speech by Dee Davis, president, Center for Rural Strategies,
"Rural America, Community Issues" conference,
Knight Center, University of Maryland, June 12, 2005
I am going to speak to you about journalism as I understand
it, about rural perception and rural policy and where there
is work to be done. I am quite aware that you were selected
to be part of this group because of the exemplary work you
have done with your own publications and broadcasts and
I certainly appreciate the chance to have this exchange.
My journalistic credentials are quite modest. I grew up
in Hazard, Kentucky where my daddy read me the funny papers
in The (Louisville) Courier-Journal
every Sunday. Through the years I moved from the funnies
to "Ask Andy," to the sports section, and in time
to the news, which at its most memorable meant exposing
corrupt local officials, rapacious mining practices, and
the stifling poverty in the Appalachian mountains around
At age 16 I got my first letter published in the Louisville
paper. The thing about growing up in a small town is that
people whom I had no idea even knew my name would come up
to me and tell me how proud they were – that a young
person from our town could write a letter that would get
in the Courier-Journal. Then they would each politely point
out that they disagreed with what I had said, but they were
very proud that I could say it.
At 17, I got my own humor column in the Hazard High School
newspaper. It was called the Bulldog’s Bark
and it was my first work with an editor, Agnes
Kirby. She was the senior English teacher best known for
walking around the school saying, “Alas, alas.”
It was her job to read my columns to make sure I didn’t
sneak through any cuss words or overly conspicuous double
entendre. I would watch her read it, to see which ones she
would catch, and not one time all year did she crack a smile,
though occasionally she would look up and say, “this
is funny.” So at least I have sensed that affection
from an editor that many of you have experienced.
I skipped journalism at the University of Kentucky,
but there was a course called rural government. I had no
interest in the subject, but was convinced by my pals to
take it, that it was an easy ‘A’ and everybody
loved the professor, an avuncular stroke victim who called
everyone "Mister" or "Miss" and spent
a third of every class calling the roll. He began his first
lesson by defining rural government as inferior government
served by an inferior press. I found that to be biased and
unhelpful. I not only objected in class, I complained to
the dean of arts and sciences. The dean said he agreed,
but he couldn’t understand why a serious student would
take the class in the first place, that most students signed
up for that class so they could get an easy ‘A’.
At that point, I found myself going on at length about how
important the study of rural policy was to my life and my
future. This, I understand, is Karma.
I left the University of Kentucky to start a job as assistant
editor of Mountain Review, a quarterly
magazine with a press run of 1,500 and a subscription rate
of $5 a year. I invite you to do the math.
At age 25 my fortune turned and I went to work for the
Courier-Journal -- as a paper boy. Though I was both dependable
and punctual, my employment ended abruptly the week of our
nation’s bicentennial when a comrade and I decided
to celebrate the Fourth by dressing in commando gear and
liberating all the lawn jockeys along my paper route. We
filled the back of a Buick wagon with nearly a ton of freed
statuary before the Hazard police strongly suggested we
take them back to where their owners, my customers, were
waiting to have a word with us. They say a paper route builds
My real journalistic education came in the years I was
married to the granddaughter of Mark and Willie Snow Ethridge.
Mark was then the retired editor of The Courier-Journal
and of Newsday after that. He had been
one of the Southern editors who had crusaded for modernization
and for civil rights in the South in the face of rough opposition
from every sector, especially schools and churches. He had
served on the Ford Foundation board and
the U.N. Commission on Palestine, and retired
to a rural tract near Pittsboro, North Carolina.
Willie Snow, Mark's wife, was the author of 16 books and
a delightful raconteur who often recounted their adventures
together in the newspaper business, and was in some demand
to make speeches all around the country. I remember her
telling the story of having to go off to make a speech in
Wichita. She said she spent the whole week before saying
that she could not believe that there even was such a place
as Wichita. And how could there be anybody there who wanted
to hear her? She said she had no earthly idea why she had
agreed to do it. But the morning came, and she dutifully
climbed on an early plane and flew an indirect route to
the Wichita airport where a delegation from the women’s
club met her in time to whisk her off to her luncheon speech.
Willie said that as they drove along she went on gushing
about how lovely the town was and how nice it was to get
to come to Wichita and to meet each of them. She started
seeing these quizzical looks, and finally one woman said,
“Miz Ethridge, we so loved your speech here last year,
we just couldn’t wait to hear what you had to say
in this year’s speech.” Willie said, that she
thought “this year’s speech? I only had the
By the time I met Mark Ethridge, he was in his late 70s
with some health concerns, and the doctor had limited him
to only two drinks a day -- a restriction he faithfully
observed by purchasing a great yellow plastic flower vase
that he loaded with vodka and grapefruit once in the afternoon
and again before supper.
