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.