With the loss of local news media, rural perspectives are at risk of fading away. Several groups in Minnesota are banding together to change that.
The United States has lost more than two newspapers per week since 2005, according to Northwestern University’s “State of Local News 2023.” Over 200 counties around the country do not have a single news source, and most of those communities are rural. Not only does this make critical information more difficult to access, but it also means rural voices are less likely to be heard on both local and national stages.
Recognizing this threat, communities in Minnesota are working together to host Rural Voice, a series of town halls designed to spark conversation and elevate rural perspectives. At each event, residents convene to discuss rural issues in a conversation moderated by Minnesota Public Radio’s Kerri Miller.
“The exciting thing is the communities come together, and there’s camaraderie there. There’s problem solving. There’s sharing of ideas,” said Teresa McFarland, founder of McFarland Communications, and a creator of Rural Voice. “When we leave, we’ve heard from these communities that the town is still buzzing from what happened.”
The Rural Business Show recently welcomed McFarland and Rural Voice co-creator Tim Penny, president and CEO of Southern MN Initiative Foundation, to get an inside look at the series and find out what they’ve learned after two years of rural conversations.
Building a Platform for Rural Voices
Rural Voice started as a direct response to the need to create dialogue and better understand how today’s issues affect rural populations. “I think rural residents feel undervalued,” Penny said. “A lot of people don’t know about rural and don’t appreciate the degree to which Minnesota isn’t Minnesota without everything that rural brings to the table.”
To get the concept off the ground, Penny approached the state’s rural foundations to join the effort, as well as a handful of funding partners, including Otto Bremer Trust and Compeer Financial. Today Rural Voice partners also include Cherry Road Media, the Center for Rural Policy and Development, and Minnesota Public Radio, which helps broadcast content from the discussions to a broader audience.
“Truth be told, a lot of the listenership for Minnesota Public Radio is metro, and so it’s really getting the rural voice into a metro audience,” Penny said.
The topics are chosen in part by the rural foundations, with input from major funders and partners, as well as series creators. The only requirement is that the discussions highlight issues in which rural communities may have a distinct point of view or face distinct challenges and opportunities. Now in its second year, recent themes for Rural Voice were affordable housing, mental health, workforce issues and entrepreneurship.
“These are not partisan discussions,” McFarland said. “These are real discussions about real issues that are affecting people.”
Conversations that Resonate
The series has proved rural residents have an appetite for discussion and plenty to share. “We’ve learned that communities really appreciate the opportunity to come together around these issues,” Penny said. McFarland added: “The after effects of that I don’t think are going to stop because we left.”
This year, the conversations highlighted how healthcare and broadband access remain among the most pressing challenges faced by rural communities. However, residents also brought an immense amount of creativity, energy and entrepreneurial spirit to address those challenges and others, according to Penny and McFarland. Many of the events highlighted local entrepreneurial efforts and emerging business needs.
“This new economy and the ability to work remotely, it gives some hope for even the smallest of towns,” Penny said. Future discussions may elaborate on how to diversify rural economies, especially as populations grow and change.
And it seems Rural Voice is just getting started. Many other communities have reached out to host their own town halls, and the series has plans to expand beyond Minnesota in future seasons. “There’s lots of things going on outside of metro areas that we need to hear about,” McFarland said. “And it’s exciting for [rural communities] to be able to share their stories.”