And on holidays and family vacations I spent all the time
that I could steal sitting beside him, keeping pace with
conventional stem ware, and urgently asking him all that
I could think of about the state and the South and the people
he had met: the '37 flood when the paper shut down, integrating
the schools, Happy Chandler, Harry Truman, Alben Barkley,
FDR, the coal strikes and John L. Lewis, Ed Prichard stuffing
the ballot boxes in Bourbon County, the Binghams, the Guggenheims,
the Hodding Carters, Huey Long, the Virginia Byrds, Margaret
Mitchell, Sherwood Anderson, John Steinbeck. It made me
feel that there was something great about newspapers, how
they connected us and what they connected us to: stories,
language, common understanding. The things I had studied
in school like the struggles for voting rights and decent
wages he had witnessed, perhaps even influenced.
And here you can plainly see that I came to over romanticize
journalism, and journalists and the language they spoke
-- the things they could make happen. For the next 20 years
I made my way mostly by working with others to produce television
documentaries about the coal fields where I grew up. In
that process you move from idea to finished product in three
years if you’re lucky. But on the front lines of every
tough fight in Appalachia, from strip mining to official
corruption, there was some reporter out there getting the
story and taking a commensurate amount of abuse for it.
Once in a while they got beat up.
One morning back in the '80s the judge in my home county
was so incensed about a Courier-Journal expose' of his malfeasance
that he confronted the paperboy on the county line and relieved
him of his inventory and destroyed them so no one would
read the story. The county was outraged. People get upset
when they don’t get their paper. Trust me. Next day
The Courier-Journal brought more copies the same and escorted
the paper boy on his drops. A paper route builds character.
But the problem with romanticizing journalism is that there
are also the disappointments that follow. Issues not covered,
blown stories, the budgetary priorities of the papers. It’s
not the despair that gets you, it’s having the hope.
Two years ago the Courier-Journal, now owned by Gannett,
accomplished what no corrupt county official or outlaw strip
miner ever pulled off. It stopped delivering the papers
to East Kentucky -- let the paperboys go and pulled the
routes back to its primary market area. It was a sound business
decision and understandable. And it is part of an industry-wide
trend that is manifest in a system where fewer and fewer
staffers put together what are still highly profitable papers
for fewer and fewer readers.
This is the way Albert Scardino explained the system to
me when he was covering the media beat at The New
York Times. He said that the real insiders would
tell each other that you have to be brain dead if you can’t
make money running a newspaper these days. He said here’s
how it happens, an editor goes to ask for another reporter
on his city desk or a regional bureau and is told sorry,
we just don’t have that in the budget. But if you
want something for the business page, we can talk.
Now Scardino is the executive editor for The Guardian
in Britain, and he refers to those same insiders
as “corporate press barons who have turned a once-honorable
profession into a 17 percent return on equity.”
These trends present a particular set of problems for rural
America in a conventional newspaper economy. Rural is where
the market ends. The twenty per cent of Americans outside
the metropolitan areas are more costly to reach. And they
have less purchasing power. But even though they represent
a less valuable demographic, they still could use real journalists
looking into the issues that matter.
At The Center Rural Strategies, our business is campaigns.
Sometimes that means building public awareness and sometimes
that means picking fights. But we got into this business
because we saw things in rural America were bad and getting
worse. Moreover it seemed like nobody was paying attention.
And we wanted to do something about it.
Here is the lay of the land we were seeing:
Of the 200 poorest counties in the United States, 195 are
The rural poverty rate is 21 percent higher than the rest
of the country.
More than one out of every five rural children lives in
Rural children are 50 percent more likely than urban kids
to lack health insurance.
Eighth-graders in rural America are twice as likely to use
amphetamines, and are 83 percent likelier to use crack cocaine
than eighth-graders in urban centers.
The adult suicide rate in rural areas is 20 percent higher
than the rate among urban adults.
The death rate in Iraq for American soldiers from the least
populated counties is twice that of the nation's most populated
And not only was that information below the national radar,
those public and private systems set up to address conditions
of poverty and community dysfunction were often absent when
it came to dealing with rural problems. For example per
capita federal investment in community development is twice
as much in metropolitan areas. And of the $30 billion in
charitable grants private U.S. foundations make each year,
only $100 million go into rural community investment, less
than half a per cent.
So to some of us who found the situation untenable, the
question became what do you do? You can’t complain
to the dean on this one.
We began our work with a couple of simple notions. The
first is that there is strength in numbers -- that the more
isolated and divided rural people are on issues affecting
them, the less power they have to make change. And conversely
as rural practitioners find each other, make allies beyond
their own sectors, and identify solutions, there’s
more chance to get something done. When we talked to folks
working in rural places like coastal Maine, the Upper Midwest,
Mississippi Delta, the Sacramento Valley, and a lot of what
we heard was that they were feeling alone out there. If
there were problems in the community or with the local economy,
they faulted themselves for not doing enough, not the elected
officials, not national policy, not the stars. And mostly
they felt when the media did show up, they got it wrong.
The second notion that we organized around is that policy
follows perception. If we were going to get better policy
for rural America, change the status quo, then we are going
to address how rural America and its issues are perceived.
Here’s an example.
