Sometimes a labor assignment can lead to a lifelong passion. For Tim Marema ’85, it also led to the creation of a rural news website that is read “from the county courthouse to the White House.”
Marema, vice president of the Center for Rural Strategies (CRS), has roots in Jackson County, Ky. He describes his childhood home as the kind of place with “cattle at the back door, [and a] cornfield at the front.” Marema and family moved to nearby Berea when his parents found work at Berea College, which he would later attend.
“When I moved to Berea,” he said, “I thought I had moved to New York City. I had never seen that much sidewalk in one place.”
In college, Marema majored in history and was assigned to work for the Berea Citizen, the local newspaper, which was, at the time, owned by the College.
“I learned on the job,” he said. “I had other labor assignments, but that was my favorite. It was fundamental in helping me understand what a small-town paper means to the community, how you’re accountable to the community, how you have to cover it as news, but you’re also somebody who lives there.”
The budding journalist continued his education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where Marema edited the daily newspaper, the Chapel Hill Herald. He loved being in the newsroom there, but Marema’s heart belonged to rural America, and he began to feel that his skills would be of better service to a community with fewer resources. So he put his journalism experience to work at Appalshop, a media organization in Whitesburg, Ky., that Marema describes as a place that helps people tell their own stories and raise awareness about issues in their communities. (Read more on Appalshop and its current initiatives.)
“In Appalachia, we’re very used to other people telling our stories for us and defining us on their terms, and Appalshop was all about Appalachia defining itself,” Marema said.
There he met Dee Davis, Appalshop’s executive film producer, and Marty Newell, a founding member of the organization. The three of them thought they could take what they had learned at Appalshop and apply it to a broader market.
“We were interested in taking [our] ideas out to a national level and working with rural communities and focusing communications on the policies that define how rural communities get resources at the federal and state levels,” Marema said. “So we created the Center for Rural Strategies.”
With Davis as president and Newell as chief operating officer, the trio set out to help rural communities tell their own stories. In 2007, the CRS launched The Daily Yonder, a news website dedicated to rural journalism that Marema edits from his home in Norris, Tenn. As large city newspapers scaled back their rural coverage to save money, The Daily Yonder filled an important gap in rural news coverage.
“The whole journalism shift has really affected rural areas,” Marema said. “We were the first to feel it because Lexington and Louisville, for example, pulled all their news staff out of the outlying bureaus.”
The Daily Yonder employs writers of various kinds, from freelancers to interns to the nonprofessional. A farmer in Missouri writes about the politics of agriculture and the impact of farm policies. A fire and rescue volunteer in Wisconsin has her own column, writing about the challenges of a small volunteer fire department. Other content is produced by writers interested in rural topics, policy experts, nonprofit organizations that specialize in rural issues, and academics with expertise in economics and community development.
“[The editors] don’t try to have a deep policy understanding on every topic,” Marema said. “We find people in groups we trust, who we know are working directly in communities. We listen, and they help guide us.”
The site, funded by grants, foundations and individual donor drives similar to National Public Radio, has been an immense success, pulling in about 600,000 readers last year, including policymakers and large, national newspapers looking for information about rural America. Looking at data with a rural lens helps identify issues and stories much earlier than the broader, national media.
“We were weeks ahead of the national media reporting on how the late summer and early fall coronavirus surge was a rural phenomenon,” Marema said. “I got calls from people at the Centers for Disease Control saying, ‘Your coverage of rural coronavirus issues is the best out there.’”
Another story born of data analysis revealed that servicemen and women who died in war theaters like Iraq and Afghanistan were disproportionately rural. Marema hopes his efforts at The Daily Yonder present a more comprehensive, more accurate and more compassionate view of rural America.
“Our goal, to the extent possible, would be to help represent what’s going on in a rural county on terms that would resonate with the people who live there, not on the terms of how it would look in Washington or New York,” he said.
On a more personal level, another goal for Marema is simply to make a difference by doing something he feels is important and that wouldn’t be done if he weren’t doing it. The sentiment of making a difference in Appalachia in particular leads him back to his time at Berea. “My work is national now,” he said, “but the reason I care about rural places and understand anything about them comes from my own background in Appalachia. Berea helped me understand how being from Appalachia is an asset, and that has made all the difference.”