The Country Has Come Apart—Rural America Has a Cure

From a Washington Post column by Dana Milbank headlined “The country has come apart. Rural America has a cure.”:

Since buying an old farm in the Virginia countryside last year, I have learned many things from the local weekly, the Rappahannock News. Among them:

Chuck and Diane Moore just celebrated their 43rd wedding anniversary.

Mae Racer makes the best rice pudding.

A new bench at the corner of Main and Porter streets memorializes Chuck Hunter.

Ploy Goodnight did the decorations for the Child Care and Learning Center luncheon.

And Doug and Beverly Exline enjoyed a relaxing week on vacation in North Carolina.

I admit that I don’t know any of these people. Yet, I am enthralled.

At a time when hooligans have hijacked the national discourse with disinformation and paranoia, the Rappahannock News operates in a calmer place where the slow rhythms of rural life are newsworthy — and where, regardless of political views, its readers are unified by a powerful sense of community. In tiny Rappahannock County, the newspaper still serves as the hymnal of our civic religion. It’s a tradition that we need to rescue in rural America — and emulate in our cities.

I learned about Racer’s rice pudding and the Exlines’ excellent vacation from the reporting of Jan Clatterbuck, a county native with a southern twang, owlish glasses and Dickensian surname. She’s the Rapp News’s weekly columnist, but also its general manager, receptionist and one-woman delivery operation. And she’s just one of the paper’s draws. The headlines atop Page One in recent weeks have given me news I most definitely can use:

“Pickleball, playground focus of county park overhaul.”

“New eatery coming to town location where Tula’s once served.”

“Amissville’s shuttered Hackley’s to become deli, market.”

Of course, that’s on top of consequential reports on broadband access, school taxes, economic development and transportation that residents would otherwise have limited ways of knowing about.

My neighbors share my affection for the local paper. There are only about 3,800 households in all of Rappahannock County, yet the Rappahannock News has 2,100 paying subscribers — an extraordinary penetration, in newspaper lingo. Fully 1,500 people subscribe to the paper’s daily email, half of them open it on any given day, and one-third of those click on stories. You can see people reading their paper in local restaurants and citing the paper’s reporting at the county’s Board of Supervisors meetings.

Similar newspapers once bound together communities everywhere. A century ago, The Post, too, carried items on the humdrum comings and goings of local residents. Though the news became impersonal in big cities, community papers continued to be at the core of rural and small-town America.

But for years, these community newspapers have been vanishing as print advertising and subscriptions collapsed industry-wide. The United States has lost about 2,500 local newspapers — a quarter of the total — since 2005, and papers continue to fold at the rate of two per week, Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism calculates. Seven percent of Americans now have no local news source whatsoever, and even those who still have a community newspaper are more likely than not to find little if any local content in them. Newsroom employment has shrunk by 60 percent since 2005, turning many small publications into “ghost newspapers” that publish only syndicated content produced elsewhere.

Research shows that in these “news deserts” where community journalism has died, voter turnout in local elections and other forms of civic participation decline, and local governments’ corruption and financial mismanagement worsen in the absence of watchdogs. Without a source of news on local matters of shared interest, people instead turn to the polarizing environment of national news, often filtered through social media or ideological outlets that churn out disinformation.

“Local community news organizations like in Rappahannock are the glue that hold the community together,” says Tim Franklin, who runs the Medill Local News Initiative. “When there’s this void of local news, people revert to the blue and red echo chambers and national news sources that confirm their own belief sets, and it aggravates partisanship.”

Against that depressing backdrop, the Rapp News is something of a miracle. Dennis Brack, who had worked at The Post earlier in his career, bought the paper a decade ago, and shortly after that a group of county residents formed a nonprofit, Foothills Forum, which pays three freelancers to write articles for the paper. The group also subsidizes pay and housing for the paper’s editor, Julia Shanahan. Shanahan, a recent graduate of the University of Iowa, comes from another nonprofit, Report for America, which also contributes to her pay.

Thus, with duct tape and rubber bands, the Rapp News survives — and even thrives. “It’s not super profitable,” Brack deadpans. Without the boost from the nonprofits, the paper would be a one-person operation, he says — perhaps just another ghost newspaper. Instead, the weekly has four full-time staffers (Foothills Forum is recruiting another full-timer) in addition to freelancers and paid contributors.

“For local news organizations, it’s kind of a race against time: Can we save papers before they vanish?” says Andy Alexander, a semiretired journalist (he was The Post’s ombudsman several years ago) who volunteers as chair of Foothills Forum. “If they vanish, you’ve left a huge societal vacuum.”

By many measures, Americans have lost their sense of community and voluntary civic engagement — what Alexis de Tocqueville called the “science of association” that was the source of the country’s strength. The combined effects of social media and the pandemic have left us isolated — and hungering for our lost civic ties. But you can’t rebuild community in a news desert.

Nonprofit efforts such as Alexander’s have sprung up across the country to buy community papers and subsidize local journalism. In a rare moment of bipartisanship, Reps. Claudia Tenney (R-N.Y.) and Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.) last month introduced the Community News and Small Business Support Act, a package of tax incentives aimed at rescuing local media.

