James Fallows

James Fallows
James Fallows is a staff writer at 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 Jimmy Carter's chief speechwriter. He and his wife, Deborah Fallows, are the authors of the 2018 book Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America, which was a national best seller and is the basis of a forthcoming HBO documentary. More +
  • The University of Dayton Is Reinventing Town-Gown Relations

    Archway Entrance for the University of Dayton, in Ohio. "The city is in our name," says the university's president. "It's our future." Courtesy of the University of Dayton

    It’s time for another report on Dayton, Ohio, subject of this introduction last month.

    A century ago, Dayton was known mainly for the things it created, from the Wright Brothers’ airplanes to the cash registers used around the country and produced by Dayton’s home-grown National Cash Register corporation, later NCR.

    Over the past generation Dayton has often been the dateline for stories about things older Rust Belt communities have lost. In Dayton’s case, these include a major GM assembly plant, whose closing two days before Christmas in 2008 was chronicled in the HBO documentary film The Last Truck, by local filmmakers Julia Reichert and Steve Bognar. A few months after GM’s departure, the city lost NCR itself, which in 2009 delivered the shocking news that it was moving its headquarters to Atlanta and abandoning the riverside office park in Dayton that it had built for itself back in the 1970s, during the heyday of the sprawling “office-campus” trend.

    At the time of the move to Atlanta, some 1,250 NCR employees were working in Dayton, most within earshot of the imposing Deeds Carillon, built by one of the company’s early leaders and an all-around civic titan, Col. Edward Deeds. As the New York Times’ Dan Barry pointed out in an artfully acidic piece the year after the move, the Carillon remains even as other traces of NCR have vanished. Barry noted that the NCR executive who presided over the change, a controversial figure named Bill Nuti, had himself declined ever to shift his residence from New York to Dayton—and was prominently featured in the Atlanta press saying that the relocation out of Dayton was “great for NCR.” Perhaps so, but for Dayton it represented the loss of its last remaining Fortune 500-company headquarters and a large number of high-end jobs.   

    Work room at the bustling National Cash Register company in Dayton, in 1904. A few months earlier, Dayton’s own Orville and Wilbur Wright had made the first-ever flight of a powered aircraft. (Geo. R. Lawrence Co. via Library of Congress)

    But, as noted in this previous post, things move on. The closings weren’t the end—for the physical structures that GM and NCR has abandoned, or for the town. After The Last Truck, Julia Reichert and Steve Bognar made a celebrated followup Netflix documentary, American Factory, about the Chinese glass-making firm Fuyao that has set up operations in GMs old plant. NCR’s expansive former suite of office buildings and factory structures near the Carillon are now occupied by research centers for GE and the electronics company Emerson, Cox Media’s broadcast and print operations, a variety of others firms, and many operations of the University of Dayton, located nearby. “The footprint NCR left in Dayton is large,” Ty Greenlees, of the Dayton Daily News, wrote last year, in an updated look at the site NCR had left behind. “But many in the community saw opportunity.”


    Today’s subject is how one of the city’s major institutions, the University of Dayton, has decided to throw itself all-in, to the effort to find new opportunities in and for the town. (Another of these institutions, Sinclair Community College, is similarly all-in on the Dayton-renewal effort. More about what Sinclair is doing in an upcoming report.)

    GE Aviation’s new research center, on the site of former NCR factory buildings (Courtesy of the University of Dayton)

    “The city’s name is in our name,” Eric Spina, an engineer who came from Syracuse University to become president of the University of Dayton three years ago, told me when I visited the town last month. “The health and vibrancy of the city, especially of the urban core, are central to our ability to exist—to attract the best faculty and staff, to convince parents that this is where they want to send their kids. So bringing vitality to this city and region really is an existential question for us.”

    This past spring, I reported from Muncie, Indiana, where Ball State University—a large, public institution—has taken responsibility for the city’s troubled K-12 public schools. To the best of my knowledge—and that of the Ball State authorities—this is the first time a U.S. public university has directly run a community’s schools. The Ball State move is a particularly clear-cut example of a trend that Deb Fallows and I have seen around the country: The commitment by four-year and research universities, which might traditionally have tried to wall themselves off from urban problems through a widening town-and-gown separation, instead to view their future as linked to the community’s.

    The University of Dayton is a private, Catholic, relatively prosperous research institution, founded by the Marianist (Society of Mary) order of the church. Geographically, its lovely main campus is set apart from downtown Dayton and its struggles—across the boundary of an interstate, miles from the main manufacturing centers, in the sylvan riverside area next to where NCR also chose to build its campus.

    One strategy for universities like this, in towns like this, would be to say: Hey, that’s them, too bad for their problems, but come see how nice life can be within our sheltered enclave. Another approach, of which we’ve seen more and more examples, is for university leaders to say: This is us, we rise or fall together, let us prepare our students for their broad global possibilities by teaching them responsibility for where we are now.


    What are illustrations of the University of Dayton’s investment in the city? I mentioned last month Eric Spina’s speech at a Dayton-renewal conference where he said that the university, as an “anchor institution” of the community, was there to stay. “We’re not moving to Mexico City,” he said. “We’re not moving to Atlanta,” an NCR reference that everyone in the audience understood.

    In practical terms this means several physical commitments:

    One is the university’s investment in the $90-million-plus renovation of the Dayton Arcade—a century ago the focus of downtown commerce, but for the past generation another derelict structure. (I’ll have more to say about this project, and the downtown as a whole, in another report.)

    Under-construction view of the downtown Dayton Arcade, future site of University of Dayton centers and other businesses and offices (Courtesy of University of Dayton)
    Drawing of how the Arcade is supposed to look, within a year or two (Courtesy of University of Dayton)

    Another is its financial and reputational commitment to the “onMain” project, in partnership with the large regional health system Premier Health, toward creating “Dayton’s Imagination Zone.” The project will involve re-use of a long, 38-acre tract of mostly undeveloped land formerly occupied by the Montgomery County Fair. It conveniently runs the distance from downtown Dayton to the university district—and from the university to the river.

    “This is not a 5-year project, or 10, or 20, or 30,” Spina told me. “This is a 150-year investment. How often do you get 38 uncontaminated acres in the middle of a city? Not very frequently, and we are all determined to do this right.”

    Doing it right, in his view, would involve a sustained investment in mixed-income housing, locally focused retail, parks and amenities, and other aspects of the modern urban ideal. When completed, it is meant to foster a connection rather than a separation between town and gown—and explicitly a closer connection between Dayton’s black and white communities, for which the Miami River has been a historic dividing line.

    Plans for the future development of the former fair grounds, on land connecting the University of Dayton (to the left in this image) with downtown (further to the right) (Courtesy of the University of Dayton)

    Why bother? I asked Spina why development of Dayton-the-city should be part of his franchise as leader of Dayton-the-private-university. He told me his views on that topic—and also about what people misunderstand about a “declining” midwestern city like this.

    On the university, he said that its Marianist heritage predisposed its students and faculty toward community involvement. But beyond that, he said, “I see two primary reasons for deeper engagement.”

    One was “our fiduciary responsibility to students—making sure that they have the best possible education.” Rigor in the classrooms is supposed to be taken for granted. But, he said, “I believe that education is optimized if we get students out of their bubble.” Through engagement in the community’s struggles, “they may come to understand that they aren’t going to solve any of these problems. They are there to contribute—their knowledge, their skill, themselves—to a team that can address big issues. That is learning to be a leader, in the Marianist way of life.”

    The other motivating force, he said, was the school’s like-it-or-not connection to the city’s progress and reputation. “We are here,” he said. “We employ more than 3,000 people. We have, with grad students and undergrads, more than 11,000 students.”

    “We own homes here. We spend money here. We recreate here. We have an extraordinary research institute, which has grown from 400 employees to about 600. We want this region to be successful, and we believe we can contribute to that. In this day and age, when fewer institutions seem to have both a longer vision and a sense of connectivity to the local and and a commitment to the public good, I think we have to remember that universities should be committed to the public good.”

    Eric Spina, president of the University of Dayton since 2016 (Courtesy of the University of Dayton)

    The other topic I asked Eric Spina about was the outlook and self-image of Dayton. When national media go there, it’s usually for a “Rust Belt city in crisis” story, or for a followup to the Oregon District shootings in downtown Dayton this past summer. What was it like to lead a major institution there, day in and day out?

    “We can argue about whether downtown Dayton is at the [positive] tipping point or not,” he said, referring to the blocks around the arcade project. “I do think a few more things need to happen. But all of a sudden, there are successful developers from outside the area who have begun projects here. All of a sudden, many people are living downtown, and even in the suburbs you have this awareness that there are free concerts, restaurants, arts, other interesting things going on downtown.”

    A building in the Fire Blocks District of downtown Dayton, which holds a growing number of apartments and condos (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

    I asked him what he said to prospective faculty members or students, about deciding to commit to this town. “First I say, forget what you’ve heard about the ‘rust and decline.’ Think about the people. The people here are highly collaborative. They work together and they get things done.” He gave the example of bigger-city arts organizations, where the ballet and the symphony and the opera would talk about joint efforts—but feud, compete, and don’t move past talk. “Here we have the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance,” with combined calendars and ticket sales for a range of arts organizations. “That’s one illustration that speaks to the heart and soul of the community, where the dominant culture is practical-minded, toward getting things done. It’s a place where there are collaborators, and the quality of life is high.”

    Five years ago I wrote about the unofficial and mostly joking civic motto for the fast-growing city of Greenville, South Carolina: “Greenville, are you kidding?” When a company transferred a family to Greenville from a more “glamorous” location, the first reaction was typically, “Are you kidding?” But as the city’s mayor, Knox White, told us, “They wouldn’t come here—until they came here, kicking and screaming, and the next thing you know, they’d bought a house.” (The rapid in-migration to Greenville makes this more than just a boosterish claim.)

    The Dayton version of this joke-motto is that the city is a “two-cry” place, a term particularly widespread among the military families transferred into and away from the adjoining, huge Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Many people I met told me about this concept, including Eric Spina: When he was in his final interview with the university’s presidential-selection committee, his wife, Karen, went to lunch with some Dayton residents. “They told her that Dayton was a ‘two-cry’ town,” Spina said. “She asked, What do you mean? And they said: You cry when you hear that you have to move to Dayton. Then you cry when you hear you have to leave.”

