What We Learned, and What We’re Doing, after Our Workshop on News, Polarization, and Public Spheres in Kentucky

By: Sam Ford and Andrea Wenzel

What types of solutions to political, geographic, and cultural polarization can we find when local journalists, citizens, and nonprofit and university representatives come together? That’s the approach that we took on Friday, August 18, in Kentucky, in a workshop looking at ways to move “From Polarization to Public Sphere.”

Our Research

Our conversation was built around initial research conducted in Bowling Green, Kentucky’s third largest city that is home to around 65,000 people and to Western Kentucky University, and in Ohio County, a large, rural county about thirty miles north of Bowling Green with a population of 24,000. Our workshop brought together journalists, citizens, and other community members from each area to think about these problems regionally.

Read more: Lessons for Overcoming Polarization from Bowling Green and Ohio County, Kentucky.

The qualitative research we conducted drew from discussion groups, story diaries, and one-on-one interviews with a convenience sample of residents from the two areas in Kentucky—who joined us in the room for the workshop, or reacted to the ideas we developed right after. We started the day of brainstorming with an exploration of some of the potential solutions that came out of the initial research:

  • exploring local community issues from a solutions angle
  • providing a regional and local lens to national stories
  • cultivating collaboration across local outlets
  • finding ways for news outlets to provide spaces for productive community engagement across divides
  • encouraging new approaches to participatory journalism
  • creating partnerships with experimental journalism initiatives/approaches
  • contemplating new approaches to sustainable models for good rural journalism coverage

The Big Ideas

We want to start this recap by highlighting four ideas on the more ambitious side that came out of it which we are now committed to pursuing, if and as we find the right partnerships and funding to make them happen:

1. Bringing Refugee Communities Together with Longtime Residents: Bowling Green is a refugee resettlement area, with 10,000 refugees resettled in and around the 65,000-person town in the past two decades. Several members of those refugee communities commute up the parkway to rural Ohio County for work at a chicken processing plant, where 19 languages are spoken. Local resources in rural Ohio County struggle to connect with and support these people who work every day in Ohio County, and the community groups that work to help support these residents’ lives in Bowling Green often struggle with finding meaningful ways to help them integrate into the social fabric of the region.

One brainstorming group came up with an initiative that evolved as the day went along—to bring mothers from rural Ohio County and that refugee population around Bowling Green together to talk about their children and particularly about healthy eating choices and recipes. The idea was that this connection could start in an online group, eventually evolve into face-to-face meetings, and then perhaps connect with the wider community outside this group. By the end of the day, we had some vital community partners on board to participate, and we see an angle for newsrooms to be involved in helping potentially host these discussions and bring stories from this cultural exchange to a wider regional audience.

2. Addressing “Town and Gown” Divides: One group focused on the many challenges that exist in a mid-sized city with a large university population like Bowling Green in helping bridge communities who share the same city but often don’t frequently cross paths. One member of the group shared her experience of two Bowling Greens—one as a WKU student and another, starkly different, when she later graduated and began working and interacting with residents.

The group fleshed out an idea for creating a collective where residents (perhaps half from the university community and half from outside that community) come together to think about solutions to an issue that people across the city might care about and that might not be overly polarized (for instance, homelessness). This task force would begin working together in an online setting on the problem, where members’ avatars/handles would not include their actual name, job, etc., and where instructions include not revealing specifics about political and religious views, or other information that might take attention away from the common goal of tackling the issue at hand. Eventually, after the group has collaborated for awhile, they would come together in person. Again, media partners might report on the solutions examined and proposed by this task force, as well as the process of people from different communities within the city collaborating to solve this problem.

3. Reinvigorating Community Traditions: A range of community traditions came up over the course of the day:

  • literary clubs, where men or women (usually grouped by gender) of higher socioeconomic classes in communities maintained invite-only literary clubs, where members take turns hosting the club at their house and focus an evening discussion of a particular issue over a meal.
  • liars tables, where men (sometimes community elders or business leaders in town, but often also including blue-collar workers who pass through before or after work) gather at general stores or local diners to talk, argue (and perhaps sometimes embellish) over local community issues and news on a regular basis
  • society columns in rural weekly newspapers, where community correspondents for each small town in a county have long gathered and shared community announcements and events; births, deaths, anniversaries, birthdays, and information about people in the community who need support, or thoughts and prayers; and even comings and goings (who had out-of-town visitors, or a family reunion, or who went on a social outing with whom) to help local residents stay up-to-date with one another or the diaspora of their town, particularly in a pre-Facebook era.

Some functions of such traditions may be outdated, and some of these spaces were quite exclusionary in the past. Nevertheless, they have also been traditions that have kept people civically engaged, often across a range of political and social views, at a local level. We will be exploring these traditions in greater detail in some writing to come, but we are interested in the role news outlets might play in finding the twenty-first century version of such traditions. One rural news outlet shared with the group how they would like to have a space for their publication that could literally act as a public sphere. They explained that their town lacked spaces where they could easily find an appropriate venue in size and layout that would invite people to come inside for coffee or snacks and to talk about issues, or even to have benches out front for people to gather and talk. We’re also interested in further exploring experiments that find ways to invest and experiment with such spaces in rural places.

