Holland and the Theory of Serial Reportage

Approximating reality, post by post by post.

I remember this so clearly from traveling around rural China: When you're in a location you're trying to learn about, the highest-and-best use of each waking hour is to travel around, look at things, meet with people, conduct formal interviews and informal meetings, and generally operate with a clock-is-running consciousness that at Time X you must leave for somewhere else. Then each night, the absolute imperative is to type up all the notes you've taken or impressions you've had that day, based on the absolute certainty that a night's sleep, welcome as it is in all other aspects, removes many of the here-and-now nuances and details that more easily come to you during that same day.

[By the way, that's not rural China, up above. It is the airport I decided not to fly into at Holland, a field called Park Township. This is very close to the home of some friends we have in Holland, and it has the scale and approachability and charm of the little hometown airports that once were numerous across America. The runway is long enough to be comfortable, but there's no instrument approach, and Holland has another big-runway, fully-instrumented airport just a few miles away, so I viewed this runway from ground level only.  The other illustrations are random Holland snapshots, with explanations one by one.]

This is the way I've worked for decades, and the only way I know how to work-- even though I'm aware of its unwholesome consequences for family life and general road-weariness. In This Modern Internet Age, it has one other effect, which is: The more you're seeing, the less you are able to write about it in real time on a web site. That's because you aren't -- or shouldn't be -- sitting at a desk very much, rather than being outside.

With that throat-clearing prelude, here is a second note from Holland.

[Below, enormous wind-turbine blades, being made in what was originally a sailboat factory.]

The point of travel is to find out what you didn't know you were looking for until you went. This process of serendipitous discovery is as old as the first human migrations, but it is radically different in the Internet age because people can write back in real time. Over this weekend we've received many dozens of messages from people with some connection to Holland -- some of them supportive, some of them scolding, all with perspectives or leads to suggest.

[Another turbine blade shot, to indicate their scale.]

To the people who've written with leads: Thank you! To the people who've written complaints -- most of which boil down to "there is so much about our town you haven't mentioned!" -- let me say a little more about journalism in general and this project in particular.

Reporters have their character flaws, but our job inculcates at least one admirable trait. In this business you spend most of your time talking with people who know more about a given subject than you do. That is in hopes of eventually being able to explain it to people who know less. It's a kind of info-arbitrage, and I call it admirable because it builds in a sort of structural humility. You're always in the position of saying, "Can you explain that," or "I'm not familiar with the name you mentioned," or "Am I right in thinking that..."

So to people who write saying: Oh, there is so much you don't know, I say: Right. That is why I am here. And I will never know as much as locals do. But I am trying to learn something so that I can share it with people who might never have heard of this place.

[Below, one face of Holland manufacturing: the Haworth office-furniture factory and display site. The wood is from century-old timbers salvaged from the base of Lake Michigan, where the extreme cold preserved them.]

That's the general rule. In specific for this project, we have in mind for the months ahead not one definitive pronouncement on any specific place or trend but rather an unfolding process of serial journalism. In the course of 8 or 10 posts, we'll discuss different Rashomon aspects of a certain city. Over the sweep of eight or 10 city visits, we'll try to talk about both patterns and peculiarities, and then we will see where it all goes. The base-level assumption is that, flawed and biased as our perspective might be, we'll know a lot more about the texture of American life than if we hadn't made the trip. And we'll rely on readers for correctives.  

[Another face, below: recycled paper being prepared for reprocessing, part of the extensive Padnos operations that have been based in Holland for more than a century. That is Jeffrey Padnos, grandson of the company's founder and now its president, in the middle. Disclosure: my wife and I have known him and his wife for many years.]

In the spirit of serial journalism, here are some of the themes we've already heard must be part of the Holland saga:

  • The enormous importance, and often difficult situation, of the migrant workers who have for years been crucial to the area's farming and food-processing industries, and the related ramifications of ethnic diversification in a traditionally white, Dutch town;
  • The role, for better and worse, of the town's dominant Amway families -- the DeVoses and Van Andels -- and of its several other important industrialist families. Of these the one best known on the national scale is the Prince family, whose progenitor played a crucial role in the revitalization of downtown Holland and whose next generation includes Betsy Prince DeVos, an active Republican party leader, and Erik Prince, no longer of Holland, who founded Blackwater.
  • The recent defeat of one gay-rights initiative and controversy over several more, and what that indicates about the contending interests of the city's many, many churches; its Hope College leadership; its city government; and its global industries.

[Another face of manufacturing: the downtown yards of the Padnos company:]

  • The ethnic, political, economic and other ramifications of the area's division into many governing sub-units -- and the related effect of the Christian school and charter-school movements on the public schools.
  • Some recent controversies over the openness or closedness of a historic lighthouse and some other notable recreation areas, and the emergence of Holland's own gated communities.
  • The durability, or vulnerability, of "industrial clusters," like the ones that have traditionally made this area very strong in automotive, furniture, boating, and other manufacturing.
  • Whether the success of Holland's downtown-revitalization movement is unique to its circumstances or could be duplicated elsewhere.
  • And a lot more.

In the next installment, which I hope will be tonight, I'll talk about how we are using the voluminous reader suggestions we've received about Holland and other cities, and I will do a map-based posting on our special "geoblog" site. Also, tonight on Marketplace I will have a talk with Kai Ryssdal about how we're applying the serial-journalist approach. Now, time to get away from the desk and out to see more.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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