I recently read (in the Daily Yonder) that 20 percent of US newspapers have closed in the last 14 years. And almost a third of those papers were rural papers. The article details the results…
“Half of the 3,143 counties in the country now have only one newspaper, usually a small weekly, attempting to cover its various communities,” the report says. “Almost 200 counties in the country have no newspaper at all. The people with the least access to local news are often the most vulnerable – the poorest, least educated and most isolated.”
The study says that counties with no local news publication face special civic challenges as a result. But an official with one small town that lost its paper 10 years ago said they’ve made do, with the government itself playing are larger role in communication.
Funny enough I was then invited to a meeting in Olivia, Minnesota to join my friend and colleague Jane Leonard at Growth and Justice to talk to community leaders about encouraging civic connection and online tools, such as the newspaper. G&J is working on a plan for the future through a process called Thriving by Design. It’s a grassroots, holistic look at what Minnesota needs to do to thrive. They hosted a conference with wide representation last summer to discussion topics that are important to Minnesotans and are continuing to work with that group to create a policy blueprint to bring in the next Governor.
It was at the meeting last summer that Jane made a connection to the folks in Olivia (and her Grandma was born there!).
Olivia is looking for opportunity. The connectivity around Olivia is uneven – as it is in so many communities. People closer to town are pretty well connected; between towns that’s less true. BUT access wasn’t really the topic of the day. What they really wanted to know was what they could do with connectivity to help bring the community closer together, and to continue to be thriving. To get folks to communicate, cooperate, collaborate.
We ended up broadening the topic – we discussed potential state and national models for becoming a rural innovation hub, with broadband-based development strategies. To be clear, Olivia has NOT lost a paper but the paper there is smart enough to see the opportunity to become much more! There’s a chance to use technology to encourage and support a business and social enterprise-minded community with an economy that works with and for all, leveraging the Main Street program and other civic infrastructures for modern community and economic development.
It was a great discussion. It started with the recognition that for rural areas, the age of broadband can be damning or lifesaving. There is an opportunity for those to take it. Broadband should eliminate the barrier of distance and it does for those who have it, who know how to use it, and are looking to innovate.