jobs, justice, and other issues. Rural dwellers live closer to the land. They see themselves not as dependent on governmental bodies for services and value their sense of independence. For them, there is no rush to develop new ideas, and Trump reinforced them.”
The economic, social and cultural factors that were key to Trump’s 2016 victory have created a larger rural-urban political divide. In 2020, voters in the counties in the bottom 20 percent of population density gave Trump a 35-percentage-point margin, 3 points more than 2016. The Economist noted that Biden “gained most ground in counties that swung hardest toward Democrats between Barack Obama’s re-election in 2012 and Hillary Clinton’s failed bid for the White House in 2016. One possible explanation for this trend is the tendency for Democrats and Republicans to live among their own kind. Americans are increasingly sorting themselves into politically like-minded communities.”
Bill Bishop and Robert Cushing documented that phenomenon down to the neighborhood level more than a decade ago in a book with a wonderfully descriptive title: The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart (2008). It was exhaustively reported but didn’t delve deeply into the issues that cause the divide. My explanation, as someone who grew up in one of the most rural parts of America and has been an issues-oriented journalist for more than 40 years, is that when too many political issues (abortion and gender rights being the leading examples) cut to the depths of personal beliefs and values, and leave little or no room for compromise, we avoid discussing them – to the extent of keeping that in mind when we change addresses. We move where we find common ground. For Americans who are satisfied with their lives in small towns and don’t want or need to move, that can be a problem – especially if they’re in the business of dealing with public issues, as rural journalists are.
Rural Communities and Their Newspapers
To gather facts and opinions on the deepening rural-urban divide and its effect on rural journalism, on June 20, 2020, I sent an email to the listserv I co-manage for the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors, which has about 250 U.S. members and is oriented more toward editorial interests than the business concerns that tend to be the main focus of other community-newspaper associations. The subject line of the email was “The effects of Donald Trump on rural places and their newspapers,” and I advanced two propositions:
- My take is that Trump makes you be for or against him, and you get defined that way, creating divisions in families, churches, businesses and other organizations. It’s community-corrosive, not community-building.
- People are less interested in local news because Trump has made national news more compelling, and local news media are losing out in the “attention economy” created by the tsunami of online information and their reliance on social media.
I received 11 email replies and one telephone call. The range of responses was broadly representative of the U.S. membership of ISWNE, of which I have been an active member since 2004.
Editors confirmed that Trump has been a divisive force in their communities. Bill Tubbs, publisher of the North Scott Press in Eldridge, Iowa, near Davenport, told me people in his community are increasingly identified as pro- or anti-Trump, and that “[t]he Trump effect has permeated many things in community life, except in Rotary, where we leave our differences at the door” by the members’ explicit understanding.
So, in contrast to the late House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s maxim that “All politics is local,” national politics are invading local politics, in ways that surprise and dismay experienced observers of the latter: rural newspaper editors and publishers.
Beginning early in Trump’s presidency, local editors and publishers voiced concern that his attacks on the national news media were rubbing off on them. That seems to be true only of local newspapers that cover or comment on national issues; it is not the usual case for most weekly newspapers, but ISWNE is focused on editorial concerns, and national commentary in members’ papers is more common. But the Trump phenomenon is making weeklies more cautious.
Reed Anfinson, publisher of the Swift County Monitor-News in Benson, Minnesota, told me. “We’ve lost subscribers and advertising because of the intolerance pervading society today. In these fragile financial times, it has me weighing the political cartoons I will publish. As I write, it has me being more thoughtful in how I word my columns. That is not all bad, but it makes me wonder sometimes if I am pulling my punches. I still write about national topics because they are talked about by my readers. However, I try to ensure the vast majority of what I publish focuses on local issues.”
National issues became so fraught for Kris O’Leary, publisher of four weekly newspapers in central Wisconsin, that she ordered her editors to stop covering and commenting on national issues after the January 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. She told me in an email, “I got tired of the paper being part of the problem with people treating each other with a lack of respect. I realized we weren’t going to change anyone’s mind and it wasn’t worth my mental health and the staff’s to be caught in the middle of this thing. I have been around a long time and hadn’t seen it get this bad between family members who were squaring off in letters to the editor. Our sales people were facing backlash, and it wasn’t fun running a paper and explaining every week why freedom of speech didn’t give them freedom to say whatever they wanted in the paper I still operate under libel and defamation rules.”
O’Leary posted her reply to the ISWNE list-serve, and Tubbs, the Iowa publisher, brought it up in an interview with me that he initiated. “You can’t escape national politics in the community if you have your core values and principles,” he said, adding that it can be hard to define what’s a national issue. “Agriculture is foundational in Iowa,” he said, so newspapers there have an obligation to cover issues such as international trade and farm subsidies.
In the online conversation, O’Leary acknowledged that “Some things border on national issues, but we are trying to be very local in our editorials.” She said her concerns are more than editorial: “Advertising last year was horrible and this year has improved, mostly in help-wanted ads. We are a weekly paper, and we can make a difference at our local level, and maybe that will trickle up … We had a few hot heads that screamed like hell about their freedoms being taken away, but most people were relieved not to have to read the letters and editorials on national politics. I don’t know if we will go back, but at this time I am relieved to not have to deal with people who think the election isn’t over yet.”
Another weekly publisher, who did not want to be named, said he is losing advertising because of a column he wrote contrasting Trump with a retired member of Congress whom he admired for his civility.
In northeast Georgia, an area highly favorable to Trump, Jackson Herald publisher Mike Buffington said he still comments editorially on national events, but knows he is operating in a changed environment. “There was a time when local newspapers were special in a community,” he told me in an email, “but after Trump the tone has changed considerably. Truth no longer matters with many people, only what they think. Facts make no difference. Reality is whatever they want it to be.”