    Is this the view of someone with an interest in putting the community in the best light? Of course. Does it fully represent all the outlooks, heartbreaks, and divisions in a still-troubled region? Of course not. But this perspective is different enough from the standard media view of places like Dayton, and also representative enough of the institutional innovation we’ve seen from central Oregon to southern Georgia, to be worth attention.

    Next up: another important and nationally significant part of Dayton’s educational mix.

    In the background, Curran Place, once site of the NCR World Headquarters, now home of the University of Dayton Research Institute. In the foreground, “solar prairie.” (Courtesy of the University of Dayton)  
  • New Jobs, New Residents, and New Possibilities

    A man drills into wood as he makes furniture
    crazybear via Shutterstock

    Here are news items and developments related to trends we’ve been covering in the recent “Our Towns” series, and elsewhere:

    1. The furniture business returns, and is looking for furniture-makers. In a series of dispatches from Danville, Virginia, and its environs, Deb Fallows and I talked about this region’s reaction after the three previous pillars of its manufacturing economy collapsed more or less at the same time, over the past generation.

      Those pillars were tobacco-growing and related activities, which for obvious public-health reasons have been in long-term decline; textile mills and clothing-makers, also shrinking over the past generation due to competition from the Caribbean, Mexico, China, Japan, Korea, and elsewhere (we wrote about effects of this shift in South Carolina, southwestern Virginia, and Mississippi); and furniture-making, again mainly due to lower-cost competition from China.

      This week The Wall Street Journal reports on the return of furniture-making jobs in North Carolina—not to the levels of the late 1990s, but steadily increasing through the past decade. What’s the main limit on the expansion? For now it is the supply of skilled trades workers for these jobs. This is connected to two other trends we’ve seen and written about across the country in the past few years: the continued growth in relatively well-paying skilled trade jobs across the country—in construction, advanced-manufacturing, health services, repair-and-maintenance, wind- and solar-power projects, and so on. See a report from NPR here, and from a trades group here.

      The other trend is the crucial role of community colleges, and “career technical” programs in K-12 schools, in equipping students who need opportunities for the opportunities that now exist. I keep arguing (for instance, here) that community colleges are the institutions-of-the-moment, in increasing the chances for really inclusive economic growth. Soon I’ll give another example, from Dayton, Ohio. It’s one more reason to reading this WSJ piece by Ruth Simon.
    1. People who leave small-town America, and people who return. This week, the PBS News Hour had a report by Jeffrey Brown on Millennial-generation Americans who have a choice of where to work and live—and are choosing to live in small towns or rural areas. Obviously this is just in sync with what Deb Fallows and I have been observing from coast to coast.

    Of course this development does not mean that the pressure on very small areas has abated—the steady disappearance of rural-health facilities is one of the biggest challenges for small and rural areas trying to remain viable. And of course it does not mean that New York, Seattle, and San Francisco will lose their roles. But it’s an important complicating reality: the re-peopling of some parts of “left-behind” America, with people who are looking for ways to bring new life to these areas.

    1. A “revenue lab” for local journalism. The 10-year-old nonprofit The Texas Tribune has been one of the most important state-scale models of how journalism can re-establish itself, with a new financial model (as discussed here and here). This week it announced a new “revenue and training lab,” to systematize, improve, and share models for sustainable local journalism.

      As Evan Smith, CEO and co-founder of the The Texas Tribune, wrote in an announcement: “We’re creating our first-ever revenue and training lab—a freestanding entity, housed in our Austin newsroom, where we’ll experiment with innovative ways to fund local news, model best practices that we hope will benefit the entire ecosystem, and mentor and coach dozens of our would-be peers …. The RevLab, as we’ve already started to shorthand it … [will be devoted to] this noble pursuit of sustainability strategies for our industry.”
    1. Examples of smaller-town functionality. As part of CNN’s “Fractured States of America” series, kicked off by Ken Burns, Deb Fallows has a piece today on cases she’s seen of communities trying to heal rather than intensify national divides. It starts in our favorite southern-Arizona community of Ajo and moves to Sioux Falls and elsewhere. It also includes a photo of a very powerful piece of civically important public art: the monument erected in Duluth, Minnesota, site of the northernmost lynching in U.S. history, to the three men unjustly killed there.
    The Duluth monument to the three victims of a lynching in 1920 (James Fallows)

  • Report for America Goes Big

    Sixty one members of this year's Report for America corps at their training session in Houston this past summer. RFA has just announced that it will send four times as many reporters to local newsrooms next year.
    Sixty-one members of this year's Report for America corps at their training session in Houston this past summer. RFA has just announced that it will send four times as many reporters to local newsrooms next year. Courtesy of Report for America

    It has been another rough period for the financial models behind journalism in general, and local news outlets in particular.

    Last month Brookings released a sobering report about the spread of “news deserts” across the country, driven especially by the collapse in newspaper advertising revenue. In 2000, according to this report, newspapers took in more than $70 billion in total ad revenue (measured in 2018 dollars). By 2018, that number had plummeted to about $14 billion. Local papers have been harder hit than the industry as a whole. As Clara Hendrickson, the Brookings author, put it: “While [Google and Facebook] account for 58% of digital advertising revenue nationally, the two companies account for 77% in local markets.”

    Also last month, a merger between the country’s two largest newspaper chains, Gannett and New Media Investment Group (parent of GateHouse) was completed. GateHouse, which owns hundreds of newspapers and community publications across the country, has a richly earned reputation for accelerating the destruction of local papers. Its track record with small papers—for instance, in this Massachusetts example—is to boost their profit margin in the short run, by slashing expenses (notably in the newsroom). As the publications dwindle into local insignificance, revenues and expenses chase each other down. Eventually the withered titles are combined into a regional chain or shut down entirely.

    Will this formula now be applied across the Gannett empire, from USA Today on down? Last month I posted a brave defense of reporting ambitions from the editor of a Gannett (now GateHouse) paper in Tennessee. We’ll see how things turn out, there and elsewhere. One ominous indicator is the contention from both Gannett and GateHouse that their combined company could “save” hundred of millions of dollars in operating costs. As Richard Edmonds wrote last month on the Poynter web site:

    Big layoffs are looming as the combined company (to be called Gannett) attempts during the next several years to deliver a promised $275 million to $300 million in cost-saving synergies….

    At both companies (as throughout the industry) newsroom staffs have been reduced as revenues and profits contract. That is particularly true in the smallest markets. Sources have told me that at each company at least a third of the titles are so-called “ghost newspapers” with as few as one, two or three locally based reporters or editors.


    But there are developments on the other side as well. I’ve been reporting on a series of them in this space: from Mississippi; from Maine; from Massachusetts; from Southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area; from Massachusetts again; from the Hudson Valley of New York, with more ahead.

    Over Thanksgiving weekend, I watched the #SubscribeSunday concept, apparently originating at The Boston Globe, gain traction—which I hope will increase over the years. Yes, it’s become a gimmick to piggyback names for the post-Thanksgiving sequence of themed days: first “Black Friday,” and then, “Small Business Saturday,” “Cyber Monday,” “Giving Tuesday.” But I’m all in favor of promoting the idea that people should think consciously about paying for journalism. Many nonprofits receive a huge share of each year’s donations in the final few days of that year. In part that’s because as December 31 draws near, many people (including me) start to think: Gee, I really should be giving XX amount this year, what are the main places I’ve left out? Developing a “gee, I really should … ” consciousness about reporting will take time but is important. (For instance, with this very magazine.)

    Every element of today’s journalistic establishment is trying to experiment its way to a new financial footing and a new connection with communities and readers. This week there is genuinely positive news about one of the experiments I wrote about this past summer: the Report for America initiative, which sends experienced-but-still-rising reporters and editors to news outlets across the country, especially in small towns and rural areas hardest-hit by the pressures on local news. It’s growing four-fold, from its second year of operation to its third.


    My jacket, with a Report for America pin (James Fallows).

    In 2018, when Report for America first started, it sent a total of 13 reporters to local news rooms. This past summer, Deb Fallows and I met in Houston with a group of 60-plus journalists, who made up RFA’s second annual corps. This week, Report for America announced that it would send 250 reporters to 164 newsrooms in 46 states across the country. “This is probably the largest hiring blitz in local news in recent memory,” Steven Waldman, a veteran journalist and tech entrepreneur who is co-founder of Report for America, told me after the announcement. “I think it ought to give people a sense of hope that this crisis of local news is solvable.”

    You can see the whole list of news organizations here, along with the beats to which the new reporters will be assigned. For instance, “Vietnamese and African American neighborhoods,” for the Sun Herald in Biloxi, Mississippi. Or “Rural healthcare” for the Post Register in Idaho Falls, Idaho. Step one of RFA’s annual process, whose results are just being announced, is securing commitments for new reporting slots, and choosing the news rooms best qualified for RFA support. Step two will be choosing among applicants for these postings. Applications for these positions are open until the end of January next year.

    That these are new beats is an important part of the Report for America model: It asks publications to specify what they’d do if they had more resources, then helps them fill that gap. Its funding model, described in detail here, is also designed to pull new money into local journalism, including from local foundations and donors in each area. To oversimplify: the local newsroom, the national Report for America organization, and local philanthropies all share the cost of employing additional reporters. The annual cost of a new reporter averages about $40,000. Report for America puts up about half the money; the news organization and local philanthropies share the rest.

    “We’ve been putting out the message that community foundations and others can have really big impact for their dollar, if they invest this way,” Charles Sennott, a former Boston Globe reporter who is head of The GroundTruth Project which launched Report for America, told me this week. “If they invest $10,000, they can make a significant difference in local coverage.” Toward its goal of mobilizing more city-by-city philanthropic support, Report for America recently hired Todd Franko, former editor of the now-closed Youngstown Vindicator in Ohio, as its “Director of Sustainability.”


    “Of course everyone is focused on the bleakness out there [in local journalism], and it is quite bleak,” Steven Waldman told me. “But there is also a lot of great creative energy.

