Saturday, March 28, 2009

Liveblogging J-Week
Panel Discussion
Rural Alaskans on the Move

Ed Schoenfeld (Coast Alaska), Kyle Hopkins (ADN) and Lori Townsend (APRN) are tackling the issue of urban migration.

Hopkins started covering rural affairs over the past year, and he says ADN pulled the plug on a planned summer series on urban migration because they found the facts didn't necessarily match up to the perception. There's a stereotype, according to Schoenfeld, that there's a mass migration from the villages into Anchorage. In fact, the movement is from small villages into larger villages, from larger villages to regional centers, from region to region. The Wrangell newspaper has a regular shipment to Wasilla, where there are former Wrangellites working construction. It's not a simple, one-dimensional situation. In Southeast, former loggers and fishers from places like Kake are moving away. Some of them have gotten mining jobs in Southeast.

"This is not a story about environment versus economic development. Here's a guy from the village who's gotten a job ... and he's sending money back to the village," Schoenfeld says. Some jobs require workers to move to more remote places. Some rural communities are becoming bedroom communities.

Hopkins lived in Kake in the mid-1980s and had always wanted to go back and do a story — catching up with people he went to grade school with, seeing how the community had changed — but found that many of them had moved to other communities. At the same time, people were beginning to talk about rural migration, and ADN started looking at the issue. Non-profits said they were seeing increased need due to families moving into Anchorage from the villages, but when he'd try to get in touch with a family, it would generally turn out either that the family had moved for other reasons (medical care, for example) or had been on the move for years. It was frustrating at first; were they looking in the wrong places? But after a few weeks, it started to feel like forcing the story. There was no flash of people; it was a slow-building story, not breaking news. Tom Kizzia did a follow-up article in December looking at the numbers, and on closer examination, the numbers just weren't there.

"I find it really confusing," Hopkins says. "When you talk to people, anecdotally, you hear it all the time." The Anchorage School District had 500 new Native students last fall, but the way they tally racial background has changed, so compared to prior years' numbers, "they weren't apples and apples anymore."

Townsend agrees that it's difficult to track down specific stories of relocation to Anchorage; most often, what she's found are people who move into town for the winter and go back to the village in the summer. "A lot of what we see as far as people moving around, it is more village to village and smaller places to hubs rather than coming into Fairbanks or Anchorage." She recalls that, when she lived in the Lower 48, there used to be reports that young people were leaving reservations, but it seemed to be an ongoing pattern. One of the issues she'd like to see more work done around is what happens when villages empty out. What kind of an impact does that have? Alaska villages are very different from the small towns that sprung up along the railroad in the Old West. Those towns may have died, but they didn't have the thousands of years of history many Alaska villages have.

"We try to take little bites at it here and there." Recently she heard about a community where suddenly dozens of houses are for sale; that's a story. Alaska News Nightly is thinking of restarting a segment from "AK" called 300 Villages in which individual communities were profiled. She'd like to focus on issues in individual communities and the issues they're facing. It sounds easy enough to leave and get a job someplace else, but a lot happens in small towns that makes them hard to leave. You have to go there to report; people in small towns are suspicious of outsiders. Making cold calls to the tribal council or the village council is a hard way to get answers.

First Alaskans Institute did a survey about moving frequency and reasons, but it wasn't a scientific survey, although the numbers are interesting, Hopkins says.

Suggestion from the room: Perhaps the story isn't about leaving rural Alaska, but how those who stay are managing to stay. What are they giving up to pay for fuel? How are they heating their homes and feeding their families? The economic question is major, especially among rural Alaskans who have seasonal employment. There's a lot of talk about creating economies in villages, but there's no model that has successfully created economic stability in small communities off the road system.

Townsend says village pride has been increasing among young people; could it be there's a circular effect that's countering some of the outmigration? She's interviewed many Natives who were punished for speaking their language, especially in boarding schools, but now people have a better understanding of what it means to be ripped away from one's culture. In Kotzebue, most of the students at the UAF extension campus are not traditional-age college students, which suggests that traditional students are leaving town to go to school.

Infrastructure in the villages — is it worth $40 million to run power to remote communities? These regions are wide-open to every con man and dreamer who comes through, Schoenfeld says, and sometimes it's hard to tell the difference. There are a lot of energy technologies, but how many of them are viable in these regions? One of our jobs as journalists is to look into these ideas when they are proposed and see if they are legitimate and practical. There is a rush to economic development, but it also has to be prudent. If one village renovates their cannery and makes it a tourist destination, that may be successful, but there can only be so many renovated canneries (or water bottling plants, etc.).

Townsend says that when she asks village councils if they're losing people, they're frequently reluctant to answer; they may not want to ask for help, or they may be afraid of losing funding.

From the room: I know of a lot of schools that open with ten students and end the year with five. How do I tell that story without jeopardizing the school's funding? Townsend says she has also heard of students registering in multiple districts to help schools stay open. Tenakee is currently using Craigslist to attract new families so they don't lose their school funding. Some schools have kept on teachers they didn't like because the teachers' children kept enrollment numbers high enough to protect state funding.

Cooperation will be important in trying to tell this story; one anecdote from one region doesn't establish a trend, but if reporters can show that it's happening in numerous communities in several reasons, then it's a story.

Sexual assault may play a role in urban migration for young women. Barrow recently had a case that was notable in that a rape actually went to trial and garnered a conviction, which is extremely rare. It's hard to get primary sources on the record for this kind of story, but social service providers often talk about it off the record.

There's also a disparity in employment opportunities. A whole day at AFN last year was dedicated to exploring marketplace opportunities. It's easy to do a story on a startup business bringing jobs to a small community; it's important to remember to follow up and see what happens. There's a tendency to over-report the optimistic stories and not check back. You don't want to only tell the rosy and forget the reality; at the same time, you don't want to overlook the good things that are happening. "As a consumer of news, you're just kind of hungry for more context," Hopkins says. "I'd like to get more on that story." Why do people stay in rural Alaska when times are hard? You have to tell that part of the story, too.

There's another census coming up next year, Schoenfeld says, which means the redistricting questions will come up again: Which regions are overrepresented? Which are underrepresented? Southeast will probably lose a House district, and it may lose a Senate district. Anchorage, Mat-Su and the Railbelt will absorb those seats. Redistricting is really a rural issue. In the past, the Bush has had political power, but if it loses power in the Legislature, it will lose out on resources.

Personal stories can illustrate a lot of these issues. It's difficult to get those stories, Schoenfeld says, but it's important to remember that we need to talk about the personal impacts of all of these issues. Be thoughtful. Think about how you're going to approach people and what you might have to say. If you have the opportunity, as an urban reporter, to go to a rural place, that's an opportunity to look for those people. Even if we don't have an immediate trend, there is a long-term trend of changing people's health, diet, activity level, lifestyle and culture, and you can tell those stories well if you personalize them. It takes an investment of time, especially if you go into smaller communities. People in urban centers are more used to things moving quickly; in rural areas, it can take longer to get people to trust and talk to you. You have to sit down with people and let them talk until they're done talking, Townsend says, which is increasingly difficult. There's a lot of value in establishing relationships with contacts in rural areas — even just a few minutes on the phone each week. Hopkins says that was part of why he wanted to launch the rural blog at ADN: It forces him to reach out into rural communities on a regular basis, and as a result, he's developing contacts in those areas, so when news breaks there, he knows who he can talk to.

— Maia Nolan

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