Big City Journalists Didn’t Know What the Rest of America Was Thinking and Feeling—Here’s One Way to Find Out

By Jack Limpert

The day after the election, Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan said that the media missed the Trump story because:

Journalists—college-educated, urban and, for the most part, liberal—are more likely than ever before to live and work in New York City and Washington, D.C., or on the West Coast. And although we touched down in the big red states for a few days, or interviewed some coal miners or unemployed autoworkers in the Rust Belt, we didn’t take them seriously. Or not seriously enough.

Three weeks later Sullivan added:

Realize the pointlessness of preaching to the choir. As an inveterate student of reader comments, I can tell you that readers of liberal publications often are smart, articulate and, for the most part, just as liberal as most of the columnists and editorial writers. It’s swell, I suppose, that everyone is in agreement, but it accomplishes little.

If news organizations learned anything after the campaign, they should have learned that groupthink has a tendency to miss the point and journalistic myopia requires some extra-strength corrective lenses.

Do something different. Represent the interests of a broader, more ideologically diverse population. Figure out what they’re thinking and feeling — and why.

She was talking about what her own newspaper, the Washington Post, should do. It’s published in a city where Donald Trump got four percent of the vote and where journalists, many from top schools, many of them Ivy League graduates, are now supposed to do more than parachute into the Rust Belt to see what people are thinking and feeling.
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At the Washingtonian magazine, where I worked, we had an intern program: three classes of college seniors or recent graduates each year, spring, summer, and fall. Over 40 years, I talked with probably 500 or 600 of them: Where are you from, what did you study in school, what do you think you’re good at, what are you trying to learn here, what do you want to do when you leave?

Two big changes over the years: Until about 1990, most of the interns were male. In the early years, all male. Gradually women began to have better resumes and seem to have more potential and eventually they dominated the intern classes.

And when I asked interns what they wanted to do when their internship was over, they increasingly said they wanted to work as a journalist in Washington or New York or Boston or one of the other big, interesting cities.

My sermon to them was to be a good journalist you have to be a good reporter and it’s a skill you learn by doing it, by figuring out how to get people to open up, by developing a bullshit detector. And the best way to learn that skill is by going to a small newspaper where an editor can help you learn how to cover the police beat, city hall, the zoning commission, the school board.

I was reflecting my own background: I drifted into journalist, worked four years for UPI, then two years editing a weekly paper in Warren, Michigan. (It’s just north of Detroit in a county that Donald Trump won by 50,000 votes.) I got the education I was recommending for interns.

But few of the interns wanted to hear about going to smaller cities and towns. They wanted to be in interesting, lively cities—Washington, New York, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle—the places that voted for Hillary Clinton on November 8.
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Sullivan says journalism has to “Represent the interests of a broader, more ideologically diverse population. Figure out what they’re thinking and feeling — and why.”

How can journalists figure out what America is thinking and feeling—and why?

A better question: When the Washington Post and other top publications and websites are hiring, why not look for journalists who got out of the big city bubble and went out and worked in the rest of America, covering the police beat and city hall and school board? They already know what all those Trump voters were thinking and feeling.

Comments

  1. When I was UPI’s Michigan news manager, I was shocked by young grads who said they’d rather be a copyboy in, say, Chicago, than take a real news job in some of UPI’s midwestern bureaus like Bismarck, N.D., Pierre, S.D., or even Des Moines, Iowa. Preferences were probably even more pronounced on the East or West coasts.

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