A lot of journalists awoke November 9 to the same grim revelation: I don’t know the country I’m living in! We looked for culprits and found them in ourselves. We in the media had somehow failed to adequately inform them, the nation’s Trump supporters, of their candidate’s utter unsuitability to be president. And equally, we failed to inform ourselves. Out of a delusional belief in polls as the best way to reveal the American mind, we reached election day having no idea of what the electorate was about to do.
Here’s a reason I like better as an explanation for the media’s failure to spot the Trump groundswell: In 2009 there were 41,500 journalists working full-time for American newspapers; in 2014 there were almost 9,000 fewer. Between 1994 and 2014 the newspaper industry lost 20,000 news jobs. It takes bodies to fan out across the country and feel the public’s pulse, and those bodies are gone. The media have become a Potemkin Village—famous columnists and anchormen who glitter in the public eye, and behind them, in the newsrooms from which grunts are dispatched to hit the blue highways and tap into the hopes and fears of common Americans, rows of empty desks.
Bad news—that is fake news—had an easy time driving out real news this election seasons because real news was already halfway to oblivion.
Anna Clark is a Detroit-based freelance journalist whose focus is the Rust Belt; after the election, Clark, who’s a Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan, had this to say on the website for Belt magazine:
“I’m thinking of the dismemberment of robust local news outlets across huge swaths of the country in the past five to ten years. If they haven’t been gutted, they’ve closed. That goes for big outlets, like the Wall Street Journal, and especially for medium-sized and small outlets with a strong tradition of fact-based reporting, like the Kalamazoo Gazette, the Battle Creek Enquirer, the South Bend Tribune.
I’m thinking of The Rocky Mountain News (defunct), The Boston Phoenix (defunct), The Green Bay Press-Gazette, The Flint Journal, The Columbus Dispatch, The Pittsburgh Press-Gazette. I’m thinking of ethnic media, like Michigan Chronicle and the Chicago Defender. Where I grew up in Southwest Michigan, it’s a desert of reported local news. Most of the country can say the same.
This near-erasure of a news infrastructure over huge stretches of the country has a serious impact on our democracy. Omnipresent issues that might rise to the surface in, say, Michigan or Wisconsin, never do; the national press that is almost entirely clustered on coasts is never alerted. Locally, the news vacuum contributes to a profound cycle of disinformation that citizens are fed about what is happening in their disinvested regions, and why. And, as a particularly prescient journalist suggested to me this week, not having local reporters among you—visible, part of your neighborhood, someone turning out dispatches from the school board meetings—makes it easier to demonize “journalists” and “the media.” They start to seem distant and scary, just like politicians.
Clark might have added another title to her list of moribund journals—Belt itself. Belt‘s a three-year-old online magazine whose focus is the Rust Belt, the region that flipped this month from blue to red and made Donald Trump our next president. I wrote about Belt two years ago, when it was an online magazine a year old; Anne Trubek, Belt‘s founder and editor, allowed then that every Rust Belt city thinks of itself as unique and is; yet they all faced “similar difficulties—aging housing stock. . . the loss of manufacturing, depopulation, vacancy, the prospect of shrinking, etc.”
Examining these common troubles was an intriguing premise for a magazine, but Belt didn’t thrive either. And when Trump beat Clinton, in the Rust Belt and nationally, Trubek let her hair down.
“I’ve spent years trying to make Rust Belt journalism work financially,” she wrote online in exasperation. “What made people become members of Belt—supporting us so we could continue? Not long narrative features about the unemployed in Warren, Ohio. Talking about how educated white millennials are moving into Cleveland worked better. . . .Most people who think the Rust Belt and indie journalism are important never have supported Belt financially. Yesterday everyone was all over Twitter saying, ‘Hey what does Belt say about these results!’ ‘Can’t wait to read what Belt says,’ and my response (my personal response, not my professional or public one), is to shrug and say ‘too late.’ . . . Belt, the only independent media outlet dedicated to the Rust Belt, will continue to be largely dark for the time being.”
Belt will continue to publish books, Trubek tells me (Anna Clark edited 0ne of them, A Detroit Anthology), but she might shut the website down completely.
Trubek then wrote a longer lamentation on Belt. “For the past three years,” she said, “Belt has published in-depth features about NAFTA and manufacturing, stories encouraging refugees to resettle here, about race and redlining, population loss, the white working class—all those hot-button election issues that everybody suddenly can’t stop talking about. We have also published hundreds of first-person essays about living in the Rust Belt, a region marked by foreclosures and vacancy and unemployment. . . .We have been here all along.”
Then, an admission: “And yet even we did not predict Trump’s win.”
I e-mailed her: “Do you mean by this that his victory was as unforeseeable as it was unforeseen?” I wondered. And she replied, “Unforeseeable. . . , Sometimes I think it was one of those random impossible odds—like winning the lottery or a (literal) perfect storm. Only 50,000 or so voters across a few states made the difference.”
And she added, “Belt was on the scene. . . sort of. If you look at our main areas we cover, they are all in the few blue counties: the cities.”
In an era when it’s hard enough to get a fly-over reporter to drop into Detroit, talking one into spending several days following back roads across Michigan to Traverse City is next to impossible. Blue America is easy to get to. To reach Red America, you need to rent a car and set aside a week. Or you need to live in the area already yet have access to a medium that will reach a broad public willing to consider the bleak news you present there.
These days, that’s asking a lot.