On agriculture in the mass media

Manassas evening sky.JPG

Since one of the topics I write about a lot is agriculture, I've run into the problem repeatedly of exactly where these stories should—or can—be published. Agriculture doesn't naturally fall into most of the news categories publications use: Is it science? Environment? Economy? Something ... else? 

The more that I've encountered this dilemma, the more I've become convinced that it's indicative of a broader problem in the domestic print media. The reality is that virtually all major publications in the United States are headquartered in large cities, and even those with the means to open up bureaus elsewhere invariably locate them in other large cities. The decision is certainly rational: cities are hubs of news, places where people and businesses congregate and where ideas, innovation and social patterns are often most immediately evident. But what this tendency has produced is a cycle in which it is virtually impossible for someone to succeed in the industry if he or she is not working in a major city. 

One of the most crucial factors in this equation is how painfully little local-market print journalists are paid (this is often true for TV journalists as well, but I am less familiar with their circumstances, so I won't apply my observations to that segment of the industry). Many of the discussions of this issue that I have encountered in the mass media are (1) written by people in very urban environments for publications produced in and targeted to urban markets and (2) badly skewed by major-market wages. It is the norm almost everywhere outside of major U.S. cities (the New Yorks, Chicagos, Los Angeleses, Bostons, DCs) for entry-level journalists to make in the low $20K range and for mid-career journalists to make in the low $30K range. Very rarely are benefits substantial, and inevitably the hours are bad.

Consequently, what we see is a wave of burnout and turnover in local markets that isn't likely to disappear until the industry can come up with some way to counterbalance the negative aspects of the job. Under such circumstances, "success" in terms of attaining a sustainable living wage is reserved largely for those young, single and not burdened with financial debt, while "success" in terms of making an impact on a broader scale is often hobbled by limited resources (as the simplest example, two-journalist newsrooms rarely have the time to commit to in-depth investigations). 

What these factors have produced over time is a kind of industry-wide myopia about rural issues. People are people, but urban societies and rural societies are in many ways profoundly different—different in the kinds of work they do, in how they socialize, in their level of religiosity, in their political affiliations, in their manners, and in dozens of other ways. As a result, major publications often (although certainly not always) cover rural issues in one of two ways: either they portray rural populations as a conglomeration of tropes (the wise bumpkin, the ignorant redneck, the patiently suffering black man or woman), or else they assume that the priorities and history of rural populations will—or should—match those of urban populations. Both of these approaches generally stem from the way that reportage in the current system is actually carried out: because major-market journalists are located in urban areas, they "drop in" to urban areas for stories. Sometimes they only show up for a single event; sometimes they stick around for a day or two. These strategies can unquestionably produce vivid stories, and I certainly won't dispute that an outside perspective can glimpse things that someone familiar with an area might overlook. But they prevent reporters from producing nuanced, deep examinations of what is happening in rural areas, and this sets in motion a chain reaction of "silo-ing." If the print media isn't writing about rural issues, urban residents aren't being exposed to them, considering them and taking them seriously—so they don't demand such coverage, and newsrooms conclude that (1) readers aren't interested or (2) the issues really aren't that important.

That's why—to circle back here—we have a strange lacuna in the print landscape where agricultural coverage should be. Agriculture is a critically important component of the U.S. economy. Agriculture and its related industries accounted for 11 percent of all employment in 2015, with U.S. farms alone (not taking into account fishing, forestry, tobacco, and other ag-dependent industries) constituting 1 percent of GDP. Many industries, such as the massive food/drink slice of the service sector, rely on agriculture for their very existence. And yet most major-market coverage of agriculture is scattershot and reactive, focusing on unusual events or trends. That in turn reinforces the idea that the industry and the populations who work in it and whose lives are shaped by it isn't that interesting or worth sustained attention. 

So what's the answer? That, as one of my colleagues used to say, is a question above my pay grade. But I'm inclined to say that what is needed is a different kind of rural "beat," one that offers more geographic flexibility and allows more reporters to become embedded in rural regions. What is needed, too, is for editors and newsroom decision-makers to take seriously the fact that rural populations are not a thinned-out carbon copy of urban ones, and that coverage of them is as essential to our democracy as coverage of big-city streets.