4. Business Models for Supporting Local News. Much of the discussion of the day turned toward new potential models, strategies, and tactics for finding sustainable methods of maintaining a news outlet at a very local level, in cities the size of Bowling Green or rural areas. Subscription/membership models (and making sure people see the value they’re getting through their financial support), opportunities for meaningful community participation facilitated by the outlet (such as maker spaces for community residents), methods for making residents part of the story selection and creation process, spaces to explain why stories were done and how the reporting happened, sustainable ways to provide Spanish-language coverage, meaningful relationship-building with civic organizations, and new regional events all came up in group discussions.

Our Participants

For the workshop, we had a range of Kentucky-based outlets in the room with us, including the Bowling Green Daily News, Center for Rural Strategies Daily Yonder, Ohio County Monitor, Ohio County Times-News, Ohio Valley ReSource, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues’ Rural Blog, WKU College Heights Herald, Murray NPR affiliate WKMS, and WXMZ’s Lunch at the Z in Ohio County.

And we were fortunate to have some great organizations join us from outside the state as well to share some of their experiments, inspiration, and lessons learned, like The American Assembly, Internews, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, and Solutions Journalism Network, as well as guest appearances via Google Hangout from Hearken and Spaceship Media.

Rethinking Workshop Design

Part of what we found invigorating about this workshop was experimentation with format. After talking through our research and the work of some of the organizations from outside the state who had joined us, the twenty-five participants in the workshop divided into four groups that included a mix of journalists and community members and brainstormed potential solutions. That mix of perspectives empowered lots of passionate discussion and debate that drove some particularly innovative ideas. The groups spent a couple of hours in intense discussion about initiatives, approaches, and tactics that might strengthen the sustainability of good journalism in the region and help outlets potentially address issues of polarization (including over a great lunch by Home Café).

In addition to including residents and community groups in the brainstorm itself, Bowling Green residents who had taken part in the initial research joined us at the end of the day as the four groups presented their ideas and be part of the discussion around those ideas. It was important to bring the ideas back to some of the residents who participated in our initial research.

And, while the workshop itself was held in Bowling Green, on the campus of Western Kentucky University, we found several ways to engage residents of Ohio County in the process, beyond the couple of members who joined the workshop itself.

First, a few members of the workshop took a break from the brainstorming to spend an hour on a lunchtime talk show highlighting the themes from the workshop and explaining their work and the goals they had for this initiative with listeners. Host Jerry Wright (who had participated in the initiative) spent the full hour explaining what he’d heard and learned in the morning half, some of the challenges journalism faces in general and he thinks about in particular, and engaging with participants both within and outside the state about challenges for journalism. We even had listeners live-texting comments during the broadcast.

Then, after the workshop wrapped, we headed about forty-five minutes north to Beaver Dam, Kentucky, in Ohio County, to be joined by local residents who participated in the research, a community newspaper columnist, a representative from a local community organization, and even a listener to the radio lunch show who had heard mention we would be passing through and wanted to join the chat. After a catfish dinner at Twin Lakes Restaurant, a representative from each of our four brainstorming groups shared some of the ideas they came up with in conversation with the Ohio County residents. We found that some ideas brainstormed in the room in Bowling Green found new facets and added layers of complexity and resonance as we talked them through casually over hushpuppies with the Ohio County residents.

Other Takeaways

In addition to the big ideas outlined earlier in the piece, there were also a few immediate developments that we’ve seen come out of the day:

  • A suggestion from one of the residents who joined us prompted one journalist to leave the day pledging to review how her organization positions the expertise of sources in their stories so that residents better understand why they call on the people they do, and to help them review that process themselves.
  • Multiple outlets learned about new tools for better connecting with their audiences, and have already begun designing some potential collaborations using those tools.
  • Plans were set in motion for some news outlets and organizations in the room to host one another for visits and give talks.
  • Some non-competitive newsrooms began the dialogue of sharing best practices and lessons learned, particularly in areas where they’d found success or learned some hard lessons.

We came out of the session enthused about the collaboration we saw in the room, some of the specific ideas we came up with, and how this whole approach could be an interesting template (modified to the particularities of any regional culture, of course) for how news outlets and communities can come together to address polarization in other places, too.

We’ll be sure to keep you updated on our progress.

And a Little Fun...

And, finally, we ended the day with a social outing at the Rosine Barn Jamboree in Ohio County, where local residents and some regionally touring acts come together every Friday night in a barn to play bluegrass, in the hometown of Bill Monroe, considered the “Father of Bluegrass Music.” (See more about it from The Boston Globe and The New York Times, where it was named one of the 52 places in the world to visit in 2016). Several in the crowd had listened to the lunch show about what the workshop was about, and the organizers even invited one of us on stage (the local boy) to talk about what the gathering was about and why there were a whole host of new faces among the crowd that night. And, thus, we’ll end our post with a few photos from the night.

(See some additional reflections on the day from Jennifer P. Brown at The Rural Blog.)

The phenomenal McKensie Bell and the Randy Lanham Band, featuring Ohio County Judge-Executive David Johnston on guitar, bring the house down.
Left: Sam Ford explains a bit about the workshop, standing alongside Floyd Stewart and Friends. Right: Becky and the Butler County Boys warm up in the parking lot.
A beautiful evening in Rosine, Ky., allows for an open-barn experience for attendees.