The stories we tell about who we are—and who others are—inform our most foundational understandings of the world and our place in it. When we turn on the morning news, scroll through our Facebook newsfeed, or pick up our local newspaper, what stories are being told about the places we live?
Nationwide, one-fifth of all newspapers have ceased publication since 2004 while many others have consolidated to stay afloat, effectively creating “news deserts” in communities across the country. Our own local paper—the Ashland Daily Press—has been covering our town’s stories since the summer of 1872, fifteen years before Ashland officially became an incorporated city.
Last fall the paper transitioned from a daily print publication to a twice-a-week publication to save costs. How would our community change if there was no longer a public outlet to tell the stories that matter the most to those of us who live here?
Through covering local politics, the accomplishments of our neighbors and the tragedies our community endures, local newspapers tell the stories that bind us together and inform us of community issues that affect us all. “Being a member of a participatory democracy requires you to know about community events. It requires you to know what’s going on in your community,” Daily Press Editor Pete Wasson told me.
The stories told through our local papers serve the purpose of bringing our community together to celebrate our uniqueness, to ask critical questions and to seek solutions to the challenges we face. Local newspapers provide rural communities with the opportunity for us to tell our own stories about the places we live.
For rural Americans, the narratives most frequently presented in national news sources about our communities tell of vanishing small towns plagued by deindustrialization, agricultural conglomeration, and rising poverty rates. While this region has seen the impacts of rural decline, we know that these declination narratives are not accurate representations of the diverse characteristics of our own rural community and other small towns across the country.
The Center for Rural Communities at Northland College recently found that 80 percent of respondents agree that this area is the perfect place for them. Some seventy-five percent would feel sorry if they had to leave this area.
Wasson reminds us that “every town has a narrative: the story it tells about itself… and often that story is told through the local newspaper.”
If we solely focus on incomplete narratives of decline and fear that often dominate our feeds or national news headlines without relying on our local paper to celebrate the stories of our community’s resiliency while speaking to the issues that require our attention, we lose sight of our collective ability to affect positive change in our own communities; we lose sight of our own potential to be more than the decline the places that we live have experienced. Let’s continue to support our local papers in telling the complete and complex stories of who we are as a community.
Jenise Swartley graduated with a degree in sustainable community development from Northland College in 2019. She lives in Ashland and works as a research assistant at the Center for Rural Communities and wrote this column for Northland Connections, a weekly column written by Northland College staff, faculty, and students for the Ashland Daily Press.