Before our forks settled in the generous heaps of mashed potatoes or cut the tenderloins at a dinner in Jefferson to fete tech’s audacious arrival in this rural Iowa reach, I knew we had a forceful friend in California Congressman Ro Khanna.
We were gathered in Jefferson to recognize Accenture’s development of a software-development branch in the rural county seat of Greene County. I’ve covered politics for 25 years and as a newspaper owner in Carroll and Jefferson have served on five regional economic-development boards. So I found myself next to the congressman at the December 2018 dinner.
We got right into it. Here’s the big question of the political hour — and it frames the way this congressman from California’s Silicon Valley sees the lane for his service in Washington, D.C., and growing interaction with rural America.
Khanna knows many rural Americans, sweeps of folks in the countryside of Iowa, are angry over real and perceived losses to their ways of life.
Recent elections, as Khanna is well aware, have seen that discontent manifest in anti-immigrant language or votes and vitriol hurled against political figures tied to the urban elite.
Should rural Iowans feel this angry, is it earned and real, and if so, where should it be directed?
“Well, they should feel angry because the governing elite of this country have let them down,” Khanna said in that 40-minute interview. “We have had a digital revolution that began in the 1990s and accelerated now. You have had concentration of economic success in places like my district, Silicon Valley, or Boston or Austin, and you have had a large part of the country left out. And their talent has been left out.”
Rural Americans served in wars and farmed and mined coal and built the manufacturing base, and increasingly, there is little, if any, role for them in the new economy, one in which wealth is scooped and segregated to the coasts.
Ro Khanna’s mission: bring the software revolution to places like Jefferson, Iowa, or Kentucky or West Virginia. And deliver other careers to Knoxville and Carroll, places Khanna now knows well.
It’s a matchless remedy to the over-brewed rural-urban divide, one that is diminishing the nation.
Khanna is tireless in this endeavor. He peppers us with early-morning texts to check on life and business here and sends emails to college presidents and tech executives and local development leaders to boost tech training and careers in rural towns. Just days ago, amid the pandemic, he urged young people, on a video call with Des Moines Area Community College Carroll Campus Provost Joel Lundstrom and others, to pursue a computer-languages course of study that could lead them to the Accenture’s modern branch in Jefferson, with high-paying careers, more so when you factor the low cost of living here in rural Iowa.
The Carroll Times Herald has chronicled Khanna’s estimable contributions to our economy.
From a personal perspective, Khanna and I began to interact as our newspaper, in my family for three generations, with a 90-year history of ownership, faced existential challenges amid the increasing grip of Facebook and Amazon on small-town Iowa’s economy and culture of communication.
We still had fight. But we were increasingly despairing. I was one of the angry rural people, a Carroll-raised kid who’d spurned city life and come back home 24 years ago from Northwestern University and Washington’s Capitol Hill to help build a small newspaper, to fight for economic development, to join others in tying our rural communities in west-central Iowa in a common, future-minded cause to improve and diversify.
Yes, we’d seen many successes, but failure of our family business loomed like my own shadow in the twilight.
Ro Khanna saw me, and he saw rural America. And he saw our struggle to join the modern economy. He saw the stakes involved.
“This is a forward-looking answer to Donald Trump. I mean, Donald Trump’s whole message is ‘I’m going to bring your jobs back. I’m going to bring your pay back. I’m going to bring your dignity back. You’ve been left out.’ … Our message has to be that we are going to bring more jobs, more possibilities, more opportunity to communities left out than they’ve ever had before,” Khanna said of his plan on rural careers and growth in a February Vanity Fair magazine story. “No person should be forced to leave their hometown to get a good-paying job. A community’s biggest export shouldn’t be their kids. So we’re going to rebuild and revitalize these communities to bring them the opportunities of the technology revolution. And people get that. They intuitively get that the economy is changing; they intuitively get that just bashing up on China or bashing up on immigrants isn’t going to ultimately provide more economic opportunity for their kids.”
In that same exhaustively reported Vanity Fair story, the writer, Abigail Tracy, quoted my own assessment of the urgency of Congressman Khanna’s work to bring tech careers to rural America:
“I would say the future of the country is riding on this, [not] rural America and urban America preaching back and forth at each other about whether you should use gendered pronouns or how many guns you should be able to own,” Vanity Fair quoted me as saying. “Those are arguments that are going to continue to divide. What we’re doing is literally potentially preventing a civil war, because this wealth inequality just can’t stand and it just won’t stay up. We can’t have only a select number of winners in a select number of places where people are just sort of succeeding by geographic accident like that. That’s just not going to hold the country together. This isn’t a charitable arm of big tech. This makes sense for big tech, too, because there’s a lot of talent here.”
Through the last two years, Ro Khanna visited Carroll twice, and he connected our newspaper with Silicon Valley innovators. Khanna inspired us to launch a digital marketing company, Mercury Boost, to capture revenue beyond our web and print ads. He put us, and our friends at the neighboring, Denison-based Spanish-language La Prensa, in the room with key people from tech companies — most notably the Facebook Journalism Project.
Soon we were in Facebook’s Accelerator program for newspapers — the Carroll Times Herald and La Prensa, small family-owned operations in rural Iowa, sitting aside leaders from the Los Angeles Times, Toronto Globe and Mail, Salt Lake Tribune, and newspapers from Memphis and New Orleans and Tampa and Philadelphia, among others.
Combined the Carroll Times Herald and La Prensa received a $75,000 grant to pursue more digital subscriptions and to construct the Western Iowa Journalism Foundation, a non-profit organization involving Carroll, Jefferson, Denison, Storm Lake and Harlan. We are well into that development.
Moreover, Facebook awarded the Times Herald and La Prensa an additional $85,000 in grant money to keep our newspapers alive and churning out vital public-health stories during the coronavirus pandemic. That’s a $160,000 lift from Facebook to La Prensa and The Times Herald, with $35,000 for La Prensa and the remaining funds being used to boost Carroll digital subscriptions and create the non-profit organization that will support multiple western Iowa newspapers.
“We see The Carroll Times Herald and La Prensa as standard bearers for other community-focused newspapers across America,” said David Grant, Accelerator program manager for the Facebook Journalism Project. “We hope that the Times Herald’s success in the Accelerator can be replicated at small news organizations across the country. There’s a future for high-quality journalism in western Iowa that won’t look like the last 90 years — but this is a team that can build the next 90.”
We also received immeasurable assistance from our coach in the accelerator, Ryan Tuck, a North Carolina-based consultant and adviser and a lecturer at the University of North Carolina who holds master’s and law degrees and has consulted in a variety of capacities in addition to working with McClatchy’s newsrooms, Bloomberg News and The New York Times. His guidance has been invaluable throughout this process.
Our newspapers were only in the room with the Facebook opportunity because Congressman Ro Khanna made me believe rural Iowa belonged there, right along with brand-name urban communications giants.
He’s bringing this same rural-in-the-rooms-where-it-happens advocacy to other industries, from tech to biomanufacturing.
It’s often said in the halls of Capitol Hill that there are Washington friends, and there are friends.
Ro Khanna is both to this newspaper.
Our newspaper is alive to cover Ro’s fight for rural America, and indeed America itself, and for that, we are both humbled and inspired.