Q&A: NPR’s Kirk Siegler on covering America’s urban-rural divide

NOT LONG AFTER THE 2016 ELECTIONS, Kirk Siegler—a reporter on NPR’s national desk—traveled from his home in Los Angeles to Orofino, Idaho, a city with a declining logging industry and a population of about 3,000. A timber mill had closed, the second to shut down in six months, and Siegler went to talk with Trump voters about their hopes for the local economy.

“You can say what you want,” one logger told Siegler. “But it was all built off of mining, timber, oil… the United States wasn’t built off of tech companies.”

Siegler reported:

In the rural West, it’s not unusual to hear jabs like that directed at city dwellers. But the divide seems even more pronounced since the election. Folks in Orofino are proud of their heritage as loggers and miners, but today, Clearwater County routinely has one of the highest unemployment rates in Idaho.

Siegler covers America’s “urban-rural divide,” which, his bio notes, explores “the intersection between urban and rural life, culture, and politics.” The beat is a relatively new one for NPR, which formerly had a full-time “rural affairs” correspondent, Howard Berkes, based in Salt Lake City. Berkes covered rural affairs for a decade, and moved over to investigations in 2013.

Siegler, who has been doing plenty of coverage on rural issues in the West since then, seems like a natural fit for the refashioned beat. He grew up outside of Missoula, Montana, and worked as a local public radio reporter in Colorado. During the past few years, he has filed dispatches from western outposts as he covered the Cliven Bundy saga and the impact of land policy issues on rural parts of the country.

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After Donald Trump won his office on the strength of support from rural voters and small-town America, Siegler says his editors were hungry to find out what people are thinking in parts of the country that have gone under-covered by national media.

“I think everybody can agree there hasn’t been enough reporting in rural America recently,” says Siegler, “and I think the Trump election sort of hit that on the head for a lot of people.”

I caught up with Siegler over the phone to talk about his coverage of the urban-rural divide. The following conversation has been edited for clarity.

 

So this is new for NPR, covering our urban-rural divide as a beat. Explain what the beat means to you.

Mostly, it’s been more of an excuse to get out and spend a lot more time in rural parts of America that we haven’t yet. You’re probably lately going to be hearing more from the rural areas than the urban areas. But I think [the urban rural divide] is sort of a popular political term right now, and it’s something that resonates with a lot of people.

I’m sitting here talking to you from Los Angeles, which is the heart of blue America, but if I drive 40 miles—or maybe even a mile—in one direction, there are lots of pockets of red America.

 

You started this before the election. Has Trump recalibrated this beat?

I think [the election] kind of gives more credence to the beat and why we want to get out there and sort of get at the divide a little bit more. To understand what’s going on out in the rural areas, where the economy has been hit really hard from a number of factors, and where people in a lot of communities feel they’re losing control [of] their lives and their heritage and that kind of thing.

It’s also just sort of a more relevant, interesting way to frame the narrative than what we used to call “rural affairs.” There are a lot of similarities, and I think there are probably more similarities in some of these places with some hard hit urban areas, too, than people in both places understand.

So that’s what we’re trying to get at. Not to report a beat that is warm and fuzzy and allows people in both places to understand that they have more similarities than they do differences. But to get at what the polarization is like, and what’s behind it, and where we might go from here.

 

As the reporter on this beat, can you answer any of those question yet?

[Laughs] No.

I don’t know where it’s going to go. The national media has focused too heavily on battleground states and not the country as a whole. I’m sitting here talking to you from Los Angeles, which is the heart of blue America, but if I drive 40 miles—or maybe even a mile—in one direction, there are lots of pockets of red America.

I think the idea is to get out into places that we haven’t been, and follow up and find out what they want, what folks there want to see happening, what’s not happening, where does this go from here.

 

Any city where I’ve lived has been like that. Drive 20 minutes out of town and you’re in a different world.

I think more stories that get at that will move the needle forward. As reporters, it’s not our role to write opinion pieces or really try to drive the narrative. Our role is to sort of lay it all out and let people make informed decisions on their own.

I grew up in rural Montana—mostly all of Montana is rural—outside Missoula, which is the liberal bubble of Montana, the Austin of Montana. And even right within that county there’s a big rural-urban divide, and it’s even increasing. And it’s not necessarily just whether you live in the woods or the fields. It’s sort of people’s values and identities seem to be very different, maybe even [for reasons] as simple as whether or not you live in a sparsely populated area or a dense area.

We were looking for an example of a town that lost its rural manufacturing base, and you don’t really need to look that hard in Idaho.

