Rural Slide: Project overview

After 4 months of work, 1300 miles, countless packs of cigarettes and as many cases of Diet Dr. Pepper, our Rural Slide story is up and out the door.

I began this project in late May with Lukas Keapproth, who was then our visual journalist at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. He and I spent June speaking with experts about an issue many rural areas of the state are facing.

Here’s what we found: From 2000 to 2010, 19 out of Wisconsin’s 72 counties lost population, with declines concentrated in rural areas.  The population is also aging, which may pose a challenge to communities as they try to sustain a tax-base with a dwindling labor force.  Finally, we found that the losses may have been much more dramatic in rural counties, especially areas with agriculture-based economies, had it not been for an influx of Hispanic residents.

And that’s the story. Well, almost all of it.  Of course, we couldn’t approach the greater truth through data and spreadsheets.

Experts from the Applied Population Laboratory, who study migration patterns, told us that dramatic changes in demographics usually coincide with events.  Natural disasters or death of industries may influence workers to leave and seek better lives elsewhere.  Seems like common sense, right? But to get the human stories — to find what keeps people close to home or causes them to leave — we had to travel. So Lukas and I hit the road.

We broke this project into three stories, each dealing with industries that make up the constellation of Wisconsin’s economy.

I will dedicate my next three posts to the stories we found during our trip, many of which did not make the final cut. I hope you enjoy, and find them as interesting as I did as I reported them.

Part One: Would young people stay in rural area for mining jobs? In Iron County, which lost one of every seven residents from 2000 to 2010, residents say a controversial taconite mine may be the only way to reverse devastating population loss. Oct. 7, 2012.

Part Two: A young mayor strives to rebuild jobs lost in paper mills. In Wood County, where almost  half of the paper industry jobs disappeared during the past decade, local leaders are using a regional approach to boost existing industries. Oct. 8, 2012.

Part Three: Hispanic immigrants help rural county stave off population dip. Dairy farmer Jeremy Meissner and farm manager Huron Mireles are part of the reason Clark County’s population is growing while nearby counties’ levels are declining. Oct. 9, 2012.

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2 thoughts on “Rural Slide: Project overview

  1. Congratulations, Mario. This is some great work and getting to know the person behind the work that was done makes it even more meaningful. Spoiled. That’s what I am. Spoiled. I was not altogether surprised by the stats, but they are pretty sobering to say the least, especially the ones pertaining to Wood County. My brother lives in Rapids and my dad has worked there my whole life, so I’m very familiar with the moribund quality of the existence there. I’d love to see what would come out of an effort to write a book on this, but where you weave your personal story into it. Probably not the time to pursue such things, i know, but i should still be able to fantasize, so just lay off. I’m forwarding this story to everyone I feel can read it. Keep it up, man. Oh yeah, and thanks for reading the things I send you in the mail. I know that some of it can be rather off-putting, but please trust that I’m not trying to sever our friendship by completing these postal transactions. I really have no defense for my actions. I honestly think I intend to construct little gifts on the paper using finely angled golden blocks and too often, in the end, it feels like little more than forging a sculpture out of room temperature vomit and trying to keep it upright long enough to slide it into the envelope. So I won’t apologize; it’s just that I’m sorry. Have a great day, keep up the good work, and throw an extra rep into your pec flyes for me.

    Date: Sun, 14 Oct 2012 20:55:29 +0000 To: jordan_marti@hotmail.com

    • Jordan,

      Thank you, good sir, for reading my drivel and taking the time to write such wonderful praise. I’m really glad to hear this story resonated with you — you know all too well the beauty and trappings of small town living. In fact, you taught me the single most important lesson on how to carry myself in rural areas such as Auburndale, Hurley and Granton: Don’t make any sudden movements. The knowledge you imparted served me well, and without that lesson this story wouldn’t have been possible.

      As much as I’d like to claim originality on this topic, several sociologists and journalists have traveled this path before I did. Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas wrote a great book called Hallowing Out the Middle, in which they touched on this trend as it pertains to Iowa. The major points can be found in this article, which is also a great read.

      I sincerely hope you’ll forgive me if I gave you the wrong impression. I am a vain, half-Mexican beggar, masquerading as a troubadour. But, to my defense, this project was a fine opportunity to raise these questions as they confront our great state of “Wiscansin.”

      And please, keep the letters coming. They are the pudding cups that feed my soul.

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