Blog Post

The Anvil: Pursuing better media

On April 8, Fly Over Media and Missouri-based quarterly magazine The New Territory will produce the first annual Anvil Rural Journalism Conference. We got FOM executive director Andrew Dickinson and The New Territory editor Tina Casagrand together to talk about the Anvil’s background and purpose. Transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Join us April 8 for the free conference at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s College of Journalism and Mass Communications.

FLY OVER MEDIA: Could you two give some background about your publications?

TINA CASAGRAND: We call The New Territory magazine “The magazine of the Lower Midwest.” We focus on Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma. I started as a freelance journalist in Missouri and I didn’t have a place where I could consistently publish the long, literary journalism that I feel is very important in changing people’s perceptions of places and issues. I wanted to create a platform to give the people who live here a sense of place and something to connect around. We have so much in common but can’t connect as easily as we could if we were all concentrated in, for instance, LA — And these five states have about the same population as the Greater Los Angeles area.

FOM: Is that true about the population?

TC: It is, yeah. It’s about 17 million in our five-state area and about 17 million there.

ANDREW DICKINSON: Fly Over Media is a cultural education nonprofit whose website you’re probably reading this on. We support, produce and publish long-term, in-depth multimedia stories specifically on rural areas and underrepresented communities in general. And we exist for a lot of the same reasons The New Territory exists — to try and foster more truthful work about what it’s really like to live in these places that are not major media centers. We want to give journalists who aren’t in New York, or Washington DC, or Los Angeles, time and resources to do work about our place so we can convey these stories to the broader public. One of the most important things we do is try and give people the time to work in places where journalists are not usually given enough to time to get to know. We’re all volunteer staff so we make the time to make this happen in addition to our other jobs.

FOM: Tell me about the relationship between Fly Over Media and The New Territory. Obviously from what I personally know, it seems like they were both born of filling a need you saw. Why does this relationship make sense for you?

TC: I’m really excited about it so far. As a print platform, we’re looking to amplify the voices in those undercovered places. So it’s been exciting to publish a Fly Over story in our first issue and continue to work with you guys. As this millennial generation, we’re able to and often need to create our own rules for how things should be done. We come at journalism from the point of view that it’s a given that you give voices to underrepresented people.

Nehemiah in the Near South neighborhood of Lincoln, Nebraska. Andrew took this photo as part of a portrait series for the New Territory last summer, all photographed in the neighborhood where he lives.

AD: The New Territory is obviously a print-based product and Fly Over Media is web-based, but regardless, both are projects born out of collaboration. We’ve never done this with too much emphasis on one person, one journalist. Any way we can partner with organizations is only going to help Fly Over Media pursue its educational outreach.

FOM: Andrew, tell me what The Anvil is.

AD: The Anvil is an idea we’ve had for a while now which really felt more urgent after this last election. There was a lot of confusion throughout the country, the idea that the media, large newspapers, really just didn’t understand the people in certain parts of the country. It’s about a gap between rural and urban people. I believe this conference can help bridge that gap. So the Anvil will bring both urban and rural people together to talk about journalism, how it treats these communities and how members of each can interact in a more beneficial manner. Out of these discussions, we’ll hopefully move forward with some ideas and action points that will move our collective work toward better connection and understanding.

FOM: Tina, can you talk to me about the media climate surrounding rural communities that makes the Anvil feel prudent?

TC: I want to start by saying journalists are living and working in small communities. The issue is that they’re over-strung these days and are covering an entire community or even several counties with limited staff, time and space to cover everything.

This used to be aided in some part by big city newspapers’ outposts in communities. That helped city papers build trust with the rural areas and represent diverse voices. Since so much information has been freely available online and advertising dollars are diverted to powerhouses like Google and Facebook, traditional media hasn’t kept up with changing times. They have closed their outposts, while the community newspapers haven’t been able to make a lot of new hires.

That’s what we’re coming in on, both of our organizations saying we want to make time to tell those long stories that haven’t been recorded.

AD: That’s a good point to make that there are lots of journalists in these communities, and that they are stretched thin just as city newspapers are stretched thin.

