6 things I learned about journalism — and myself — after visiting my hometown in rural Iowa

I was at a journalism conference recently, and it felt like I was repeatedly having the same conversation.

I spoke with my longtime colleagues and friends about how the business model for local news is broken. And building readership is, in many cases, a struggle. Layoffs have been besieging the industry.

These dire issues are the reason I’m at the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships at Stanford, taking a year in Silicon Valley to research ways to meaningfully knit together geographic communities. I’m also studying how to better incorporate audience-first thinking into newsrooms.

As I kept searching for answers to these questions, both on the East and West coasts, all I could think about was my hometown of Dike, Iowa, right smack in the middle of America. There are about 1,300 people who live in Dike, most of whom I haven’t had a real, quality conversation with in nearly 20 years. That’s when I left rural Iowa to become a big-city journalist and didn’t look back.

I decided the time to look back is now.

The welcome sign to the town of Dike, Iowa. Credit: Diane Paige

I wanted to go back to a place where, as I remembered it, informal information sharing was essential to this community’s function and identity. It was a system the town created in the absence of any daily digital or print sources covering its major institutions, with only a weekly presence in the county newspaper and occasional coverage from regional news outlets. I wondered if this news desert could give me insights into what people need to know about their community.

While there, I asked people about how they used their devices, what they considered trustworthy information and how they interacted with public officials and groups or residents who were perceived as different than them. We also talked about the hottest topics of conversation and how word traveled about these topics.

Here are the big takeaways:

  1. When there is no daily journalism, you make it yourself. The city clerk gets peppered with questions when she’s out to eat with her family, even though she also pushes out information on the town’s Facebook page and website. When teens get in trouble or someone gets hurt, an unspoken phone tree gets activated, with parents calling other parents, sifting carefully through a situation to figure out who got hurt, what dangerous thing happened and how to prevent it in the future. Dogs aren’t lost for long here. I heard a story about one woman who spotted a dog she recognized. She quickly called the owner and the pair was reunited.
  2. Trust takes time. An engineer I spoke to said when he first moved to Dike from a bigger city, he tried to make connections, but wasn’t always successful. One day, while standing at a local bar having a beer, he overheard a conversation. He joined in and asked a question. The reception wasn’t exactly warm. The engineer told me that he made a point to tell people in Dike that he too grew up in a small town, so he understood the way of life, a fact that endeared him to his fellow residents and gave him access to more conversations and connections. It reminded me that it takes time and effort, plus a deep understanding of the community, to build up trust.
  3. Even in tight-knit small towns, divisions exist. I heard some stories of tension between the older side of town versus a recent new development. I wondered if residents would enjoy having increased access to conversations with people who aren’t in their usual group. Perhaps they could learn more deeply about how someone else lives and what information resources they have to build the collective truths about life in Dike.
  4. Know your customers and serve them. I had an epiphany while sitting at the bar of Slice, the new restaurant in town and one of the more successful restaurants I’ve heard about in recent memory. It was packed. I was drinking a glass of Chardonnay and eating a salad. At most every other bar stool were customers drinking Busch Light tallboys, which were in plentiful supply. I spoke to the co-owners of the 145-seat restaurant, who said they pay close attention to the desires of their clientele, changing the menu frequently and making sure the popular drink options were available. At that moment, I thought about the importance of a news outlet offering a product in the tone and spirit of the community it serves. Don’t offer Chardonnay to customers who want Busch Light. And don’t judge them for that. Work with it.
  5. Mobile phone use is ubiquitous, but face-to-face interaction is important. I stayed in a tidy farmhouse with some distant relatives who were kind enough to take me in, providing me with my own bedroom and bathroom upstairs. Outside, farm machinery buzzed at all hours, as harvest was in full swing. Inside, the fridge was stocked with eggs from a neighbor’s chickens. After a day of interviews, I’d walk in and see my brother’s mother-in-law with a mobile phone clutched in her hand, multitasking while watching some TV. I also noticed an iPad in the kitchen, near the fridge, which was adorned with pictures of grandchildren. I spoke to teens, grandmas and all ages in between about the relationship they had with their mobile phones. But people also said they valued face-to-face interaction. In the middle of one kitchen-table interview, the daughter of the woman I was interviewing texted one of my former high school teachers, who also happens to be her grandmother. A few minutes later, my former teacher popped over to give me a hug. And then she told me that my kids were cute and she enjoyed seeing all those pictures on Facebook.
  6. Busy teens need help connecting with each other face to face. Teens are involved in a lot of extracurriculars, plus homework, plus jobs, plus some help their parents on the farm. During breaks, they told me how they open some snaps, check Twitter and maybe they’ll like a few photos on Instagram. But when it comes time to organize face-to-face social gatherings with friends? They seem to need a solution here. I heard from teens who “missed out” because they weren’t in the correct Snapchat message group.

I’m still studying what I heard from these interviews, but I was struck by the highly participatory nature of the community, amplified with mobile phones and social media. I heard recently one idea that journalists of the future are facilitators. They are the ones who offer support to community members who are already talking to each other and doing the work to understand their neighbors and institutions. News should be part of the ecosystem of its community as opposed to a separate machine. After spending time in Dike, I will be seeking more feedback about these ideas. I’d love to hear any thoughts and reactions. Feel free to contact me at lrossi18@stanford.edu

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