    Waldman said that the first part of the conversations he, Sennott, or other RFA representatives would have with local newsrooms could be depressing. “Sometimes it was heartbreaking, the kind of fundamental accountability-reporting that just wasn’t getting done any more,” he said. But then, he said, “It was also inspiring to hear from editors all around the country, who were trying against great odds really to address these needs.”

    Waldman said that local journalists or civic figures naturally had a more acute sense of the gaps that needed to be filled in local coverage—compared with an outsider’s guess. As an example: immigrant and ethnic-minority communities began growing in many small towns, at just the time local newsroom staffs were shrinking. Thus many of this year’s newsroom slots involve coverage of these communities.

    “We have seen a tremendous appetite among creative newsrooms, and talented journalists, and quite a few philanthropists” to devise new approaches, Waldman said. “So if we bring them all together, and wrap it in a spirit of public service, we can really create something better than we’ve ever had before.” He said that his conversations with local editors and reporters had reminded him that they “already have in their bones the sense of news as a public service. They just need a way to keep doing that.”

    “We see some light, at a time that feels like it’s dusk in American local journalism,” Charles Sennott told me. “We can see that emerging journalists are answering a call to service. We’re starting to feel momentum to restore journalism from the ground up.”

    More from this series

  • Democrats Should Talk About Place-Based Policy

    Deb Fallows on part of the farm near Guymon, Oklahoma, where Caroline Henderson wrote her “Letters from the Dust Bowl” series for The Atlantic in the 1930s. At the time, the area was a thriving farm community. Now it is deserted.
    Deb Fallows on part of the farm near Guymon, Oklahoma, where Caroline Henderson wrote her “Letters from the Dust Bowl” series for The Atlantic in the 1930s. At the time, the area was a thriving farm community. Now it is deserted. James Fallows / The Atlantic

    Staying versus moving is one of the eternal tensions of American life.

    Americans have frequently moved: Consider how the geographic center of the population has shifted over the centuries, from east of Baltimore, when the Constitution was written, to west of the Mississippi now.

    The “mean center of population”—the point where half the U.S. population lives to the North and half to the South, and half to the East and half to the West—has shifted westward and southward over the years. (US Census Bureau)

    Tales of location and dislocation, voluntary or forced, are at the heart of American history and literature. They range from Lewis and Clark and The Oregon Trail, to O Pioneers! and The Grapes of Wrath—from The Warmth of Other Suns to On the Road, from Easy Rider to Thelma and Louise and Ladybird, and a thousand other illustrations before and after.

    But of course Americans, like people of any culture, have at the same time craved connection, place, family, roots—the sense of being at home. This is part of our literature and life as well: The Education of Henry Adams in the Boston Brahmin way, and Where We Come From, by Oscar Cásares, as a very different recent illustration, with its account of life along the Rio Grande in Brownsville, Texas.

    My goal is obviously not to sum up this unending tension in the national life. It is instead to tee up one practical aspect, as a prelude to this evening’s debate among 10 Democratic candidates.


    Through America’s history, there has been a long dying off of the very smallest hamlets and settlements. In the 1870s, a small rural town might support several farming families, a general store and a school teacher and perhaps a newspaper publisher and an undertaker. Now if that village or settlement exists at all, it might just be a retired farm family, or someone working as an employee for a corporate owner, or someone who drives 50 miles to work in an Amazon or Walmart warehouse. Our literary reference here is Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show, about the withering of his North Texas hometown of Archer City, Texas.

    The 21st-century view down the road to what had been Caroline Henderson’s farm house in the Oklahoma panhandle. A century before, farm families and small businesses existed in this area. Some of America’s smallest rural settlements, like this one, have just gone away. But mid-sized cities are not going to disappear; the question is how to enhance their prospects. (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

    As we described in Our Towns and related articles, you can see the evidence of this smallest-town attrition perhaps most easily from above:

    Even in South Dakota’s fertile East River, you can easily trace from low altitude what the railroads ushered in 150 years ago, and how their impact has ebbed. As we flew along one of the east-west lines that brought settlers into these territories and carried crops out to markets, we would see little settlements every few minutes. In the 1800s they were set up at roughly 10-mile intervals, an efficient distance when farmers were delivering their harvests by wagon. Now it seems that four out of five of those towns are withering, as farms are run with giant combines and crops are hauled by truck.

    So, there will continue to be some communities—of a few hundred people, or a very few thousand—that are just too small to survive.

    But what about those settlements that are large enough that they are not going away? Charleston, West Virginia, has lost more than a third its population, compared to its peak before the decline of the coal and chemical industries. Countless mid-sized cities in Pennsylvania and Ohio have fewer people than they did 30 years ago. The same is true in many Plains states.

    And yet many of these cities, while smaller than they used to be, are still sizable in population terms and richly endowed with the physical legacy of their long decades of boom and growth. Big churches and synagogues; once-grand civic buildings and banks; department stores and concert halls—the many other reminders of the architectural ambitions and grandeur of an earlier American age. In some places across the country, the tattered parts of this heritage are being renewed. (For instance, like this, from Danville, Virginia.) In others, the decay goes on—fewer restored downtown apartments, more tattoo parlors and for-pay blood banks. But even the most struggling of these cities, unlike the Dust Bowl settlement where Caroline Henderson lived, is not simply going to disappear. Many of their people are not just going away.

    Jason Segedy, of the planning department of the city of Akron, Ohio, wrote recently on his Tumblr—called “Notes from the Underground”—about what he called “the U-Haul school of urban policy.” That is the idea that if you can make people more geographically mobile—moving them out of a place where opportunities are dwindling, and into a place where new possibilities are opening up—you will have done much of the work that matters, toward making the U.S. economy fairer, more open, more inclusive, more dynamic, and so on.

    People still are going to move, Segedy and others emphasize. But that’s become harder in various ways than it might have been a generation ago (for reasons Segedy goes into), and it doesn’t address the prospect of those who want to, or have to, stay.

    Segedy’s whole post is worth reading—as is this complementary 2018 reported essay by Alec MacGillis in ProPublica, and Chris Arnade’s powerful and much-discussed book, Dignity. For the moment, I’d like to emphasize this part of Segedy’s argument, as part of his list of the modern limits of the “U-Haul solution” for America:

    4) The Enduring Importance of Place: ...When people left behind small communities in Appalachia or the rural South, in order to improve their individual economic prospects, it was undoubtedly a hardship for the people who were left behind in those places, but the number of people who were impacted was relatively small ….  

    That obscure, old, abandoned silver mining town in the Colorado mountains that you can’t name might have been a one-industry town, just like Youngstown was, but the similarity ends there.

    Whether we’re talking about a smaller city like Flint or Youngstown, or a larger one like Cleveland or Detroit, we’re looking at established places with tens or hundreds of thousands of residents, surrounded by hundreds of thousands or millions more. The critical mass of people, and economic activity, even in a massively shrinking city like Youngstown, is staggering.

    The notion that large numbers of people can just walk away from larger urban regions in the Rust Belt, without disastrous social (and, increasingly, political) implications is naive in the extreme.  Encouraging everyone to abandon their friends, family, and community, and head for greener pastures might be a solid course of action for an individual person or household, but it is suicidal as a regional economic development strategy.


    Nearly everything that matters in life is contradictory. Through our years of living in China, Deb Fallows and I were continually re-amazed about the opposites that were simultaneously true in that country: Rich and poor. Modern and backward. Tender and cruel. Controlled and chaotic—all true, all at the same time.

    The American version of that outlook that I’ve come to believe, through our travels, involves opportunity and inclusion. America should make it easier for people to move—toward new places and possibilities, toward better versions of themselves. And America should make it better for people who stay. Again, as Jason Segedy put it:

    In case I haven’t said it enough:  

    I’m not arguing that people should never move away from where they live.  

    But, I am arguing that we need a better answer than “You need U-Haul” for the economically struggling people in the cities of the vast post-industrial heartland of this troubled nation.

    Formally these two approaches are known as “mobility-based” and “place-based” strategies. As Segedy, MacGillis, Arnade, and many others point out, “mobility” policies have usually seemed more high-brow and respectable than place-based approaches. Helping a talented young person go from a hick town to a research lab is a commencement speech-worthy illustration of the American Dream. Helping that hick town improve itself can seem like more pork barrel. But America’s version of China’s endless contradictions is that both of these opposites matter: Helping people, and helping places. A fairer chance for people who go, and a fairer chance for people who stay.

    Where this is leading, in today’s installment, is my ever-increasing interest in groups, thinkers, organizations, and others who are trying to systematize “place-based” policies. To give just three illustrations, from many possibilities:


    The latest addition to this list is the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, based in Kansas City, whose focus over the years has been America’s entrepreneurial economy. Recently it released “America’s New Business Plan,” described in detail at this site, with a detailed set of recommendations for how cities and regions can foster the new businesses that, collectively, account for nearly all of the net job growth in the economy. “A lot of policy makers have a misguided emphasis on attracting big, established businesses,” Victor Hwang, Kauffman’s vice president for entrepreneurship, told me about this study. “Think of the big fight over cities trying to get [Amazon’s] HQ2. When you think about what could have been done with a fraction of that money, to foster new businesses, it’s very significant.”

    What, in specific, could have been done? The Kauffman report, available online here and as a 25-page PDF here is designed especially to redress a funding-and-opportunity gap that has penalized women, people in rural area, and non-whites across the country. “Women, black, and Latinx entrepreneurs disproportionately struggle to raise the funds their businesses need,” the report says. “While 45% of men say that getting the money to start a new business is difficult, 63% of women report the same. On average, black entrepreneurs start with much less capital, have less family wealth to rely on, and are much less likely to get bank loans or other forms of investment than equivalent applicants who are white or of other racial identities.”

    What makes this report valuable, from my point of view, is that it is chock full of specifics. They come in four main categories: 1) improving financing for new businesses; 2) sharing practical know-how in business operations; 3) streamlining regulations that burden small businesses in particular (as opposed to a general anti-regulation crusade; and 4) buffering some of the external risks that may deter people from taking a plunge-into-the-unknown by starting a business.

    What’s an example of category four? Health-insurance costs and student-loan burdens. The Kauffman report goes into detail about proposals that could (in theory!) get bipartisan support, and that could create “a safety net that supports entrepreneurial risk-taking.” There is a lot more in the report.


