Farms, factories, vacation towns — rural can mean a variety of things. And in the midst of a pandemic, during presidential elections and as people live their daily lives, the Daily Yonder aims to cover it all.
The digital-only rural news source faces a unique challenge: how to unify a variety of rural readers without pigeonholing them into one category, all while growing readership and seeking policy change.
The Daily Yonder was started in 2007 by its parent, non-profit organization Center for Rural Strategies, and it digs into stories that affect rural lives — from election coverage to local hero highlights to hospitals’ lack of funding. Senior Editor Tim Marema conducts his reporting at a national level, and says one of the outlet’s major goals, beyond spreading rural news more broadly, is doing so efficiently and effectively.
“Knitting together a national audience around rural abstraction has been challenging,” Marema said. However, Marema watched the Daily Yonder’s reach grow during the 2016 presidential election, and has seen even more growth during its 2020 presidential and coronavirus coverage. In the 12 months before the pandemic hit the United States, the Daily Yonder logged 284,000 users. In the nine months afterward, it attracted 684,000. While Marema can’t differentiate the readership between presidential and coronavirus viewers, he noted that the news outlet’s coverage of those issues drew attention in Bloomberg and The Atltantic.
The Daily Yonder has a volunteer demographer who sources COVID-19 data from USA Facts, a nonprofit, nonpartisan data organization. When most regional papers provide these numbers for their home community and their state at large, the Daily Yonder sorts the data into a national rural-nonrural spectrum.
“The story is not about specific counties, it’s about categories of counties,” Marema said. From there, the Daily Yonder publishes an interactive map so locals can see what’s happening in their county and compare it to others. In doing so, people can better understand what they have in common with similar rural communities.
With the numbers from Dave Leip’s Election Atlas, the same process goes for election coverage, Marema said: “We use the national county-level data to analyze rural trends and help rural counties see where they fit into this national picture.” The Daily Yonder published a 2016 vs. 2020 election comparison chart, showing how types of communities voted each year.
Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst and the leader of news transformation at the Poynter Institute, noted that “news deserts” research by the University of North Carolina’s Penny Abernathy shows a “thinning herd” of news outlets that cover rural issues. With less coverage comes less public knowledge, but there are prosperous towns “that you or I never heard of,” Edmonds said, emphasizing that rural goes beyond farming and factories.
In fact, Marema said less than 2 percent of rural residents earn their living from ranching or farming. “We still are in a world where even reporters will say, ‘Here’s what’s going on in rural America.’ And the next 10 paragraphs are about farmers,” Marema said. “The response to rural needs has been — with the exception of broadband and a little bit on opioid issues — entirely agricultural.”
Abernathy, who is retiring from UNC and joining Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications as a visiting professor, said rural newspapers contribute to their communities in three important ways. One, local news helps set agendas for important public policy debates through the types of stories they cover and through the editorials that suggest solutions. Two, local news encourages economic growth and development by highlighting issues bubbling under the surface that need to be raised up in order to be solved. Three, local news builds a sense of geographic identity that’s important when thinking politically about decisions small towns have to make.
“Good local news organizations help us do all of the three things, which the Daily Yonder has the ability to do,” Abernathy said, “which is to highlight the important issues and help us problem-solve them.”
And that’s another goal of the Daily Yonder, to highlight rural policy in hopes to see change. “Rural, in political context, is synonymous with agriculture. And there’s so much more going on in rural areas than ag,” Marema said, citing healthcare, education, energy and the environment.
“The same way that a local newspaper is rooting for the home team and wants its community to succeed, our attitude about rural America is we want rural America to succeed,” Marema said. “And that’s not a journalistic conflict, it’s a focus and a mission.”
The same way that a local newspaper is rooting for the home team and wants its community to succeed, our attitude about rural America is we want rural America to succeed. And that’s not a journalistic conflict, it’s a focus and a mission.Tim Marema, Senior Editor, Daily Yonder
Marema said the Daily Yonder is in the midst of expanding its audience research. From what he can tell now, Marema said the Daily Yonder has readership in institutions that have an interest in rural America, including government agencies, education and health national nonprofits, and leaders who are directly involved in policy making on Capitol Hill.
The Daily Yonder, operated by a nonprofit and free to all readers, is looking for ways to create a more sustainable revenue model and expand its readership. “I come from an age where the job was to get the story done and get it on the front page, and circulation and advertising and marketing took care of the rest of it,” Marema said. “We’re past that, way past that.”
The outlet is looking at whether advertising, merchandise or contributions will help most financially long term, he said.
Abernathy posed the question: How does the Daily Yonder attract sponsors who want to reach its target readers? And since the Daily Yonder is digital-only, growing its audience depends on rural internet access. Abernathy, for example, lives in rural North Carolina. She gets wi-fi from her alarm company, which bounces a radio wave off a series of cell towers onto an old-fashioned antenna located on the tallest tree on her property. “Nobody who’s connected to Comcast would call it high-speed internet,” Abernathy said.
Beyond the business logistics, the work the Daily Yonder produces highlights communities often underrepresented by national news outlets. Its readership also reflects those groups.
“There’s never been a moment in my life where I felt like the work that I’m part of is more important and has more of an impact than what I’m doing every day,” Marema said. When it comes to the pandemic coverage, Marema said it’s “terrible” to see the numbers and to understand what they represent, “but it’s rewarding to be able to take that information and put it into a form that people can use and understand what’s going on.”