Regardless of whether the journalists are there in numbers or not, there’s still these people living life in these rural areas, with its good moments and bad moments. Highs and lows. There are stories happening that the resources aren’t there to cover. We want to help facilitate allowing people the time and space to explore those stories.

TC: I think people’s sense of self-worth is amplified by their culture and culture is transmitted through storytelling. So whether it’s a community newspaper or a digital organization such as Fly Over Media, taking the time to document what is going on in these individuals’ lives is going to contribute to a psychological sense of well-being and also represent the country more accurately.

FOM: When we’re discussing a kind of coverage gap, what kind of stories aren’t being covered? What do we lose by not being able to read these?

AD: The non-explosive stories aren’t being covered. When I see journalists from large organizations sent to small towns, often myself included, it was always because something happened that spiked national media interest. What’s missing are the stories of regular life in these areas. That can look like a lot of different things. But when you miss that, you reinforce stereotypes about lifestyles.

TC: Conservation is a big, undercovered subject. Land management and resource use that go pretty much overlooked until something goes wrong. These are great stories because they are so complicated. It has to do with science, policy, business and society. Rural areas are ripe for that kind of reporting.

If  journalists aren’t living in rural areas, somebody would have to fly in, find a place to stay and gain the trust of the community to really capture the nuance. They’d need to spend a lot of time learning to understand the geography and issues. It’s not often economically feasible to cover a subject fully, especially in one or two pieces. So people will often call in to the obvious sources—government agencies, academics, formal environmental organizations—and miss the underlying human story.

From Jon Augustine’s “Nature at Work,” published by Fly Over Media last year. Augustine photographed this story on his iPhone while working on the farm.

FOM: I’d like to talk about covering for rural audiences, instead of just about rural communities. Do either of you see a difference and do you think it’s worth addressing?

AD: There’s absolutely a difference that’s worth addressing. It’s kind of dumb, the number of think pieces I’ve read in 2017 that talk about rural communities instead of talking to them. And that’s not helping any of the existing problems get solved. It’s one of the reasons I think something like the Anvil is more effective than any of those think pieces. Let’s all get together and talk.

TC: I agree, and I’ve also seen all angles of how people in rural areas consume media. I was speaking with a man last night who said once he retired and stopped using a computer completely, so he was excited to see someone was making a print magazine. On the other hand, there are farmers who get most of their news from the radio as they run combines and other implements. So who are you trying to reach, and what’s the best way to do that?

One of the speakers at The Anvil is Rachel Myslivy. She ran a project to make videos about farmers using their land for clean energy. They chose video as their format, knowing a lot of print media wouldn’t get read but a short video that could be shared on social networks would have the biggest impact for the people they want to reach.

I’d like to connect our local contributors with public spaces like libraries and schools to keep these conversations going. It’s something I look forward to doing more of.

Photo by Lauren Justice, from Fly Over Media’s formative project, Fly Over Me: Valentine, where a group of young journalists lived and reported for two summers in Valentine, Nebraska.

FOM: I’d like to hear your thoughts on what you expect the outcomes from the conference to be. What do you hope to see discussed and what do you see as the value of getting everyone together to discuss the issues we’re talking about?

AD: I really hope people walk away feeling energized and like it’s possible to fill in this information gap. And as you know I’m not a big believer in the lone-wolf approach to journalism, so, with this group of people, it’ll be obvious that we aren’t trying to do this alone. There’s power in that. Knowing that there are other people trying to make this journalism feasible and successful.

I also hope we can use it to make connections between journalists that will allow them to perform their jobs better and lean on one another in any way they might need to. I hope students in the room will see that there’s a path they can take where they can invest themselves in the places they’re at. They don’t have to go get a job in New York City.

TC: Absolutely. This is an opportunity for people to develop a community around a common mission: to make sure rural areas are understood and reported on respectfully. It’s easy to feel like there are not a lot of other people who understand. I’m excited to bring all those people together in a room and at the very least talk shop and leave with new connections.

AD: It’s also important to note that this is not a one-off thing. We’ll continue to do it in the future, so I hope people see it as a good chance to kick it off.

Learn more or register for the Anvil by clicking here.