Carson Vaughan will speak at the Anvil Rural Journalism Conference on April 8 in Lincoln. We took a moment to get to know each other a little better. Register to attend the conference (in person or online) here. And here’s our five questions for Carson.
Fly Over Media: What’s your current job? Or, what’s your particular area of focus these days?
Carson Vaughan: I’m a freelance writer. I frequently threaten to “specialize” or develop a more narrow beat, but I don’t think I can accurately push beyond “culture writer.” I most commonly write about literature, travel and the environment. Because I was born, raised and currently live in Nebraska, all three of these interests often overlap with rural issues.
FOM: What’s your personal background? How did you come into your field of work and study?
CV: I was born and raised in Broken Bow, a small town in central Nebraska, and later moved to Lincoln to attend the University of Nebraska. While earning my Bachelor of Journalism (News-Editorial) and Bachelor of Arts (English) degrees, I established The Dailyer Nebraskan, the university’s first and only satirical news source. After graduation, I moved to North Carolina, where I earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative nonfiction writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. During my three years in Wilmington, I also served as the nonfiction editor of the award-winning literary journal Ecotone, and taught two years of undergraduate creative writing.
MFA in hand, I returned to Nebraska, where I’ve been freelancing ever since. I would say I chose writing because it seemed to be the path of least resistance, but every time I sit down to write it feels pretty damn hard. But maybe that’s the key. It constantly challenges me. I’m never bored.
FOM: You grew up in rural Nebraska. How has that shaped your approach to coverage?
CV: I certainly don’t think growing up in rural Nebraska has given me any journalistic superpowers, but I do think it’s given me a more natural understanding of rural culture. In the same way that a journalist born and raised in Brooklyn inherently understands the milieu of New York, I inherently understand the milieu of small-town Nebraska. I suppose that’s the better way to phrase it. I wasn’t raised on a farm or a ranch, and though I’ve spent plenty of time on both, I don’t claim to have lived any sort of agricultural lifestyle, just around one. Nevertheless, that familiarity with small towns keeps me attuned to the specific challenges they face. It’s like finally watching The Wire a decade later. Once you’ve seen it, you see the references and the influences everywhere. Because I grew up in a town like Broken Bow and know the common issues rural America faces, I see those issues playing out in a more visible way than perhaps someone from a major city would.
FOM: In your work, what common threads have you seen between rural communities across the country? What do you think these places need from journalism?
CV: Though many small towns don’t like to confront it, rural depopulation continues to be an issue. So many of the challenges that face rural communities today ultimately stem from the fact that they don’t have the tax base to support a better school, or don’t have the infrastructure to entice new business, or don’t have the job opportunities to prevent brain drain. All of those are tied to small populations.
Too often, I also see a social stagnation in these communities, and I think that stems from a lack of diversity (which of course is yet another side-effect of de-population). We now know that suicide, for example, is a major issue in rural America, and I think a lot of that has to do not just with a lack of mental health services (again, who can support them?), but with the stigma that still resides in rural America around mental health issues.
To think you’re the only person who believes in something, or the only person who struggles with something, can be terribly isolating. The fact is that of course they aren’t the only ones feeling that way, but they don’t see their own issues represented in their own environment. Hence, again, the brain drain. They flee to the city where they can find other likeminded individuals. It’s very difficult to tease apart the issues of rural America, because they’re so often knotted together.
All that being said, I also see a lot of goodness in rural communities. I feel fortunate to have been raised in one. While growing up in a predominately white small town didn’t offer a racial or sexual or religious diversity, it certainly offered an economic diversity and a diversity of circumstance. When your high school class is less than 75 people, you’re forced to interact with people you don’t see eye-to-eye with everyday, in every class and at every social function. That training growing up is something I value greatly today.
One could write a book on what small towns “need from journalism,” but I think a good place to start is that reflection I mentioned earlier. Rural people often feel ignored or misinterpreted, and I think that can mess with one’s psyche. To feel like we’re part of a community, we need to see ourselves represented in that community, and I think that is one role journalism can play, and should play better and more often. Rural America is a diverse place, but we don’t always show it. I’m not advocating for boosterism or even more “positive press,” but simply more objective reporting on the diversity of issues and people who live in these towns.
FOM: When you write, is there a difference between writing about a rural community and writing for it?
CV: Absolutely. And in a general sense, I’m not much for the latter if we’re talking strictly journalism. There are plenty of positive stories to be found in rural America, and they should be told just as often as the negative or complicated ones.
But I think we should be wary of overcorrection in the age of Donald Trump. The idea that we’ve ignored middle America has been very in vogue recently. I don’t necessarily disagree with that idea. But I do think many people engaged in that conversation think the answer to negligence is a barrage of positive stories from the heartland. In the long run, I think we simply need more reporting out here. If one’s goal is to write for a community, I think that’s wonderful—but they should probably ask themselves if what they’re doing is journalism or PR. If it’s the latter, they might consider a gig at the tourism bureau.
I hope that doesn’t come across as mean or insensitive. I think the biggest disservice national media dished to the midwest wasn’t disparagement, but simplification. What I see in small-town America is incredibly complex, and complicated, and frustrating, and beautiful, and sad, and bright and funny and depressing and all the rest. But when headlines use monikers like “Bible Belt” and “Flyover Country” it simplifies everything between New York and Los Angeles, and leaves many people unfortunately in the shadows.