    Why mention this today? Because one more Democratic debate is about to begin. Lord knows there is a lot of other breaking news right now that is likely to dominate the questioning. But sooner or later, attention will turn again to the economic problems—both person-based and place-based—doing such damage in the country. Whoever emerges from the Democratic field will need ideas and plans for dealing with them. Fortunately the supply of such ideas is starting to grow.

  • In Defense of The Commercial Appeal

    Mark Russell, executive editor of The Commercial Appeal in Memphis
    Mark Russell, executive editor of The Commercial Appeal in Memphis Courtesy of The Commercial Appeal

    A few days ago I published an item about a new online journalistic site in Tennessee, The Daily Memphian. In that item, I quoted some Daily Memphian officials saying that they had been prompted to action by the shift of the long-established local daily, The Commercial Appeal, to a more statewide emphasis in its reporting, under its current Gannett ownership.

    Yesterday I quoted a response from a reader (and friend) in Knoxville, who noted the shift away from local emphasis but said there were virtues in statewide-network coverage.

    Now, here is a response from the executive editor of The Commercial Appeal, Mark Russell. At his suggestion and request, this message quoted below is the same as what he published in his newspaper, under the title: “Enough! Time to Set the Record Straight About the CA.”

    Here is what he wrote:

    The Atlantic, as part of an ongoing series, recently profiled the Daily Memphian and described the non-profit’s journalistic mission. In doing so, the Atlantic and its reporter, James Fallows, asserted that The Commercial Appeal is declining and included quotes from DM leaders falsely asserting that Nashville reporters are routinely writing stories about Memphis and that The CA is not focused on the city where it has been based for 178 years.

    All three assertions are hogwash and can be easily dispelled by the simple, easy-to-see facts. In response to such hyperbole from DM leaders, including CEO Eric Barnes, I’ve taken the high road, preferring to let our strong journalism speak for itself. But the misstatements have become so frequent—and are littered throughout this Atlantic story—that I thought it was important to set the record straight.

    First, some relevant background. The DM built its staff last year by raiding The Commercial Appeal of 10 veteran staffers. It also hired several younger staffers, both from The CA and other Memphis newsrooms.

    That staff exodus gave The CA a chance to recruit energetic local and national talent and we did that in quick fashion, rebuilding the newsroom. We added a second investigative reporter and hired a food writer and sports columnist. Our staff today is aggressive, passionate about telling the stories of Memphians, and is far more diverse and reflective of our city than before the DM raid. I am proud of the team we’ve built and how readers have responded to their work. For the last six months, we have seen a significant increase in our digital audience, an important measure of reader engagement.

    For the last two months, our monthly page views have exceeded 8 million.

    Our paid digital-only subscribers have increased by just shy of 10% so far this year and our overall market footprint dwarfs the Daily Memphian's. For example, our recent coverage of the Memphis Tigers and the NCAA’s action on James Wiseman generated some of the highest readership numbers this year, along with 50 new subscribers. So much for a declining CA.

    I often hear from other journalists, but not many readers, that The CA has fewer staffers than it had a decade ago. That is true, and it’s also the case at every newspaper in the nation because of profound changes in journalism’s business model. The then-and-now comparisons are interesting footnotes, but add no context about the current work we do and The CA’s relevancy in the market.

    Our staff size has been largely stable for a year, and we have more journalists covering Memphis and Shelby County than we had the day the DM raided our staff. Those staffers live in Memphis and the surrounding suburbs. None of them live in Nashville or any other city outside our market area.

    The only Nashville-based reporters routinely writing about Memphis are doing statewide investigative or issue stories or writing about Gov. Bill Lee or the Memphis delegation to the state legislature. We’re similar to the DM in that regard; the Daily Memphian has employed a Nashville-based reporter, Sam Stockard, to write about the Shelby County delegation.

    Regarding the “Tennessee network” branding that Barnes called the last straw for some readers, I’ll demystify what he miscast as simply branding. In fact, the USA TODAY Network allows The CA to punch above its weight class, to use a boxing metaphor. We routinely publish important, statewide stories on opioid abuse, state education and political issues because we are part of a statewide network. Our watchdog work has had a profound impact on issues affecting Memphians. We’ve broken critically important stories around TennCare, the state’s Medicare program. Despite Barnes’ parochial assertions, Memphians and other West Tennessee citizens do care about issues that affect the entire state. We also routinely fight for journalists’ First Amendment rights, spending thousands in court fees to stand up for our readers’ right to know.

    The Network ensured that we had the most expansive coverage of the gubernatorial and Senate elections last year and Memphians got a chance to hear candidates themselves; we hosted a gubernatorial debate at the University of Memphis.

    We at The CA are passionate about covering Memphis and shining a spotlight on important issues, such as our recent investigative story on the misleading ballots that some politicians paid to get on ahead of the Oct. 3 election. I also welcome the added journalism competition. It makes us all better and news consumers are the beneficiaries.

    I thank Mark Russell for taking the time to respond; I regret using the opinionated word “declining” and have removed that from the original post; and I recognize the complexities of anyone in journalism trying to find a path forward. I agree with him completely that the competition among different business models of journalism, and different approaches to coverage, is beneficial to all in the community.

  • On the Virtues of Statewide Journalism

    The Daily Memphian is trying to revive local news in Memphis, Tennessee
    The Daily Memphian is trying to revive local news in Memphis, Tennessee Sean Pavone via Shutterstock

    A few days ago I published an item about a year-old online effort to revive local news coverage in Tennessee, The Daily Memphian. It was part of an ongoing series about efforts to revive, reinvent, preserve, and in other ways shore up the crucial-but-imperiled function of local journalism. Links to previous pieces are at the bottom of this one.

    In that item, I quoted some Daily Memphian officials saying that they had been prompted to action by the shift of the long-established local daily, The Commercial Appeal, to a more statewide emphasis in its reporting, under its current Gannett ownership.

    Here is a note from a reader on the other side of Tennessee from Memphis—Neil McBride, who lives in Knoxville—about a virtue of the statewide-network approach that he thinks has gotten short shrift. McBride, whom I have known since we worked together on a Ralph Nader project in Georgia back in the 1970s, is the former director of a public interest law firm that focused particularly on health policy and poverty issues in the South. He is now on the board of the Tennessee Justice Center, where you can read more about his background.

    Neil McBride writes:

    In fairness, it is important to acknowledge some of the benefits of the statewide newspaper network that we now have, even while recognizing it has drawbacks.

    In Tennessee, the trend toward statewide ownership of media has had some negative effects on local news coverage, and probably on local circulation. But it is also important to acknowledge that local readers across the state now have the significant benefit of reporting by investigative journalists from different local areas.  

    Nashville reporters, especially, are effectively covering important policy issues that affect all of Tennessee:

    • In recent months, they have produced national-caliber reporting on several state policy failures and changes that vitally affect families across Tennessee.  
    • They have produced (and the local Knoxville News-Sentinel  has been publishing) long-running, readable and detailed stories that have exposed several critical failures of state policy.  
    • They have addressed the state’s previously-unreported failure to spend over three-quarters of a billion dollars in unspent federal funds for assistance to our neediest families—funds which it is apparently now holding for general purposes in the state budget.  
    • They have consistently published similar reports on Tennessee’s failure to accept and spend tens of millions of dollars for medical assistance to working families, children and the elderly, and on the impact of  these policies on rural hospitals as well as family health.  

    Tennessee leads the nation in its rate of hospital closure and is one of the most unhealthy states in the country. Some of this reporting has attracted our new governor’s attention, and may stimulate changes in state budgeting. These are vitally important but complicated issues, which have been actively hidden from public and sometimes even legislative scrutiny.  

    These policies might not even be in debate now but for the statewide reporting and publication that has become possible through consolidation. And, of course, these policies affect the people of Memphis more than any other community.

    I am grateful to Neil McBride for spelling out this side of the balance. The tradeoffs in local journalism were so much easier to deal with, when papers from the Los Angeles Times to the Louisville Courier-Journal were cash cows. In those days, papers could just throw more money at whatever seemed to be the problem of the moment. In future installments I’ll try to go deeper into the complexities of the chain-versus-local, business-owned-versus-nonprofit, print-versus-digital tradeoffs today’s news sources are wrestling with.


    For previous installments, please see these items: from Mississippi; from Maine; from Massachusetts; from Southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area; from Massachusetts again; from the Hudson Valley of New York; from Tennessee; and from points beyond.

  • Planting a ‘Trail of Giants’

    Giant Sequoia seedlings, planted at Otis College of Art and Design, in Los Angeles
    Giant Sequoia seedlings, planted at Otis College of Art and Design, in Los Angeles Courtesy of WildPlaces

    Last month, as part of a “Big Little Ideas” series, I mentioned a surprisingly valuable short-term step that communities can take, on their own, for positive climate effects. That is to start planting trees. More on the science behind the idea, plus discussion of exactly how much difference trees can make, from: MIT Technology Review, the long-established Arbor Day Foundation and Nature Conservancy, the newer One Tree Planted and Plant for the Planet organizations, and Cool Antarctica, with links at these sites to much more.

    Short version of what you’ll find: Intensified tree-planting obviously is not the full answer to the climate crisis. But it’s a step in reducing atmospheric carbon levels, and potentially an important one.


    Last week, a team from Otis College, or formally the Otis College of Art and Design, in Los Angeles, put this outlook into effect with its “100 Giants” project. The idea originated with Shelley Forbes, an Otis alum who is circulation manager at the campus library, as part of Otis’s centennial observations last year.

    The goal was to plant 100-plus seedlings of the famed giant sequoias of northern California’s forests; nurture them to the stage where they could be transplanted; and then ship them northward, for permanent rooting in the Giant Sequoia National Monument. The organization WildPlaces, which focuses on conservation and “re-wilding” in the Giant Sequoia National Monument, was a partner in the project.

