Learning to serve communities better

How working in journalism in rural Pennsylvania opened a new perspective

6 minute read
A snapshot of a snowy, small town with a couple of house complexes in the distance under a partly cloudy, blue sky
There's a lot to be said about the quiet rural towns in America, but who's listening? (Photo by Isabel Soisson.)

Like many class of 2020 graduates, I was spiraling in a panic-induced haze until I was offered my full-time job in December 2020. I’ve never done an official tally, but I applied to more than 500 jobs after I graduated. Applying to anything and everything isn’t exclusive to those of us who graduated into a pandemic, but I mention it because it’s important to note the mentality that I was in when I accepted a job in York, Pennsylvania.

Is home where the work is?

One morning, a few days before my 23rd birthday, I rolled over after my alarm blasted me awake. I grabbed my phone and opened the LinkedIn app—a symptom of panic-induced spiraling. I had a message from the news director at a television station in a medium-sized market in central Pennsylvania, not that far from the state’s capital. These are all facts I looked up later that day, as I barely read the message beyond “we’re interested” and “apply.”

I flew out of bed, applied, and waited for a response. Within a few weeks, I was hired. Exactly a month to the day later, I began my job as a Digital Content Producer at WPMT FOX43.

It’s with this same excitement (and speed) that I drove my newly purchased 2014 Ford Focus to my newly rented apartment that I wasn’t able to tour because of Covid-19 restrictions. This made me anxious, of course, so I drove a little faster than I probably should have on the day I moved in. And of course, I got stuck behind not one, but several, of the world’s slowest drivers. Something, I would soon learn, was not exclusive to just them or that day. Regardless, I made it there eventually.

It’s been about a year now, and I can actually say I really love my job. It has affirmed that working in the news industry is the right choice for me. But as someone who grew up in Philadelphia, and spent her college years interning in New York City, living in rural Pennsylvania isn’t exactly where I saw myself starting my career in news. And there are some key differences, to say the least. One of the most obvious differences is the political affiliations.

A world of new numbers

It’s no secret that rural areas tend to lean more conservative than big cities. Just ask the Pew Research Center. I’ve never lived in an area that wasn’t predominantly Democratic, and it’s been interesting to see how other groups respond to stories and what sorts of stories they like to read and watch.

One of the other differences? Money.

People who live in rural America tend to have less money than the average US citizen. Their economies depend more on industries such as farming which, according to The New York Times, “for the last quarter century … has been one of relentless economic decline.” In fact, the more rural the area, the lower the average income, according to Census and Bureau of Economic Analysis data.

For thirds, the Times also notes that rural America's population is shrinking. The average age is 43, which is seven years older than the average city resident. Rural America is getting older, and its population is not growing in a way that would suggest new people will take the older people’s place when they’re gone.

Since 1990, the US population has grown by 75 million, while rural areas have lost some three million. I’ve seen this myself, and yes, maybe it’s more noticeable to me because of having spent my previous life on packed city streets. In rural areas, there’s room to move around in the grocery store, not as many people are on the sidewalk, and not as many cars are on the road.

A whole new journalist, and person

After spending a year serving a rural community through my work, I've witnessed these differences. But when the excitement of having found a job in my field wore off, I got nervous. This was an entirely new environment. I had never worked, much less lived, in a rural community. I didn’t know how to write for them, what sorts of things to write about, and how to think about them as an audience. Not only was I starting a new job, but I was also starting to be a journalist in a whole new way.

I’ve learned that making and thinking about these observations have made me a better journalist. I’ve learned that you have to consider things such as the incomes and politics of those you serve in order to serve them better.

For example, over the summer I wrote a piece about cryptocurrency, and why young people are so much more drawn to it than more traditional investment options. I sort of went into these interviews thinking I would know some of their motivations, being a young person in the 21st century myself: a general lack of trust in an economy we watched fall as preteens, hitting it big enough to maybe cover the costs of the mountains of student debt.

What I found, however, was that while young people in rural Pennsylvania were somewhat motivated by these reasons, they were also drawn to cryptocurrency because whether they were born here or came here for school, they were watching a way of life disappear around them. As I’ve outlined above, rural America is shrinking. Out with the old, in with the new, as they say. These young people were witnessing this death, and investing, both metaphorically and literally, in the new.

I’ve started to think about journalism as a part of the service industry in its own right; after all, it borrows many of the same skills. You have to consider your clientele in order to provide them with a useful product they will buy—or in news’s case, read and watch.

While rural America isn’t where I see myself in the long run, I’m valuing the experience that living somewhere I never have before is giving me. It’s making me more understanding and compassionate. It’s making me a better journalist. At the core, journalists just want to understand, to help others understand. It’s an empathy thing, journalism. That’s what I’m learning. If you really want to work in this field, you have to learn to understand things you’ve never had to before, like rural communities, in my case. This place is making me a better journalist because it’s making me a better person.

This is also why I forgive York for its slow drivers. I think it serves to symbolize the fast-paced nature of where I grew up and went to school versus the more slowed-down life I’m living now.

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