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June 26, 2017, 7:50 a.m.
Reporting & Production

“An international audience and a local audience”: How Fusion and The Guardian are changing their coverage of underreported areas

“If editors are the gatekeepers of coverage, how are they going to assign important stories if they are sending their staff writers to parachute in? It struck me as wrong.”

When Donald Trump was elected president, many media outlets in coastal cities were in disbelief. They sought electoral reasoning in the Rust Belt, the South, the Midwest and Mountain West — basically everywhere they weren’t. That meant putting a bit more emphasis on areas that hadn’t gotten as much coverage before.

“We are still the same place we were in November,” said Anne Trubek, the publisher of Belt Magazine, which focuses on cities like Cleveland, Detroit, and Pittsburgh. “The audience has just changed.”

Editors’ perspectives are changing, too. Fusion features editor Nona Willis Aronowitz published a call to action on February 23 to writers in Texas, the Rust Belt, and the South. She wrote that she is eager “not to parachute in and report on those communities but to recruit writers who are already there. This network will be our longterm eyes and ears in forgotten pockets of the country and will ensure that we coastal journalists don’t miss the zeitgeist hiding in plain sight.”

Since February, Willis Aronowitz has traveled — she went to Texas and last week returned from the Rust Belt. She is working with local writers who have either lived in cities like Presidio, Texas, their entire lives, or came there in search of untold stories. Whether individuals are experienced journalists or just movers and shakers with “really amazing sources and access,” Willis Aronowitz met with them in person to ideate and assign stories from the ground up. She’s pairing reporters with more established journalists from the same city or, in one case on an upcoming story, with a Fusion staff writer for a double-bylined feature.

Willis Aronowitz has a loose goal of getting a dozen or so stories assigned per trip in the short term, “but we’re really playing the long game with this project — the point is to build lasting relationships with writers across the country,” she said. “And features take while to develop, so ‘short term’ could mean six months after I meet the writers.” She’s published seven pieces from her Texas trip, with five more to go, and on her Rust Belt trip, she assigned and published two pieces while on the road (here’s one).

“I had been thinking about a project like this since I became an editor. I went from being an itinerant reporter to an editor who sits at a desk all day. It was a shock to the system,” she said. “If editors are the gatekeepers of coverage, how are they going to assign important stories if they are sending their staff writers to parachute in? It struck me as wrong.”

Equally disturbed by the state of post-election coverage, Alissa Quart, executive editor of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, and Jessica Reed, features editor at the Guardian U.S., put their heads together. (Here’s more about The Guardian’s initiatives in this area.)

“73 percent of media workers are located between Virginia, New York, Boston and the West Coast. The rest of the country, ‘flyover states,’ has about 27 percent of the country’s media workers,” Quart said, citing statistics from a recent Politico report. “So the question becomes: How do we get these unheard voices amplified?”

The answer is a joint project with Reed, who helps local reporters from flyover states develop longform stories. She is eager to collaborate with their local newsrooms, so that reporters are published both internationally in The Guardian and within their own communities.

“We are really keen to unlock stories that can be read on a micro level in your small town, all the way up to an international level. We think there are tons of topics, like the public land grab that is currently happening in Montana,” she said. “We think these stories merit an international audience and a local audience. So we want to work with local editors without being patronizing. It’s not journalistic tourism, it’s about collaboration.”

Like Willis Aronowitz, Quart and Reed believe the local talent is already there. They are eager to work with these writers, who Quart says have “a modesty that you don’t find in New York City.”

Anne Helen Petersen, a senior culture writer for BuzzFeed, left her home in the Mountain West to pursue a Ph.D., then launched a successful media career in New York City. But now she’s going back.

“I grew up in Lewiston, Idaho,” says Petersen. “It’s like a passcode. It’s the way I get people to talk to me, because they know I understand. I get frustrated how where I’m from is misrepresented. I want it to be defined as a nuanced, educated place.”

Since the election, Petersen has taken on news and political coverage of the Mountain West. Next month, she will relocate permanently to Whitefish, Montana, as BuzzFeed’s Western correspondent.

“The West, like most of the country, lives in the imagination of America,” she said. “I want to define what the West is now, as one of the many identities in the U.S. where you often need to be ingrained to tell the whole story.”

Nico Gendron is a Boston native who currently works on creative strategy for The New York Times and freelances.

Photo of the Chinati Mountains by Charlie Llewellin” used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     June 26, 2017, 7:50 a.m.
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