Beyond the bubble: USC Annenberg’s Rural Reporting initiative
As journalism professors, we wanted to do more than just talk about the cultural and geographical divisions plaguing American news coverage. So we took students studying journalism in Los Angeles to rural Utah.
By Rebecca Haggerty and Judy Muller
Editor’s note: For two weeks in May, two University of Southern California journalism professors and students embedded with a local weekly in Utah with the aim of supporting small news organizations and giving the students an opportunity to report in a rural, politically conservative area. The trip was eye-opening for everyone. Here are some of key takeaways from the initiative.
Set your goals
The idea began to germinate the day after Donald Trump was elected president in 2016. During a symposium to discuss how the press had missed the signs pointing to Trump’s victory, one student said, “Everyone is advising us to get out of our ‘bubble’ and talk to people who live in places we don’t visit. But how are we supposed to do that?”
And so began our Rural Reporting initiative. Tired of the endless angst about our students’ safe Los Angeles liberal bubble, we decided to take action. Instead of discussing the intense partisan divide between urban and rural America, we wanted them to explore it firsthand, through talking to people who were different from them in every way. And we hoped it could be a two-way street — that our students could be of service to a local news organization used to running on a shoestring.
We created a two-week course and lined up a local partner, the San Juan Record in Monticello, Utah, a town in the southeastern corner of the state. About 16,000 people live in San Juan County — fewer than the number of undergraduates at USC. The paper’s editor, Bill Boyle, had been profiled in Muller’s book on small town newspapers in America, “Emus Loose in Egnar: Big Stories from Small Towns,” and the setting was exactly the kind of rural, conservative community we wanted.
Our syllabus helped us attract students looking for a challenge:
This project is a groundbreaking effort to bridge the gap between so-called “coastal elites” and rural Americans, while drawing on the strengths of local journalists. Students will learn to search for nuance in stories, rather than “air-dropping in” with preconceived notions based on what they might have heard or read. They will also get first-hand experience with the challenges (and accomplishments) of a small newsroom, while providing content for that newspaper/website in the form of text, video, audio and digital material. Students will improve their skills in meeting tight deadlines, interviewing people of markedly different backgrounds, and pitching original stories without preconceptions.
We asked those applying to give us a sample of their reporting and to explain why they would want to sign on to such an intense course. Out of those applicants, we chose six students. We held three two-hour sessions during the spring semester to orient ourselves to the project, the place and the people. The students met Boyle via Skype, did basic research on the area and listened to other guest speakers, including Peter Hessler of The New Yorker — who has written extensively about rural areas — to talk about implicit bias, empathic listening and looking at situations with a fresh eye, rather than “parachuting in” with preconceived story ideas. In addition to working with Boyle’s weekly paper, we also lined up outside partners, The Guardian and PBS NewsHour, which expressed interest in the students’ work. We came up with some story ideas before we left, but didn’t settle on them until after we arrived and met with Boyle.
Engage with the local community
Boyle embraced us — and the idea — with enthusiasm. He’s the editor, publisher, writer, accountant and janitor at the San Juan Record. The front office of the paper sells trinkets and greeting cards — including good luck wishes for your Mormon mission. Boyle literally drives around the county to deliver his papers to places that would otherwise get very little local news.
“You can’t get a daily newspaper in San Juan County,” he noted. The nearest big city newspaper and television news stations are hundreds of miles away.
Before we arrived, Boyle profiled all the students and the project’s goals in a front-page story, which gave us a head start on introductions. Grocery store clerks and restaurant servers greeted us familiarly. We heard several versions of “Oh, you’re the journalism students — we read about you!” Boyle also hosted a “meet and greet” at a cultural center, arranged for the students to attend a Mormon service and helped set up introductory interviews with community leaders.
During the “meet and greet,” residents had a chance to ask students about their choice to be a journalist and share some of their own opinions of the media.
“It’s like they’re celebrities,” one participant complained about television reporters. “Don’t forget about the working people,” he told us.
Boyle videotaped each students’ introductory statement and posted the videos to Facebook, where thousands more viewed them. “I think we were expecting it would be difficult to talk with people, but it hasn’t been,” junior Sofia Bosch said. “I’ve been surprised at how receptive people have been here and how easy it has been to connect with people.”
Rural doesn’t mean simple
“I thought nothing would happen in a small town,“ junior Dan Toomey told me. “I was so wrong.”
Just months before we arrived, President Trump had dramatically shrunk the size of Bears Ears National Monument, which had been created by President Obama in 2016. The students met with passionate supporters of Trump’s decision, which was strongly opposed by environmentalists and some, but not all, Native American groups.
Around the same time, a federal court had ordered the county to redraw gerrymandered voting districts, which necessitated a special election. Boyle commissioned a 16-page supplement for the paper focused largely on that upcoming election. In the course of profiling candidates for three country commission and five school district seats, we covered more than 1,500 miles and met with dozens of residents. The students conducted 33 interviews, created more than a dozen written and video profiles of candidates for school board and county commissioner and wrote stories that explained gerrymandering, explored the impact of tourism and examined issues of fairness and diversity, all within about ten days. They also shot and edited two mini-documentaries. (And yes, we are all exhausted.) Along the way, they had to quickly grasp fine points of legal, racial and historical context — a great lesson in the complexities of place.
“There’s such a variety of not only opinion but interpretation toward both local and federal politics,” junior Terry Nguyen said, admitting she was surprised at the intricacies of the issues.
Don’t expect to be popular
Boyle appreciated the help, but our rural reporting project meant more to him than extra hands. A Mormon, he supports the idea of journeying into another culture with an important, if sometimes unpopular, message. He also believes deeply in the fundamental value of journalism in a civic society.
