Small-town pa­pers have a cru­cial job. Here’s what it is.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY GARY ABER­NATHY Gary Aber­nathy is pub­lisher and edi­tor of the (Hills­boro, Ohio) Times-Gazette.

The real­ity of life in ru­ral fly­over coun­try is lost on those who mock us. These are the places where Don­ald Trump won the pres­i­dency.

Ihills­boro, ohio don’t read many of the on­line com­ments fol­low­ing my op-eds be­cause I’m an old-fash­ioned jour­nal­ist who prefers signed let­ters to the edi­tor, or even phone calls or emails. But friends and fam­ily told me that my last Post op-ed ap­par­ently in­spired a lot of re­sponses ridi­cul­ing me and, by ex­ten­sion, edi­tors of small-town news­pa­pers ev­ery­where.

I won’t whine about be­ing crit­i­cized. Have at it. But maybe I can ex­plain a lit­tle more about small­town news­pa­pers — which I have of­ten said are the last news­pa­pers prac­tic­ing old-school, non-sen­sa­tion­al­ized jour­nal­ism — and in so do­ing per­haps help the head-scratch­ers bet­ter un­der­stand Trump coun­try.

One par­tic­u­lar re­sponse to my op-ed, sum­ma­riz­ing prob­a­bly hun­dreds of oth­ers, sur­mised that for news­pa­pers like ours, the “big­gest news is a new Dol­lar Store open­ing and the most col­umn-inches are taken up by the crime re­port and obituaries. So sad.”

I laughed, in part be­cause the com­ment hit close to home. In fact, we have done sto­ries on dol­lar­store open­ings. In some tiny com­mu­ni­ties in south­ern Ohio, the open­ing of a dol­lar store is real news be­cause it means that lo­cal res­i­dents no longer have to drive 30 min­utes or more to buy some im­por­tant house­hold and gro­cery items.

The real­ity of life in ru­ral fly­over coun­try is lost on those who mock us. These are the places where Don­ald Trump won the pres­i­dency, where peo­ple know they are ridiculed by East and West Coast elit­ists who have lit­tle un­der­stand­ing of the mean­ing­ful is­sues — the real news — that af­fect their lives. Trump iden­ti­fied a com­mon en­emy when he took on the me­dia elite, and ru­ral Amer­ica flocked to his side. A re­cent Reuters ar­ti­cle on the lack of con­cern across south­ern Ohio about the Trump-Rus­sia con­tro­versy iden­ti­fied three peo­ple at a restau­rant in Jack­son, Ohio — an hour from Hills­boro — who, when asked about the brouhaha, “stared back blankly.” One of them replied, “I have never heard any­thing about it.”

How could this be? One rea­son might be that they have more im­por­tant things to do than sit glued to ca­ble news. But in ad­di­tion to the scarcity of gro­cery choices in some ar­eas, broad­band In­ter­net has yet to reach many parts of south­ern Ohio. One gov­ern­ment ini­tia­tive with wide pub­lic sup­port in Trump coun­try is an ef­fort to ex­pand broad­band ac­cess to more ru­ral res­i­dents.

To this day, ru­ral Amer­ica con­tin­ues to be por­trayed in ma­jor me­dia, both news and en­ter­tain­ment, as back­ward and un­e­d­u­cated. The me­dia of­ten re­ports that Trump won a ma­jor­ity of vot­ers with­out col­lege de­grees, which is taken by Trump sup­port­ers as just a nicer way of be­ing called stupid.

Many peo­ple in ru­ral Amer­ica ply their trades quite suc­cess­fully with­out a framed de­gree in sight. Con­sid­ered un­e­d­u­cated by the main­stream me­dia, many make more money through farm­ing and var­i­ous trade skills than most col­lege grad­u­ates, and the news that mat­ters to them most is the weather fore­cast.

Small-town news­pa­pers re­port hard news and lo­cal po­lit­i­cal con­tro­ver­sies. They do in­ves­tiga­tive re­port­ing and in-depth anal­y­sis. They win awards from the As­so­ci­ated Press and other me­dia or­ga­ni­za­tions for their ef­forts.

But, yes, small-town pa­pers also do sto­ries on dol­lar-store open­ings, be­cause some­times their pres­ence as the only store in town is real news that will af­fect lives. They do sto­ries on a new doc­tor com­ing to town be­cause it of­ten means that spe­cial­ized treat­ment will be of­fered for the first time, which is real news for pa­tients who no longer have to travel to far­away cities.

They fea­ture sto­ries on school bus route changes, real news to par­ents who might have to get up an hour ear­lier or make new child-care ar­range­ments. They do fea­tures on World War II veter­ans to honor past gen­er­a­tions, and they do fea­tures on the achieve­ments of young­sters in 4-H to en­cour­age fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.

This is the Amer­ica that Trump em­braced. The me­dia’s Rus­sia fix­a­tion may not be fake news in the way that Trump uses the phrase. But for mil­lions of Amer­i­cans, Trump’s claim strikes a chord be­cause the Rus­sia hys­te­ria is not real news, ei­ther, not com­pared with the is­sues that im­pact their daily lives.

And when some­one tells them they should care more deeply about Don­ald Trump Jr.’s meet­ing with a Rus­sian lawyer, yes, some­times they will just shake their heads and stare back blankly.

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