    Sequoia seedlings in the background, at Otis College, growing before their transplantation at the Giant Sequoia National Monument in northern California (Courtesy of Fawad Assadullah / Otis College of Art and Design)

    They grow up so fast! This past week, the Otis community bade farewell to their year-old, several-inch-high seedlings, which began the trip north. As an article by Anna Raya on the campus news site said:

    Spread across The Commons lawn they stood—staffers were proudly taking selfies with them, students were wandering amongst them, saying their names: Charlie Brown, Little Buddy, Paisley. These were the 100 Giants of Otis College, Sequoia tree seedlings that were whisked off this week to their final home in the Trail of 100 Giants in the Giant Sequoia National Monument …

    “The front of the library will seem very naked now that the trees are gone,” says [library official Shelley] Forbes of the popular growing spot on campus for the seedlings. “I am, however, very excited that the trees are going home to their native lands.”

    Mehmet McMillan, founder of WildPlaces, and Shelley Forbes, of Otis College, at the seedling-shipping ceremony last week (Courtesy of Fawad Assadullah / Otis College of Art and Design)

    “From a scientific point of view, giant Sequoias are one of the best carbon sinks there is,” Mehmet McMillan, founder of WildPlaces, said of the project. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, giant sequoias are the largest and most massive trees on Earth, and their trunks and limbs contain more carbon per tree than any other species. “Imagine a tree growing massively over two- or three-thousand years,” McMillan said. “it’s holding carbon [all that time] … Spiritually, it goes without saying that being in a forest with big trees is going to help your spirit.”


    Grow well, little trees. In their prime, giant sequoias can gain one and a half to two feet in height per year. Thus it will take centuries for any of them to reach the species’ peak height of 300 feet or more.

    None of the students or staffers at Otis will see their trees at full maturity. But if the best time to plant a sequoia is 500 years ago, the second best is now.

    At Otis College’s ceremony last week, as they sent off the seedlings (Courtesy of Fawad Assadullah / Otis College of Art and Design)

  • ‘The Tragedy of the American Military’ Remains

    U.S. Army marched in the Veterans Day parade on November 11, 2014.
    The U.S. Army marched in a Veterans Day parade on November 11, 2014. Mike Segar / Reuters

    On November 11, known as Remembrance Day through the countries of the British Commonwealth, the public honors those who died in the military service of their nations.

    The same date is observed as Armistice Day in France and Belgium, in observance of the armistice ending the “Great War,” the First World War, 101 years ago today.

    In the United States, November 11 is Veterans Day, to honor all those who have worn the nation’s uniform. (Memorial Day, in May, is the U.S. counterpart to Britain’s Remembrance Day, to honor those who died in service.)

    On this day, most public presentations in the U.S. include the line, “Thank you for your service.” In a long cover story for The Atlantic nearly five years ago, I argued that the real way today’s American public could honor the tiny fraction of its members in military service would be different.

    (For perspective on the “tiny fraction”: At the time that I wrote that article, a total of about 2.5 million Americans, roughly three-quarters of 1 percent of the population, had served in Iraq or Afghanistan at any point in the post-9/11 years, many of them more than once. These days America’s total active-duty forces, in all branches, number less than 1.5 million, or well under one-half of 1 percent of the population. This is a different concept of “the 1 percent” than references to the economic elite.)

    The article was called “The Tragedy of the American Military,” and the opening page summarized its argument this way:

    The American public and its political leadership will do anything for the military except take it seriously. The result is a chickenhawk nation in which careless spending and strategic folly combine to lure America into endless wars it can’t win.

    After that article came out, I received thousands of responses from service members or their families, a number of which you’ll see quoted in the posts in this thread. The vast majority were “positive,” in discussing the military’s keen awareness of its status in a “chickenhawk” era—one in which the country was constantly in battles, but only a handful of its people were directly exposed to the costs.


    Some circumstances have changed since that time; most have not. The phenomenon of “honoring the troops,” but then skating on to other matters, has, if anything, grown all the stronger over the years.

    The article is here.  I hope you will find a chance to read it; if there is further response, I’ll revive this discussion thread.

  • In Memphis, a Lab Experiment for Local News

    Justin Rushing, advertising director of the online news site The Daily Memphian
    Justin Rushing, advertising director of the online news site The Daily Memphian Courtesy of Patrick Lantrip / The Daily Memphian

    It’s time for another look at new financial, editorial, and technological models for local journalism. You’ll find previous entries at these links: from Mississippi; from Maine; from Massachusetts; from Southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area; from Massachusetts again; from the Hudson Valley of New York; and from points beyond. They all involve efforts to revive existing news operations, invent additional ones, and replace organizations that are being starved out of relevance by their hedge-fund or private-equity chain owners.

    Today we go to Memphis, Tennessee. This is of course the metropolis of western Tennessee, with the state of Mississippi just across the border to the south, and Arkansas just across the Mississippi River to the west. Memphis is the second-largest city in Tennessee, after Nashville. Its population is around 650,000—more than 60 percent African-American, about 30 percent white, and the rest a variety of others. On average its people are poor. The median household income for the United States is above $60,000, whereas in Memphis it is below $40,000.

    The best known Memphis-based company is FedEx, which has operated there since the early 1970s. Other major operations include the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and the AutoZone company. In 1956, local phenom Elvis Presley broke the local color line by performing alongside Ray Charles and B. B. King at a benefit for a black radio station. The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis includes the site of the Lorraine Motel, where, on what I several times heard described as the worst day in the city’s history, Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in 1968.


    Through the ups and downs of the city’s modern evolution, its main morning newspaper, The Commercial Appeal, played an outsized regional role. “I’ve been around newspaper journalism since the 1970s, breathing it in as a kid before that,” Otis Sanford told me. Sanford grew up in northern Mississippi; worked as a reporter and editor for several papers including The Commercial Appeal; and has been a professor in the journalism department at the University of Memphis since 2011.

    Otis Sanford, long a reporter and editor at the Memphis Commercial Appeal and other papers, now a professor at the University of Memphis and a columnist for the new Daily Memphian. (Courtesy of Otis Sanford.)

    “Whether you liked the editorial opinions of The Commercial Appeal or not, it was of tremendous influence,” Sanford said. “You’d have to go to Atlanta to find comparable regional papers.”

    The Commercial Appeal had been owned since the 1930s by the Scripps-Howard group. During the Great Extinction of local and regional papers over the past dozen years, the paper went through several changes of ownership, and is now part of Gannett.

    Through this process, The Commercial Appeal shrank by all locally important measures: the size of its news staff, its circulation and influence, and even its connection to Memphis at all. Its printing plant moved out of town, 90 miles away to the city of Jackson, Tennessee. “Why did that matter?” Otis Sanford said to me. “That means earlier deadlines every day, so you can’t get any late-breaking news into the printed paper, or even late afternoon news.”

    The overall spiral of contraction sounds similar to what has happened in many other areas. It was accelerated for The Commercial Appeal by Gannett’s decision to operate the paper as part of a statewide network of Tennessee coverage—in a state with very distinct regional identities and differences. “They were having people in Nashville write about Memphis,” Otis Sanford said. “People were hungry for something that was much more local.”

    “This ‘Tennessee network’ branding was kind of the final straw,” Eric Barnes told me. Barnes is a prominent Memphis journalist, a novelist, and host of a popular weekly PBS news show. “West Tennessee doesn’t like East Tennessee, and they both don’t like the middle. Lumping them all together in a ‘network’ might make sense on a whiteboard in the headquarters, but it made no sense to people in Nashville [in the middle], or Knoxville [on the east], or Memphis [in the west].”

    “Memphis is wildly proud, and we’ve also got a chip on our shoulder,” Andy Cates, who is CEO of a nationwide outdoor-resort company based in Memphis, told me. “We don’t get along with Nashville—it’s like Boston and New York. We think it’s incredibly important to have journalism about our community that is rooted in our community.”

    That is the central idea behind a one-year-old online publication called The Daily Memphian. Eric Barnes is the CEO; Andy Cates is chairman of the board; Otis Sanford is a columnist; and together with some three dozen journalistic colleagues and many Memphis-area donors and supporters they are trying to bring locally based, serious journalism back to town.

    Here is a summary of what I learned by talking with the three of them, by following news on their site, and by asking for judgments from other figures in Memphis.


    Home page of the Daily Memphian site this week

    What it is: The “paper” is an online-only, by-subscription news source, which began operations in September of 2018 after initially raising some $6.7 million in startup funds from local donors. Subscriptions are $7 per month, or $84 per year—with some news items provided outside the paywall and free or reduced-price offerings for schools and libraries and some other users.

    According to Eric Barnes, the paper’s target was to attract 4,500 paying subscribers within its first year. It reached that target within three weeks and now has about 11,000 paying subscribers. “We’re not doing any dollar-a-week, dollar-a-month introductory offers,” he told me. “The churn rate”—people dropping subscriptions—“is less than 6 percent, and our web traffic is solid and growing.”

    The Daily Memphian is owned by a new 501(c)3 non-profit, Memphis Fourth Estate Inc., which has no editorial control of its content. Memphis Fourth Estate continues to encourage donations toward the paper’s survival, and since the launch has raised another $1.5 million.

    The paper’s total editorial staff is about 40, many of whom were familiar names in local journalism who came over from the Commercial Appeal or other publications.


    Why it was started. The “About” page of the paper’s web site minces no words:

    Frustrated by the gutting of local journalism in Memphis, a group of seasoned journalists, media professionals and concerned citizens gathered to discuss the need for strong, locally focused and locally produced daily news.

    Andy Cates, chairman of the local non-profit that has created a news site for the city (Courtesy of Patrick Lantrip / The Daily Memphian)

    “People realized this was what it was like not to have a hometown paper,” Eric Barnes said, of the Memphis reaction when news operations shifted to the statewide network.

    “We didn’t do this haphazardly,” Andy Cates told me. “We spent years exploring it,” as the local-news crisis in Memphis intensified. “We took the best journalists from The Commercial Appeal, and other stars from other publications. We realized that there was mounting anger, across the community, that a civic function that was so critical had gone so far down.”


    How it’s paid for: According to Andy Cates, the $7 million raised for the Memphian is the largest-ever charitable investment in one city’s news organization. (The Texas Tribune, a well-known non-profit founded ten years ago, is a larger operation but covers an entire state.)  

    “It is like a political campaign,” Cates told me. “We have been to every Rotary meeting. We have gone to every church. We have spoken with every group that will listen to us. We have shaken hands, kissed babies, hugged people. We have asked everyone for support, and we have gotten it.”