“It’s an honorable thing, what you’re attempting to do,” he told the students.
That’s not, however, a widely shared opinion in San Juan County. It’s one thing to read about declining trust in the news media, but it’s an eye-opening experience to hear it firsthand while sitting in someone’s living room munching on the cookies they’ve laid out for you.
“I’ll try to be nice,” librarian Nicole Perkins told us. Then she changed her mind. “No, I’m not going to be nice. I’m going to just be honest,” she declared. Having lost trust in national media because of what she sees as an anti-rural bias, her main source of news, she explained, is YouTube videos. She says she tries to check the facts for herself, but stays away from mainstream news organizations whenever possible.
When students asked County Commissioner Bruce Adams if he trusts news, he answered with a flat and definitive “no.” Tall, blue-eyed and laconic, Anderson looks like a casting director’s vision of a cattle rancher — though he’s a relative newcomer, taking to ranching in the last decade or so after years as a schoolteacher. He’s been interviewed by so many international and national reporters he can predict their requests. Usually, the photographers want him on a horse and making “cowboy sounds” to call in his herds.
Adams — who not incidentally goes to church with and is related to editor Boyle — was outspoken in his support of President Trump’s efforts to reduce the area of Bears Ears. Many people we spoke to in San Juan County felt they had been misrepresented in coverage of that event.
“I just wish that in general, society would be more interested in facts and real life, rather than the controversy and just the splitting of people almost,” Kim Henderson said. She’s a young mother who worked hard to organize against Bears Ears and feels she was dismissed as a stereotype by reporters too ready to buy into a storyline they’d already constructed.
San Juan County is a tough place for a reporter, especially one coming from New York or Los Angeles or even Salt Lake City. It’s spread out and sparsely populated. The cell service is spotty and the WiFi ranges from nonexistent to glacial, except at the county library, where we gratefully camped out. A bewildering array of agencies affects policy and residents’ daily lives. A short list includes the federal Bureau of Land Management, the state and the Navajo tribal government, among others.
“It’s really hard to really nail down all the local nuances in an hour or half a day or however long they have to write it,” school board president Steven Black admitted. “It would help if you could actually be here when writing a story.”
But that seems unlikely in the backdrop of newsroom cuts. During our trip, the Salt Lake Tribune announced it would lay off a third of its newsroom employees — leaving even fewer reporters to cover ever greater areas of people they may know in only the most fleeting ways.
“I never perceive that the rural people hate the cities, but you get the feeling sometimes that the cities hate the rural people,” conservative activist Phil Lyman told the students. “They’re very anti-rural attitudes — religion, guns, whatever.”
Steve Simpson, who owns a restaurant and art gallery in the tiny liberal enclave of Bluff, agrees.
“The generalization that you hear is people in this area are racist,” he told us. “So my frustration is being lumped in with everybody else and people really not taking the time to understand those of us that live in this area.”
Take on the tough issues
It’s easy to understand why most white San Juan County residents don’t want to be seen as racist. But it’s much harder to figure out the best way to talk about deep-seated issues of racial tension rooted in an ugly history. In December 2017, a federal judge ordered the county to redraw the lines of its voting districts in order to better reflect the population, which was split almost evenly between Native Americans and a white, largely Mormon population. The ruling opened the door to the possibility that Native Americans could take two out of three seats on the county commission for the first time ever — an extraordinary development in a state where Native Americans couldn’t even vote until 1957.
It also necessitated a special election, with primaries scheduled for late June, just a few weeks after we arrived. To interview school board and county commissioner candidates, students drove hundreds of miles and met people from all over the reservation — a remote, sprawling area reachable in some places by only dirt and gravel roads. The older residents — including Wilfred Jones, who filed the lawsuit that led to the special election — recounted their experiences with a mainstream society hostile to their language and culture. Jones recalls a teacher cutting off his “Indian” hair and throwing it in the trash.
Retired schoolteacher Maryleen Tahy still remembered the words she heard from her own teacher in grammar school: “Native people are just a bunch of drunks, they’re never going to get anywhere.” Most agreed with their neighbors that the media didn’t do a good job of telling their stories.
“It’s from a white perspective,” school board candidate Melinda Blackhorse told us.
The students learned a hard reality of local newsgathering that Boyle faces every week — it’s impossible to satisfy everyone when reporting on controversial subjects. The students had grown to genuinely like and respect many of the people they met on all sides of the issue. “If you offend someone here,” one of the students remarked, “there are real repercussions.”
“I’ve been called fighting words around here, including communist,” Boyle told them. Talking about race and representation in San Juan was complicated, tricky and heartbreaking — just like in the rest of America.
Settle for small victories
We were amazed at the students’ tenacity. They started their days early and did not stop until midnight, if then. It helped that we had pre-rented a huge cabin in the woods, with an enormous communal eating area, an outdoor deck and four floors with separate bedroom arrangements. Living and working together made for an unusual teaching (and learning) experience: Students were not afraid to challenge their professors and the professors had to learn how navigate those differences of opinion, sometimes even with one another — and all under a tight deadline.
I think it’s safe to say that we all learned more than we could have imagined from the experience. Boyle told us he thought the students may, in a small way, have started to heal some of the bitter divisions in the community. Residents were surprised at their willingness to listen, to ask questions and their genuine desire to figure out a way to do better in their future as journalists.
We’re not naïve enough to think a two-week trip out of a bubble will solve the issues of mistrust of the media or the partisanship divide in the country. But we do think small experiments like these can help jump start ongoing conversations about trust, responsibility and the role of journalism education for both the public and the industry. Perhaps the highest compliment came from Boyle, who asked, “Can you do it again next year?”