First, the overwhelming view in this country is that rural
people make their living on the farm. The image of the venerable
family farm is pervasive. But farm reality is very different.
Fewer than 2 percent of rural Americans now earn their primary
living on the farm. Nationally there are just 600,000 farmers
earning $40,000 a year or more. To put that number in perspective,
there are more than three times that many people who file
on their income taxes as artists. But because so many of
us commonly hold this common perception, the country can
find it acceptable, even necessary, to subsidize agribusiness,
what we assume is family farming, by more than twenty billion
dollars a year. Believe me, the Arts Endowment gets less.
The reality is that most farmers don’t even participate
in those subsidy programs, and of those that do, 8 percent
get 60 percent of the take. It is easy to assume, even to
expect that farm subsidies make a real difference for poor
rural communities. It becomes our de facto rural
policy. But the reality is that other than propping up land
prices in the farm belt, those subsidies are a very inefficient
way to assist struggling rural communities. And whatever
this system of subsidized commodity production is designed
to do for the balance of trade, it is not happening. The
U.S. has become a net food importer.
So back to the business of bringing people together and
reframing rural perceptions, at Rural Strategies we have
undertaken some specific campaigns. A couple of the more
successful ones, I will mention here.
(The unsuccessful ones, I plan on talking about next year,
When CBS announced plans to make "The
Real Beverly Hillbillies," a reality show that would
take a low-income, uneducated rural family and place them
in a Beverly Hills mansion for amusement, we took exception.
We ran ads saying so in major papers across the country,
and we put together broadly diverse coalitions to stop the
show. This effort brought together many strange bedfellows:
three dozen Republican members of Congress and the leadership
of 10 of the country’s largest trade unions; Paul
Weyrich, the founder of the Heritage Foundation, and Michael
Moore; Zell Miller and whoever the opposite of him is.
And it got thousands of regular folks from around the country
to register their protest and make some stand in support
of what is rural. In a way a campaign against bad television
is like pissing in the ocean, but in another way it’s
empowering to take a side in a big fight and feel that you
made a difference.
And one of our great discoveries in running the campaign
was that rural America was far larger than the 55 million
people who reside there. The actuality is that the cities
and suburbs are full of people who have left the countryside
to find work or opportunity, and they identify themselves
as being rural. In seeing that the internal study at The
New York Times suggested more rural coverage, it
made me wonder if this was a response to those readers who
feel connected to a rural heritage.
Another campaign we just took part in was confronting the
administration and the banking regulators over their plan
to exempt all but the largest banks from Community Reinvestment
Act obligations. That law compels banks to lend money back
into the poor and moderate-income communities that they
serve. This was a more complex campaign than rallying against
reality television. And nobody gave us a shot, but we started
with good seasoned partners, like the Congressional Black
Caucus, the Hispanic Caucus, NAACP, LaRaza, and the Local
Initiatives Support Corporation. We ran ads that asked:
"Will the president’s promise of an ownership
society include rural America?" We asked: "Why
reverse legislation that had brought over a trillion dollars
of private investment into needy communities in cities and
One widely held perception of rural America is that it
is redneck, all-white and intolerant. And that’s neither
accurate nor helpful. As my pal Gurney Norman says, when
did John Boy Walton become Timothy McVeigh? Or maybe the
more up-to-the-minute question is, when did Jessica Lynch
become Lyndie England? The reality is that rural America
is only 8 percent less diverse racially than the country
as a whole. And what we have seen from surveys is that urban
people tend to think of rural people as intolerant, and
rural people tend to think of urban people as intolerant.
And they may both have a point. But it is also true that
the problems of inner cities and the problems in rural towns
ranging from disinvestment to substance abuse are not that
different, and there very well may be remedies that serve
And in this campaign with these diverse partners, e-mail
by e-mail, letter by letter, we brought in enough petitioners
to overwhelm those the banks ginned up in support of their
own regulatory relief. And in the end, together, we were
able to eek out a reversal from the regulators, FDIC
and the Office of Thrift Supervision,
on rural investment.
Here is what I am trying to say. There are problems in
rural America. There are also some solutions. How we set
about to solve these problems makes a real difference for
those who live in the countryside and for those who don’t.
And the press has a critical role to play. Not as advocates.
No one who romanticizes journalism as much as I would want
to change your job description. But we need to cover rural
issues better. Misperceptions have consequences. We need
to explain rural better. We need to show how it is connected
to a bigger world. We need to talk about solutions from
time to time. And we need more folks like you to show up
and get some shit on their shoes.
And when they do, there are going to be some tough rural
issues to deal with, like the political segregation going
on in this country, or the burgeoning clericalism in rural
community life, or the true prospects of revitalizing our
communities when the public coffers are empty and the real
price of war has shifted back to the communities whose volunteers
fought it. And when those stories come out it’s going
to be uncomfortable. Readers will cringe. Some of you may
even get beat up. That would be great. I would love that.
It builds character. And it might just mean that these issues
Thank you for indulging me.