 

You mentioned following up and going back. Some criticism of national reporting on rural America is that it’s often drop-in or drive-by journalism.

We’re trying to do this across the national desk, not just the urban-rural divide beat. That is: to follow up with people who are watching this new administration very closely, and maybe had pinned some hopes on the new administration to change things in rural America—or didn’t.

The plan is to keep going back to Orofino. After that story about the timber mill closing and the town kind of being at this crossroads, a listener heard it and told the economic development official there about an idea for how they might redevelop the site of the old mill. I’m waiting to find out what actually happens with that.

The reason I went to Orofino, Idaho, was we were looking for an example of a town that lost its rural manufacturing base, and you don’t really need to look that hard in Idaho. I dare say that I might have even Google News searched, like, “timber mill closure Idaho,” and Orofino came up because they had had two in the last few months, and one had just happened right before the election.

So that’s an example of a town that was built on one thing, literally plotted out by the mining and timber companies in a very established place around one thing that is not really that relevant anymore. And that’s the sort of issue that’s being grappled with.

 

So you live in Los Angeles and fly around to these places. Talk about that approach.

It’s sort of weird to cover rural America from the second-largest city in America. I know it sounds kind of counterintuitive. I don’t know that I’ll stay here that much longer working this beat.

That said, I think it lends kind of an interesting perspective to the rural-urban divide in the country if you live in one place and travel to the other place all the time. If you’re from a rural area and have lived in cities most recently, you can kind of understand the tension and the dynamics. That can inform your reporting.

There’s probably two sides to that. If we were to embed in a rural place and follow them along, that would also glean some pretty interesting perspectives. But in the realities of journalism today, we don’t necessarily have the resources or the time to do something like that, so this is the next best bet.

There has been a big investment over the years to connecting rural America with NPR. When you go out to many of these places, there we are.

 

On your way to a new rural community, do you ever worry that you might show up, but then end up with nothing?

I’ve yet to be burned, but I still almost always have that fear, especially when flying somewhere.

We read all these polls about how no one trusts the media, and there’s this sort of perception that no one wants to talk to reporters these days. But I find that isn’t the case at all. It doesn’t take much to get a lot of people to open up, because people like to tell their stories for the most part. A lot of people want to just be heard.

Granted, I have not been out doing the lightning-rod social issues. Most of my reporting tends to be a little bit more on the economy, though I did do one recently up in Montana about white nationalists.

 

Some people would like to see NPR defunded. Does that raise any issues for you in your work?

It for sure comes up, and when it does I’m happy to do the standard line— give them some statistics about who’s listening, how balanced our coverage is.

In this landscape people have already made up their minds about a lot of things. But, that said, a lot of people continue to talk, even though they may think we’re liberal or conservative or whatnot.

Oftentimes in small towns, the NPR member station is the only news station on the radio. There are some commercial FM stations that do news breaks and play country music or classic rock and air their local high school basketball games, but for the most part we’re on the air. We’re still a very primary news source in a lot of areas. Eastern Oregon is a great example of that. There has been a big investment over the years to connecting rural America with NPR. When you go out to many of these places, there we are.

 

How do you keep yourself from exoticizing rural America?

That’s the tough thing about what we do. As a reporter, you are inquisitive, you come into places that maybe you’re not familiar with, you know. Every moment is like a “wow” moment. But I think you’ve got to step back and temper that.

You have to sort of think how your framing and narrative—whether it’s a narrative on your radio story or your blog post or even just a tweet—might come across to a broad audience. And I may be a little more sensitive to it than most because I grew up in a rural area, and the rest of our extended family was from the East Coast and the urban South and they would always look at us like that. “What are you doing out there?” Like we were out on Mars.

 

You’ve done a lot out west so far, but this is a national beat. Would you go to, say, North Carolina, which could kind of be ground zero in the urban-rural divide?

The idea is to sort of broaden it out and visit some other places. I was just in southern Illinois and Kentucky.

 

So you are working your way to the other coast.

Yes, for sure. And we do have resources and help. There’s a reporter at an NPR member station in Kansas City that’s helping with this.

It’s a huge country. We can’t get everywhere. But the idea is that we’re going to be visiting a lot of places that maybe have either felt left behind or just haven’t been on the national media radar for a while, and figure out how to tell stories better from those places.

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Corey Hutchins is CJR’s correspondent based in Colorado, where he is also a journalist for The Colorado Independent. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins recently worked on the State Integrity In vestigation at the Center for Public Integrity and he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, The Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at coreyhutchins@gmail.com.