    Eric Barnes, CEO of The Daily Memphian. (Patrick Lantrip, The Daily Memphian)

    The supporters include local foundations, corporations, and wealthy individuals and families. Cates and Barnes both stressed that donations went to the Memphian’s parent foundation, with no conditions or guidance accepted about its coverage.

    “We think of this as ‘philanthropic venture capital,’” Cates said. “Question one to donors is, Do you believe that a healthy newspaper is important for a healthy community? And question two is, Given all of Memphis’s other needs, is this a high enough priority to be worth this much capital. The answer to both has been an overwhelming yes.”

    Eric Barnes, whose background is in journalism rather than Cates’s in finance, stressed that while the paper was structured as a non-profit, its operating outlook is as a “real” business. “Our head of subscriptions, our marketing people, our ad people, we downplay that we are a nonprofit,” he said. “We want to become sustainable, which means getting to about 25,000 subscribers per year,” or a little more than twice the first-year level. “We try to run this like a business. Our goal is to put up high-level content, and have people pay for it.”

    “People will pay for news,” Barnes said. “They did so for decades if not centuries. That the industry ever got away from that is a real historical anomaly.”

    Hira Qureshi, an editorial intern at The Daily Memphian (Courtesy of Patrick Lantrip /The Daily Memphian)

    How it is being received across Memphis’s racial divide: Barnes and Cates, and most members of their board, are white. Most of Memphis’s population is black. What are its intentions for covering the area’s African-American community, and what have been its results?

    As for intentions, Andy Cates said, “We’re very clear that if the entire community does not buy into this venture, and support it—if the entire community does not feel that its story is being told—then we have failed.”

    Eric Barnes told me that when the site launched, he went to talk with a number of African-American church communities. “I said that one decision we made was, We weren’t going to feature coverage of ‘last night’s crime.’ Of course we’d cover crime trends, and not shy away from problems. But we weren’t going to splash out mug shots and be driven by the police blotter.” Barnes said he got applause for that line—but that a “wait and see” attitude understandably  remained.

    I asked Otis Sanford, one of the area’s best-known African-American journalists, who now writes a featured column for The Daily Memphian, about the site’s reach across the racial divide.

    “I don’t think that The Daily Memphian has quite resonated yet with the African-American community,” he said. “That’s not to say it has not registered at all.  But by and large it has not penetrated the market. They are working on it, and they are doing a relatively decent job so far.” Sanford’s own column is routinely one of the best-read on the site.


    Why it all matters, outside Memphis: “We want to be known as the lab experiment of whether the Fourth Estate can flourish in Middle America,” Andy Cates told me. “We want to be a national model, but our mission is local.

    “The life boats aren’t coming to save us. We have to do this ourselves. ”

    More from this series

  • The Gem City Moves Forward

    Overlooking downtown Dayton this autumn
    Overlooking downtown Dayton this autumn James Fallows / The Atlantic

    This is the first in a series of posts on the city of Dayton, Ohio. I’ve been there three times since August and am about to make another trip.

    Almost every trend affecting modern America is on display in Dayton. It was one of the earliest, and hardest-hit, centers of the opioid disaster. Its economy, plausibly known as America’s “invention capital” in the early 1900s, as the home of the Wright brothers and with the highest-number of U.S. patents per capita, has been hurt even more than other midwestern cities’ by the demise and departure of big firms. Last year a PBS documentary, Left Behind America, described what happened when the Dayton-born corporation NCR, plus others, left town. The excellent recent movie American Factory (Atlantic review here) portrayed the next chapter in that story, as the Chinese automotive-glass firm Fuyao reopened a closed GM plant. The city’s population has fallen significantly from its factory-era peak.

    This past May, marchers from the Ku Klux Klan held a rally in town—and Klan opponents put on a bigger display. Just a few days later, a series of devastating tornados roared through the town. Then, in the first weekend of August, Dayton was of course the site of a mass shooting, a few hours after another gun massacre, in El Paso.

    A mural in the Dayton Region’s Walk of Fame, in the Wright-Dunbar neighborhood, depicting three local sons. On the left, the writer Paul Laurence Dunbar. On the right, Orville and Wilbur Wright. In the late 1800s, Dunbar and Orville Wright were friends and classmates at Dayton Central High School, where Dunbar was the only African American student and the editor of the school newspaper. (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

    But Dayton also has a wide variety of ambitious new projects under way. It will soon open a pioneering addiction-treatment center, in partnership with the Alphabet/Google life-sciences enterprise, Verily. The Dayton Arcade structure that was once the pride of its downtown is in the middle of a $90 million renovation project, similar to ones we have seen as centerpieces of transition in cities from Greenville, South Carolina; to Allentown, Pennsylvania; to Bend, Oregon. Dayton’s public-library and arts scenes are civic assets.

    The University of Dayton, a research university founded by the Catholic Marianist order and with more than 8,000 students, is opening new downtown offices and research centers. Eric Spina, an engineer who came from Syracuse to become the University of Dayton’s president three years ago, has announced a strategy of making the university “the anchor institution for the entire community,” as he put it last week at a conference in Dayton I attended called “Gem City Rising.” (Why “Gem City”? Apparently not because Dayton was ever a jewelry center. One hypothesis, relayed by the Dayton Daily News, is that some outside writer called it “the gem of all our interior [American] towns” in the 1840s.)

    The city’s mayor, Nan Whaley, a Democrat who is in her early 40s, was elected to the City Commission 14 years ago, while in her 20s, and is now in her second term as mayor. Deb Fallows and I have known her and followed her career for several years. She won national attention, and based on what I’ve seen wide acclaim, for her statements and appearances after the shootings in August. The exception in the admiring chorus was Donald Trump himself. While on Air Force One, headed from Dayton to El Paso, Trump began sending tweets attacking Whaley, because he felt that in a press conference she hadn’t been effusive enough about the reception he received from shooting victims he saw in the hospital.

    Sherrod Brown, a Democratic senator from Ohio, and Dayton’s mayor, Nan Whaley, greeting Donald Trump when he arrived in Dayton in August to meet victims of the shooting there (Leah Mills / Reuters)

    By coincidence, I was in Dayton on the August weekend of the shootings. The coincidence was aviation-related: To get back into the aerial world, I was doing flight training at Steel Aviation, based at the tiny Phillipsburg Airport just outside town, and was staying at a motel near the main Dayton International Airport. On Saturday evening, August 3, with a day’s worth of instruction behind me, I went to Dayton’s revived and thriving downtown Oregon District to walk around and, naturally, to stop in at the Dayton Beer Company to have a beer. I had just one, since I had to drive back to the motel, but I also got a to-go six-pack of their Oregon Alley IPA. (Plus, since I didn’t then know when I’d next be in town, a souvenir take-home six-pack of canned Gamma Bomb from the nearby Warped Wing brewery. )

    Later that night, the Dayton mass shooter opened fire in the Oregon District. Although on-scene armed police responded within 32 seconds and killed him almost immediately, the rapid fire and large ammunition capacity of the AR-15–style rifle he brought with him allowed him to murder nine people and wound 27 others before he went down.

    Within 24 hours, network- and cable-news crews were on-scene in Dayton. This was the look of the Oregon District late Sunday afternoon, less than 24 hours after the killings, with one network’s crews on one side of East Fifth Street, not far from the shooting site, and another across the street:

    East Fifth Street, in the Oregon District of Dayton, the day after the shootings (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

    Again for aviation reasons, I was back in Dayton less than two weeks after the shootings. This time I went to Nan Whaley’s office at City Hall to ask her what it was like to be the center of cable-news attention for three or four days—and then to know that the 24/7 coverage would move on to the next breaking-news site.


    “This has been a really important, special part of our community,” Whaley told me about the Oregon District when I spoke with her. The district—pronounced in the Midwest as Or-e-gone, versus the West Coast pronunciation Or-uh-gunhas a beautiful residential area and small stores, but during Dayton’s economic decline was dangerous and distressed. Now it’s the site of restaurants, locally owned stores, restored homes, and the general vibe of economic improvement you find in many midwestern downtowns.

    A house in the Oregon District, not far from the shooting site, on the Sunday afternoon following the Saturday-night shooting in Dayton (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

    Whaley said that since the shooting, she had been in touch with the mayors and other leaders of communities that had suffered similar disasters. The diversely appealing nature of the Oregon District, she said, made this shooting different from some other recent massacres.

    “I was talking with the mayor of Parkland [in Florida] about their high-school shooting and the mayor of Pittsburgh about the Tree of Life [synagogue] shooting,” she said. “Those were mass shootings at communities where people all belonged—they were going to school, or going to services.”

    By contrast, she said, the crowd in downtown Dayton was a diverse group of people who all just happened to be there for a night out (as I had happened to be there, in the same space, a few hours earlier). “This is more like the Aurora, Colorado, shooting [at a theater], where by chance people were there at the same time.” The several dozen people who were killed or injured, and the hundreds exposed to the shooting, were “a super-diverse group, with very different stories, some of them not even from the state of Ohio, and all illustrating the kind of community we have now.”

    “This was the place where the urban renaissance happened first in Dayton,” she said. Houses and apartments are in demand; the mix of businesses had changed from mainly bars to “the right number of bars, and restaurants and locally owned stores.” It was, she said, “a place for everybody—and in a kind of a grotesque way, the very diversity of the shooting victims showed that.” The nine people killed were black, and white; male, and female; older, and younger; from the area, and from far away. “One of them [Saeed Saleh] had grown up in Eritrea and walked across the Sahara desert—only to get here, and be killed in the Oregon District, which like all the stories was heartbreaking,” Nan Whaley said. “In a town that is still too separate and too unequal, the district represented more of what we all wanted the city to become. It’s a place for everybody.”

    “My concern,” she said in August, “is that the shooting stops that work and that vitality and that uniqueness.” What comes next for Dayton will be the subject of the next set of reports.


