In a national news environment that has too frequently presented Athens as a collage of Appalachian stereotypes, a different perspective has emerged this week from New York Magazine. “The Rutters of Athens County” is one of the best national representations of Athens County we have seen in reporting. Despite some imperfections within the article we wish had been remedied, it is a positive example of how to report on Appalachia and a spot of hope for the future of national reporting on our region.
The article dives into the term “Rutter,” the consolidation of Athens’ elementary schools and the economic divides within the county. The piece paints a picture of the derogatory term “Rutter”, writing about how it is thrown about the halls of the Athens school system and used to describe people and actions reminiscent of the Ewells of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and its decline in use following the reorganization of the elementary schools.
The reporter, Dan Xi Huang, did a lot of things right. Huang went to Athens on multiple occasions and describes sitting around local dining room tables and speaking with officials, parents and kids. Huang is from Ohio himself, and remarkably this is the first article he has published with New York Magazine. His familiarity with the area is evident, although anyone dedicated to reporting and understanding could have written this piece regardless of their hometown.
Unlike many other national pieces, it does not hyperfocus on coal, tragedy or supposed disparity. It addresses income inequality as a fact rather than as poverty porn or as some inescapable burden weighing on local families and gives multiple perspectives on the situation in an effective way.
The reporter also does the necessary job of acknowledging that Rutter is a family name, and does so well. Huang interviewed Tammy Hogsett – Tammy Rutter prior to her marriage – about her childhood, balancing the complications of witnessing the name used as a slur at school with the pride her mother, Bonnie Rutter, held in all that she did.
Bonnie Rutter is characterized as “beautiful and intelligent and compassionate,” a fantastically appropriate choice when discussing the family. This portion of the story is very human and written effectively and compassionately, and we are grateful the reporter had enough dedication to seek out the family and round out the Rutter name.
Among the good, however, there were a few things within the article that were confusing or lacking. It mentions “visiting the county zoo,” which does not exist, easily verified with a quick Google search. The article also did not mention that Athens High School’s football stadium, famously renamed at the end of 2019 to honor Joe Burrow, is officially “R. Basil Rutter Field at Joe Burrow Stadium,” retaining the R. Basil Rutter name.
According to the obituary for R. Basil Rutter’s wife, Claudine Rutter, Claudine and Basil Rutter donated the money to build the R. Basil Rutter football field at Athens High School in 1968. The pair owned and operated Steppes Beauticians for over 50 years, and also played a significant role in rebuilding the field after it was hit by a 2010 tornado. Given that the article focuses on the cross-section of the Rutter name and the local school system, it is quite surprising such a relevant piece of information was left out.
The article also paints local superintendent Tom Gibbs as the hero of Athens County. While it is refreshing to see someone other than Joe Burrow receive that title on a national scale, Gibb’s lack of humility on the topic leaves much to be desired. As journalists, we are familiar with the need for a “donkey” – a central figure to “carry” readers through a long article – and the superintendent is a natural choice, as is the term “Rutter.” However, Gibbs shoulders much personal pride as if he has personally ended disparity in Athens.
The article allows him this vanity, particularly with a photo looking up at him sitting at his desk, quite literally above the rest of the article and the others featured. This is more on Gibbs than Huang, but Gibbs’ “appalled” first perspective of the school system when he moved here and need to “fix” the city brings the stigmatization of Appalachia from outsiders to the piece that Huang seemingly worked hard to avoid.
These things are small because it is easy to be nitpicky when an article does well. Huang’s dedication and time to this story allowed us to comment on the smaller things because his larger portrayal of the area was respectful. His Ohioan status likely helps with the refreshing lack of apparent parachute journalism in the narrative, but a reporter does not have to be from Ohio to give Southeast Ohio the dedication and attention it deserves.
It is possible to speak about economic class in Athens in a non-offensive way on a national scale. It is possible to report thoroughly and appropriately on Athens as a non-local. Huang’s article proves respectful national coverage is possible. We say it is necessary. While there are smaller changes that could have improved the piece, we applaud respectful reporting when we see it, and we encourage other national outlets to treat Athens’ stories with the same time, respect and care.
Editorials represent the majority opinion of The Post's executive editors: Editor-in-Chief Katie Millard, Managing Editor Emma Erion, Digital Director Anastasia Carter and Equity Director Alesha Davis. Post editorials are independent of the publication's news coverage.