The economics are weak, but the desire for community connection is strong. Kim Kleman, head of Report for America, which has placed and subsidized 600 journalists over the past five years, tells me she’s seeing “hyperlocal papers” popping up in cities — essentially transplanting the rural community model.

The Rapp News shows the potential. Extraordinary things happen in the newspaper’s humble office in the county seat of Washington, Va., home to the renowned Inn at Little Washington. The newsroom is a converted second-floor bedroom crowded with a wooden dining table and a few laptops. Brack takes photos and designs the paper. Shanahan holds local officials to account. Clatterbuck keeps tabs on birthdays and other local trifles. Along the way, this tiny paper produces some fabulous yarns about rural life.

There was the saga of the Flint Hill Volunteer Fire and Rescue Company, which responded so infrequently and so poorly to emergency calls that the state yanked the rescue squad’s certification. Yet the nonresponsive first responders (they apparently handled no calls for about 10 months) continued to draw $25,000 quarterly from the county — resulting in a months-long legal fight that the Rapp News chronicled in delicious detail.

Another recent story that got top billing: The local dog trainer who drew complaints from neighbors because she taught her pupils on agricultural land without obtaining a special-use permit. The Board of Zoning Appeals sided with the trainer, prompting the county supervisors to issue a “strongly worded letter” and eventually to strip the zoning board’s authority.

Before that, there was the story — a Rapp News exclusive! — about the couple who, three years after their John Deere tractor was stolen, received a ransom note of sorts taped to their mailbox, leading to the arrest of a Rappahannock County woman. (She blamed her ex-boyfriend.)

“It’s very hyperlocal,” Shanahan, who is 24, says of the paper she runs.

The county went 57 percent for President Donald Trump in 2020, and MAGA Republicans occasionally exchange jabs with progressives in letters to the editor. So do the county natives (“been heres”) and the transplants (“come heres”). But there’s virtually no partisanship in the news pages, because local matters transcend ideological categories.

The Rapp News staff holds a monthly “Fourth Estate Friday” at Before and After coffee shop in Sperryville, Va. It’s an open forum for readers to tell the editors about whatever is on their minds. At the most recent gathering, Shanahan, with a yellow legal pad, scribbled notes while 16 local residents gabbed about all manner of local concerns.

One of the participants’ spying of a bear cub crossing Route 211 that morning prompted a round of bear-in-the-garden stories. They talked about a new housing development up the road in Little Washington. They argued, politely but extensively, about whether the state has resurfaced Route 211 too often; one woman thought it an “obscene” amount of asphalt. Several readers complained about a proposed sign ordinance that would allow campaign messages potentially up to 500 feet long on hay bales (a 170-foot “Farmers for Trump” display caused a major kerfuffle in 2020).

John Cappiali, a local contractor whose work shirt said “Big John,” detailed some of his zoning fights with county supervisors.

Ron Makela, chair of the Board of Zoning Appeals and a “come here,” complained about county supervisors’ dithering on replacing the old courthouse. “Rappahannock County!” he said with exasperation.

“Been-here” Jan Clatterbuck shot back: “Don’t knock Rappahannock County, Ron.”

With a smile, Andy Alexander said to me: “All news is local.”

This is gloriously so in the pages of the Rapp News. Its most popular stories online are about restaurant openings and photo galleries from Halloween, the Fourth of July and local festivals. But there’s “hard” news, too. The paper is the only outlet demanding accountability for the just-launched broadband expansion (internet, and even cell service, is spotty in these hills), part of a $1 billion, eight-county project.

Its coverage of meddling by a local bigwig prompted officials to rescind a plan to move the local post office out of Little Washington. Its reporting on a foiled shooting plot at the local high school led authorities to abandon attempts to keep the matter hushed up. When a winter snowstorm knocked out power in parts of the county, some readers called the newspaper rather than the power company to ask when the lights would come back on. In an age of lost confidence in news media (as in almost all institutions), readers still trust this community paper.

There are 37 churches in the county. But there’s only one de facto bulletin board. Flip through a recent issue and you’ll find updates on the courthouse and the sign ordinance, news of an arts cooperative meeting at a local winery, the announcement of a free community dental day, a report on the transit authority hiring drivers for the elderly, a listing of community activities (“open discussion” at the library, potluck in the park). There’s a photo of Woodville farmer Lewis Atkins with the 20-pound cabbages he grew for sauerkraut. And, back with the obituaries and the property transfers, is Clatterbuck. This week, she reported on a “persistent” water leak at the corner of Harris Hollow Road and Main Street.

I’m not sure I know that intersection, and the accompanying photo (by publisher Brack) suggests the leak is little more than a puddle. But I am glad the Rappahannock News reported on it. At a time when we’re perpetually fighting about weighty matters in our national life, it’s soothing to know there’s still a place where we can all come together, bound by our common affection for things close to home.

Dana Milbank is an opinion columnist for The Washington Post. He sketches the foolish, the fallacious and the felonious in politics. His new book is “The Destructionists: The 25-Year Crackup of the Republican Party” (Doubleday).

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