    On East Fifth Street, near the site of the shooting, the day after (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

    “You don’t want to be known as a city where something terrible happened,” Nan Whaley told me in August—reeling off a few other names of cities now mainly identified with gun massacres. “But you don’t want what happened here just to be forgotten.” She pointed out that just two days after the killings, Donald Trump offered condolences, in comments at the White House, to “those who perished in Toledo”—one Rust Belt city apparently being hard to tell from another. “We don’t want to be a city you can’t find on the map, or even remember the name of.”

    And what did she hope would come of her city’s turn in the cable-news spotlight? “I would like us to be known as a place that action came out of,” she said this past summer.

    Before the killings in Dayton, there had been 250 mass shootings in the United States in 2019. (This is defined as four people shot, apart from the shooter.) “This made us No. 251. I think every mayor whose city has suffered this way says: ‘We’d like to be the place where something happens from our pain.’” She said, back then, that she thought the traumatic effect of the Dayton shooting might have an effect at least in Ohio’s state policies.


    That was the mayor’s reaction, immediately after her city’s highly publicized trauma. In upcoming installments: the longer-term efforts to revive the area’s economy, deal with addiction and related challenges, connect a divided community, and in other ways move Dayton forward.

    At the Dayton Beer Company in the Oregon District, with its “Gem City” logo (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

    More from this series

  • The New Approach to Local Journalism

    The Shawangunk Journal offices in Ellenville, New York. Backwards sign made by artist Roger Baker.
    The Shawangunk Journal offices in Ellenville, New York. Backwards sign made by artist Roger Baker. Courtesy of Amberly Jane Campbell

    Here’s another installment in the ongoing series on how local news operations, especially newspapers, can devise new ways to stay in business. For previous entries—from Mississippi, from Maine, from Massachusetts, from Southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area, from Massachusetts again, and from points beyond—please check these preceding links.

    A theme that runs through nearly all of these reports is the importance of ownership structure. Times are tough for little newspapers everywhere, but the papers least likely to survive are those that have fallen under the control of hedge-fund and private-equity chains, which are starving them into short-term profitability and longer-term demise. The successful counterexamples are mainly family-owned, community-owned, or in some other way bolstered against the pressure to cut the publication into insignificance.

    Today we travel up the Hudson River Valley to the small village of Ellenville, New York, in Ulster County, near the borders of Orange and Sullivan Counties. This is not the bedroom-community exurb part of the Hudson River Valley but instead one of the Northeast’s many declining former industrial zones. It once was famed and prosperous as the home of Schrade cutlery (later Imperial Schrade), and as the manufacturing center for Channel Master “rabbit ears” TV antennas, back in the day when TV signals were broadcast over the airwaves rather than traveling through cables or the internet.

    That industrial era is past, and the surrounding communities have struggled. As in many one-time manufacturing centers in the Northeast and Midwest—and contrary to a frequent media assumption that “troubled factory town” means “mainly white”—Ellenville’s population of some 5,000 people is ethnically diverse. “This little town is surprisingly representative of the country,” Alex Shiffer, co-founder with his partner, Sharon Richman, of the local newspaper, the Shawangunk Journal, told me. (The name is drawn from the local geological landmark, the Shawangunk mountain ridge, or “the Gunks.” Among nearby features is the well-known Mohonk Mountain House.) In the Ellenville area, about half the population is white, about 25 percent Hispanic and 15 percent black, and the rest Asian or from other groups.


    “The community had no newspaper, and we wanted one,” Alex Shiffer told me, about the decision he and Sharon Richman made in 2006, to start the Shawangunk Journal. Shiffer had grown up in Westchester County, closer to New York City. He and Richman met at SUNY New Paltz, and came to Ellenville in the 1990s to operate the area’s first internet service.“We resurrected an older community paper that had been out of print for a few years,” Shiffer said. “We didn’t do much more than take its name, but it was the start of something the community seemed to want too.”

    Cartoonist R. Robert Pollak and publisher Amberly Jane Campbell, of the Shawangunk Journal (Courtesy of Amberly Jane Campbell)

    The Journal is a print publication, now with a paid circulation of about 2,000. You can see some of its stories here—although, as I’ll explain in more detail in a moment, you need to register to read the articles. As an example of the kind of story you don’t often find in papers this small, you can look for two articles by Chris Rowley about the situations of homeless people in the area, and another by Tim Michaels on what heavyweight-truck traffic is doing to local roads.

    Like other small papers, the Journal has had its ups and downs through its dozen-plus years of existence, in recent years especially downs. “Three years ago, the newspaper was in serious financial trouble,” Shiffer told me. “Around the beginning of the year, we said: We’re likely to lose $50,000 this year, and that’s money we don’t have.” Through an appeal to readers and a local fundraising campaign, it found the money to get through that pinch. “Despite the economic problems here, there’s a strong sense of community, which is why the newspaper has survived.”

    And now? The paper’s ambitions, as explained to me by Alex Shiffer and his daughter Jasmine, are interesting in three ways:


    1) Digitally minded from the beginning. “One of the things that was different about our origin, is that we were always interested in an online presence,” Alex Shiffer told me. “My background is tech, not journalism. But when we started, it was just way too soon to have an online platform as the main basis for local content.”

    Shiffer said that he and Richman and their teammates were planning for the time when they could “use our tech experience to figure out how you can make an online publication actually work, with such a tiny market.” One significant shift was when people began using smartphones as a principal source of news and information. Another was when the Journal company began conditioning people to pay for what they read online.

    “We still fight the battle every day, of people saying on Facebook, ‘What, do I have to pay for this?’ And we’re on there constantly saying, ‘Yes, you do, and here’s why.’ It’s taken us this long to get people who are willing to pay for content.” Through the efforts of their publisher, Amberly Jane Campbell, the system has grown to include four other regional publications: the Delaware Hudson Canvas, the Livingston Manor Ink, Hudson Valley Livelihood, and the BKAA Guardian. “We have proven the model works for our newspaper,” Campbell said, “and it can be adopted by any independent publisher, without having to reinvent it for themselves.”


    Alex Shiffer and his daughter Jasmine (Courtesy of Amberly Jane Campbell)

    2) A subscription-and-micropayments business model. As you’ll see if you register (for free) on the paper’s site, NewsAtomic, after an introductory-offer period, articles from the paper for nonsubscribers cost 25 cents apiece. For as long as the internet has existed, I’ve heard journalism leaders talk about the coming era of micropayments. Here’s a tiny newspaper in rural New York that has put the plan into effect.

    Subscribers to the paper, for as little as a few dollars a month, get unlimited access to its articles. Occasional visitors can sample the stories for a low price, with the hope and expectation that some of them will be attracted to become long-term readers and subscribers.

    “A weekly paper publishes once a week—and provides a finished, crafted piece that often is many days ‘old news’ but is still quite relevant and desired,” Shiffer said. (In previous installments from Maine and Massachusetts, I’ve emphasized how small newspapers have turned a weekly-or-slower publication schedule into an advantage.) “The NewsAtomic system allows us to provide both to our readers—regular updates to a developing story, and more in-depth pieces where sources have had time to get back to you.” Every publication that hopes to survive in the digital age is trying to balance the variables in this equation: on-the-news immediacy versus analytical value; outside-the-paywall “free” material to draw attention and shape public conversation, versus subscribers-only items to keep the reporting-and-editing core going. The Shawangunk publications are trying to create a new model for smaller publications.

    “The micropayments are for occasional readers, and, crucially, allow one publication’s readers to sample another publication’s content from time to time,” Alex Shiffer said, “especially in cases where there is coverage of a story by multiple pubs. It’s a way of spreading reader revenue across our participating publications fairly, and it puts the bulk of the revenue where it belongs: with the publisher, not the platform.”


    Staffers of The Devil’s Advocate, the high-school-student-run news application from Ellenville (Courtesy of Amberly Jane Campbell)

    3) The students’ own paper. As Alex Shiffer studied the Journal’s readership, he came across this blunt fact: “The main reason we lose print readers is due to death. It’s not that reading the paper is all that dangerous! It’s just that they’re old.”

    To replenish the readership, and to increase student involvement in the community and interest in journalism, the print Shawangunk Journal and online NewsAtomic site are complemented by a student-run news app called The Devil’s Advocate. (It is free and available in iPhone and Android versions.)

    Jasmine Shiffer, elder daughter of Alex Shiffer and Sharon Richman, is 17 years old and a senior at Ellenville High School. “When I was a freshman, the high school had a paper—but it was in print, and it only came out twice a year,” Jasmine Shiffer told me on the phone. “It was kind of pathetic.”

    “Then in my sophomore year, it just completely disappeared. I thought that every school deserves a newspaper, and online seems to be the only way to get to kids like me these days. So I wanted to start a paper for the school.”

    She did. Without any official involvement from or approval by high-school authorities, a group of students now put out news posts every school day on the Devil’s Advocate app. “We cover a wide variety,” Jasmine Shiffer said. “Some sports, some culture—the real stuff, and the fun stuff.

    “People love it,” she said. “So much of ‘the news’ seems so boring and disconnected from our real lives. To have this school paper written by their friends, and about their friends, makes everything seem so much more accessible.”

    What comes next for Jasmine, after her senior year in high school? “I’ve really enjoyed doing this, much more than I thought I would. I have seen my parents and all the struggles they have gone through owning this paper. So I was nervous about the whole journalism thing. But at least in college I want to be involved in journalism.”


    Is the Shawganunk Journal/NewsAtomic/Devil’s Advocate model “the” answer for other local publications? Of course not—their combined success is still provisional, and market and civic circumstances vary city by city.

    But together they offer another illustration of a range of possible solutions for local publications, and the communities that depend on them.

  • ‘We’re Doing It for Love of Community’

    "Traditionally, white gowns were for girls, blue for boys," Worth Robbins said of Harvard's high-school-graduation ceremony, pictured here in 2016. "For the past six years, seniors have voted to have the gowns distributed randomly. This year the seniors voted to have only blue gowns, a symbol of their propensity for knocking down differences and announcing themselves as a class of innovators and activists."
    "Traditionally, white gowns were for girls, blue for boys," Worth Robbins said of Harvard's high-school-graduation ceremony, pictured here in 2016. "For the past six years, seniors have voted to have the gowns distributed randomly. This year the seniors voted to have only blue gowns, a symbol of their propensity for knocking down differences and announcing themselves as a class of innovators and activists." Lisa Aciukewicz / The Harvard Press

    Do local public-radio stations play an important role? In big cities, from Boston and Washington to San Francisco and L.A.? In small towns, like those across Mississippi or Alaska or Maine? Do they matter in the South as well as the North? In inland states as well as those on the coast?