Other rural newspapers play it safer in the Trump era. “We do not report national news, unless we can tie it directly to life in our communities. That national news coverage will include local sources,” wrote Roger Harnack, publisher of seven papers in Eastern Washington, which he called “very much Trump country.” He told me in an email, “We have grown readership during the last couple Trump years … Many of our readers do see corporate news organizations as anti-American. They see TV news and large metro newspapers as carrying water for politicians and their agendas. That won't change until larger news organizations learn to balance coverage, remove staffer opinions and report just the facts.”
A similar response came from a writer at a South Dakota newspaper who asked that she and her paper not be named: “The new, very young owners are not from here, and are based in a neighboring town. I had to tell the editor that she will lose a substantial number of subscribers if she continued to allow any hint of political bias, one way or another, slip into content. That means carefully selecting the weekly cartoon, and even not printing one if there were no politically neutral option. It means taking all the propaganda out of our state and national congressmen’s columns, etc. I believe this is why very local, weekly newspapers have survived longer than their national-news-centered counterparts.”
Decades of experience with rural newspapers tell me that most such papers are timid and prefer to avoid upsetting their neighbors. The loss of one major advertiser could be the difference in profit and loss, especially at a time when digital media and big-box stores have greatly eroded their advertising base. Some offended advertisers have even been known to sponsor competing papers, driving the offenders out of business. But after the January 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol insurrection, spawned by Trump’s believed-by-millions lie that the election was stolen from him, I urged rural newspapers to confront their readers with the truth. I wrote this for The Rural Blog:
Most rural news outlets stick to local matters and shy away from national controversies, fearing that weighing in would be bad for business or bad for personal relationships. But the readers, viewers and listeners of rural media are not only citizens of a locality; they are citizens of a state and nation, and the nation faces a fundamental threat from misinformation and disinformation. To ignore that is to ignore the responsibility of journalists and their paymasters to serve democracy and the citizens who are their neighbors … It’s a tough topic for rural journalists; one told me this week that he would fear for his personal safety if he challenged the belief that the election was stolen from Donald Trump. Each of us must decide when and how to show courage, but courage is what we need.
In Minnesota, Anfinson wrote, “As partisan reality is warped by social media and conspiracy theory websites, the depth of bitterness deepens.”
In such a political environment, combined with a bad business environment for local newspapers – caused by digital platforms that steal their advertising and a pandemic that further reduced it – it’s no wonder some editors and publishers are shying away from national coverage and commentary. If I still ran a struggling weekly, I might, too.
National Overwhelms Local
Another “Trump effect” that worries rural editors and publishers is an increased focus on national news, driven by his controversial statements and social media. At the end of the chapter I wrote for the book that preceded this one, I quoted Tom Rosenstiel of the University of Maryland, then at the Brookings Institution: “The real crisis in American journalism is not technological, it’s geographic. The crisis is that local journalism is shrinking. I wouldn’t say it’s dying, but it’s the most threatened. There is so much more national and international news available to people, it has changed what people are interested in. [During the 2016 election campaign] I saw clear and distinct evidence that people were consuming more national news and less local.”
Human beings have only 24 hours in a day. In the last two decades they have been the targets of a daily tsunami of digital information from near and far, and as they pay more attention to the far, they pay less attention to the near. In the five years that Trump has dominated the media landscape, that phenomenon appears to have accelerated. As Buffington told me in an email: "During the Trump tenure, we saw a huge uptick in local interest of national news. When we’d write about local controversies, not much reaction. But when we’d write about Trump or national politics, all hell would hit. (All of our editors wrote mostly anti-Trumpism columns and editorials.) So I’d agree that interest in local news has taken a hit with the hyper-partisan interest in national news … First, Trump created a cult of personality around which his supporters have rallied, following him in a pseudo-religious fever. Second, social media has so distorted reality that a lot of people live more online than in their own towns."
Those towns, communities of geography, are the basis for local news outlets. They now compete with social media’s communities of interest. The more time people spend with them, the less time they have for their geographic communities. That drives down newspaper readership, which means fewer ads, which leaves less room for news, which further reduces readership and continues the downward spiral.
“People had come to expect all news to be ‘free’ because of the lack of paywalls nationally,” Buffington wrote. He continued: “Then came Trump and his demonizing of the press. Then Covid hit and devastated the advertising landscape. The result has been lower readership and less revenue in an atmosphere that is caustic at best. Can newspapers survive this? Many won’t. If state legislatures continue to attack legal-notice advertising, a lot of small-town papers will fold.”
Many newspapers have already folded, and the closures are getting more significant. Penny Abernathy of Northwestern University finds that the vast majority of papers closing since 2004 have been weeklies, but most were in suburbs. The next most common category were in towns that are not county seats. But in the last two years, more county seats have been losing their papers, too.
Who will Stand for Truth?
Millions of Americans seem to continue to believe lies of the past half-decade, creating what New York Times columnist David Brooks calls “an epistemological crisis” that is especially dangerous in rural areas: “The information age has created a lot more people who make their living working with ideas [and] increasingly concentrated them in ever more prosperous metro areas. . . . Places where fewer people have college degrees have been spiraling down. . . . . Those without a degree are far more unhappy [than in 1972] about their lives[, creating] intense populist backlashes against the highly educated folks who have migrated to the cities and accrued significant economic, cultural and political power.”
Epistemological crises are occurring in some other countries, but the U.S. is the only country surveyed by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism where trust in the news media didn’t go up in 2020. What’s the difference between the U.S. and elsewhere? The United States still has Trump, who has brought criticism of the news media to an unprecedented level and changed the social fabric of communities all across the nation. Even when he leaves the stage, that will be one of his legacies, and it is likely to last.