Amid the post-election media hand wringing this week, a post from PRX’s John Barth stood out. He urged journalists to tackle their blind spots when it comes to Middle America – “fly-over country,” as it’s been known; the place that swung the election, as it’s now known. John, who lives in St. Louis, urged journalists to spend more time in the small towns of the Midwest … with this caveat:
Don’t go there to do STORIES. Go there first to listen. Listen for the big stuff and small stuff. Then you’ll see how rural America has been gutted spiritually as have major urban areas. You need to earn their trust back to hear what might, might become stories. Listen.
John put his finger on a potentially existential problem for journalism:
Most journalists don’t have TIME to simply listen.
This problem has plagued journalism for as long as I’ve been a part of the profession, probably longer. But, as I’ve lamented many times before on this blog, it has gotten worse over the past few years as the “multimedia” craze has taken off.
Today’s reporters are expected to produce multiple stories for multiple platforms, recording sound, shooting photos and video, Tweeting, Facebooking, Snapchatting, oh, and maybe producing a podcast “on the side.”
Where is there time or energy in all of that for just being in a place; for talking to people as people, not as sources; for casual encounters and unexpected experiences that “might, might” lead to stories?
This brave new multimedia world leaves precious little time for anything that doesn’t contribute directly to content creation – certainly not anything that might be considered a fishing expedition. But if you don’t go fishing, how will you ever catch anything?
I’m a little embarrassed to say that I’ve caught more of those fish in the three years since I stepped away from day-to-day news coverage than I did when I was in the thick of it.
I’ve seen how real people – as opposed to officials and other “key players” – react to major news events.
And I’ve met real people who’ve told me about their lives and work — the eccentric Pittsburgh artist commissioned to create a huge public art installation in Miami (I met him when I was dining alone in a restaurant); the Uber driver who was planning to start her own competing transportation service; the Western Kentucky University student who listens to NPR on the actual radio (I met her in a bar in Bowling Green).
And the piece de resistance – a few weeks ago, I was at a small wine tasting in Orlando when astronauts Mark and Scott Kelly just happened to drop in. I covered the space program for years, reported from Kennedy Space Center on several shuttle launches – including one Mark Kelly commanded – but never came close to an encounter like that.
After I’d picked my jaw up off the floor, I spent several hours chatting with the Kellys about everything from Star Trek to life on the speaking circuit … to their predictions about humans going to Mars! And I can’t tell you anything they said!! (Boy, I wish I could – especially that last thing.) But even though I couldn’t report any of it, their perspective would’ve been invaluable background when I was covering space. And certainly, their contacts would have served me well.
That encounter never would’ve happened when I was working in newsrooms. Why? Because I never would’ve been at a wine tasting at 6pm on a Tuesday night. I would’ve been churning out one last newscast item or editing one last feature or posting one last story online. If I wasn’t doing any of that, I would’ve been too exhausted or burned out to do anything but go home and collapse on the couch.
Don’t Just Create Content. Find Truths.
Certainly, there are many reporters who do still have time – or make time – to listen, to cultivate new sources, to explore unfamiliar places, to seek out unexpected experiences.
But there’s no denying that journalists today find themselves in an industry that, by and large, values content creation over finding truths.
It’s a world that allows little space for listening and little energy for curiosity.
Too often, we turn our backs on the things that make up the essence of journalism. And look where it’s brought us.
If we hope to be relevant, if we hope to regain the trust that John Barth talked about, in Middle America and elsewhere, newsrooms must find ways to create that time and space and energy for their reporters.
I know this will be a tremendous challenge, given all the pressures of the multimedia age. My head is spinning as I consider how to integrate this idea into my own work as I advise my client newsrooms.
- Perhaps every reporter should have one day a week to seek out new people and places and experiences.
- Perhaps newsrooms need move drastically in the direction of paring down quantity in favor of depth and quality.
These are just a couple of ideas – if you have others, please add them. We need to think about this together as a profession. Not to be too dramatic, but I think the survival of the Fourth Estate may depend on it.