    All the evidence I’m aware of, anecdotal and statistical, suggests that in every one of these places, the answer is a clear and obvious yes. Public radio matters; it matters all the more in remote and rural areas farther from other news outlets; and it is seen as mattering in a way that transcends normal regional or political dividing lines.

    But suppose those public-radio hosts, programs, and stations were judged not by their broadest social, civic, and cultural effects but instead by the narrowest financial measures. How many would pass muster if they were held as part of a private-equity fund’s portfolio, in which each program or local station stayed in operation only as long as its return-on-equity matched that of some alternative investment, from a big construction project or a biotech start-up firm?

    In those circumstances, virtually none of the stations could exist. Nor would any library. Or public park. Or museum. Or zoo. Or virtually any educational institution except for the shadiest diploma-mills. Or any of the other aspects of social life whose “returns” may be enormous but are not captured in one investor’s profit-and-loss sheets.


    That’s a way of understanding the predicament of local newspapers, in a private-equity age. And it’s a reminder that a specific business model and a broader public interest can be fundamentally at odds.

    Obviously small-town papers face a hyperintense version of the pressures affecting the news business as a whole. But previously in this series, we’ve discussed local papers that are for now defying the harsh economic trends—in Mississippi, in Maine, in Massachusetts, aspirationally in Southern California, and in points beyond. More reports are ahead—from Tennessee, from Michigan, from Northern California, and elsewhere.

    The central message in all these reports has been that ownership structure matters. If papers are owned by private-equity-based firms, of which the most familiar examples are the MediaNews Group (better known by the trade name Digital First Media) and GateHouse Media, the prospects for community news are grim. The chains are in the news business as “just another business,” and their coast-to-coast track record is of squeezing the reporting and editing budget until there is nothing left that subscribers would want to pay for. But in the same market where a private-equity-owned paper would be doomed, some family- or community-owned papers have shown that they can make “enough” money to keep providing the news.

    This brings us to the little Massachusetts town of Harvard, about 30 miles northwest of Harvard University, in Cambridge, but with no connection to it. It is the latest arena of attempts to create a paper that can be sustainable, on a non-private-equity business model.


    Around 6,000 people now live in Harvard, Massachusetts (which I feel compelled to keep identifying that way, to avoid confusion with the “other” place). In the mid-1800s, it was a haven for transcendentalists, Shakers, and other spiritually minded New England Utopians. One of its current tourist attractions is its Fruitlands Museum, which tells the story of some of these groups. In modern times, Harvard’s main business has been farming, especially apple growing, plus spillover from nearby Fort Devens, until it began shutting down as part of the base-closing movement of the 1990s. It also now serves as a bedroom community, within reasonable commuting range of Cambridge and Boston.

    The Fruitlands Museum in winter (Lisa Aciukewicz / The Harvard Press)

    Starting in the early 1970s, Harvard, Mass., had a local paper called The Harvard Post, founded by, among others, a civic activist and news entrepreneur named Ed Miller, then in his 20s. This is the same Ed Miller who, now in his early 70s, just founded a local weekly for Cape Cod, as I described last month. In 1978, Miller, his Post co-founder Kathleen Cushman, and Lawrence Anderson wrote a how-to book on the art and science of successfully running small papers.

    After the Post served Harvard, Mass., for 30 years as a locally owned community newspaper, it was unexpectedly sold in 2003 to a chain called Community Newspaper Company, or CNC. For a little while, CNC kept the paper’s journalistic and civic role mostly intact. But soon the cutbacks began, the local coverage thinned out, and local readership waned. The paper’s office was moved out of town to a regional center; CNC itself became part of GateHouse; and by 2013, long after it had ceased to be a significant part of local affairs, The Harvard Post officially shut down.

    As their existing paper caved in—really, as it was dismantled by design—four local residents decided to take matters into their own hands, and to start a paper to play the part that the Post had in its pre-chain days. One of the four, Worth Robbins, explained on the website of the new paper, The Harvard Press, what happened next. The chain-owned Post, he said, “stopped being a local paper, by and for Harvard residents.” And in response:

    The Harvard Press was born when four Harvard residents decided to band together to produce a high-quality, locally owned newspaper, like the town once had.

    In early October 2006, we put finishing touches on a rudimentary business plan with assumptions about subscriptions and advertising (the two sources of revenue for any newspaper), and cost estimates for equipment, printing, and distribution. We would operate initially in the home of one of the partners … The owners/partners would take token compensation for the first year. The business plan projected a first-year deficit in the range of $50,000 to $100,000; we would need financial help to make it happen.

    We decided not to organize as a nonprofit, because of inherent constraints. We wanted the paper to be fully independent, free to engage with the town without restriction; therefore support contributions would not be tax-deductible, nor would they confer any special privileges or influence.

    We expected it would take several months to attract contributions to enable us to get started, and initial plans called for a January 2007 launch. We were fortunate, however, to receive significant support from a small number of longtime residents, who shared our belief that Harvard needed a good local newspaper. Less than a week after we began looking for help, we had received commitments for enough money to begin, and we set November 17, 2006 as the target for the first issue—less than six weeks away!

    What’s happened since then is chronicled in a large number of update posts, mainly by Worth Robbins, collected in the “Economics of Local News” series at The Harvard Press’s main website. It’s also analyzed in an article in the Yale journal The Politic, by Lily Moore-Eissenberg, who grew up in Harvard, Mass., and was a high-school reporter for the Press before going to college at Yale.

    The short version of these accounts is: The Press has operated on a shoestring, with borrowed and donated equipment and low-paid or volunteer labor; it has steadily increased its role and presence in the town, now with paid distribution to over two-thirds of the town’s households; and having operated it for more than a dozen years, its owners are now considering how to make it viable for the long haul.


    “Most of us who started the paper and are still here are in our 70s,” Worth Robbins told me when I spoke with him on the phone last month. “We’re doing it for love of community. We’re not going to keep doing this forever. People are being paid, but not a lot. So we want not only to put the paper on a sound financial footing—and be prepared to pay more meaningful salaries to attract younger people to work here.”

    Harvard residents stand in line during the annual peach festival at Carlson Orchards. (Lisa Aciukewicz / The Harvard Press)

    Robbins said that the paper’s staff had made a point of including and training students and young people from the community. But he and his colleagues realized that to entice any young resident to return, the paper would need a different business basis. And so they were trying to move from just enough community funding to survive to a large enough budget to allow the paper to grow.

    “Three years ago, I put a story in the paper saying, ‘We’re getting low on funds, we could use some help,’” he told me. “One person wrote in saying, ‘I love the paper, and I’ll put in $5,000 to match $100 donations from other people.’” That campaign led to about $12,000 in total donations. “Then we came up with this idea of ‘sustaining subscribers,’” he told me. “People who would pay $100 per year, rather than $30 or $40—and if they could pay for five years, at $500, in advance, please do so!” Since the beginning of the sustaining-subscriber campaign, the paper has gotten about 240 people to support at that level, “and 40 of them for five years!” he told me.

    I asked Robbins—who grew up in Kentucky and came to Harvard, Mass., in the 1970s for a tech career—what difference it had made to his community when it lost its paper, and as one has reemerged. “The town was so damaged by the loss of the Post,” he told me. “We’ve lived through the experience of having a great paper and losing it, and we do not want to let that happen again.” Thus the multifront drive for “sustaining” subscriptions, for a website with frequent updates—and a paywall (the historical items mentioned above are in a non-paywall section)—and for events like one this coming weekend, in which the former Boston Globe reporter Tina Cassidy will speak with Charles Sennott, also formerly of the Globe and now the head of the GroundTruth Project. (Sennott is also a founder, with Steven Waldman, of the ambitious new Report for America project, which I wrote about this past summer.)

    What difference will that make? Robbins gave the example of the town’s decision last year on whether to spend nearly $50 million on elementary-school construction. “There was tremendous controversy and consternation,” he said. “The previous school was only 30 years old, and many people were upset. We did an incredibly good job of covering all aspects of the issues.”

    Antique cars drive down a Harvard road for the annual July 4 parade. (Lisa Aciukewicz / The Harvard Press)

    I have read through many of the Press stories in issues leading up to the town-meeting vote last spring, and I agree. The trade-offs and implications involved in the budget choices were laid out with great clarity and care. An in-person vote of citizens at a town meeting would decide the issue. “Usually 300 or 400 people is the most you’d ever see at a meeting,” Robbins told me. But for the vote, in May of last year, nearly 1,100 people showed up—and approved the spending by the required two-thirds majority. “Of course I’m biased, but I think a lot of the outcome was due to the depth and scope of coverage we had in the paper,” Robbins said.

    By email, I asked Charles Sennott whether, as a resident of the town, he agreed with this assessment. “Yes,” he wrote back, the paper “did exemplary work on its coverage of the big vote, truly small town New England newspapering at its very best.” At this year’s awards session for the New England Newspaper and Press Association, editor John Osborn and reporters Joan Eliyesil and Marty Green of The Press won a first-place prize for their coverage of the school-funding controversy and decision.


    Is The Harvard Press’s answer “the” answer for all struggling local papers? Of course not. It’s up to the people of Harvard, Mass., to see whether they can keep this model of journalism going even in their one community.

    But it is one answer, for one town, and the moment, and in these times each such answer deserves attention.

    More from this series

  • Start Planting Trees

    Planting trees as part of a green initiative in the southern California town of Redlands.
    Planting trees as part of a green initiative in the southern California town of Redlands. Courtesy of Karen Bell

    Recently Deb Fallows kicked off a series of “Big Little Ideas”—innovations or reforms that could be applied fairly easily at the local level and that might have cumulatively very important effect.

    (Thanks to many readers who have written in. We’ll be sharing some of the many suggestions that have arrived.)

    Here’s another in the series: making it easy to plant large numbers of trees, city-by-city.

    In an article in the October issue of the magazine, I cite recent findings that tree-planting matters more than many people suspect, in its potential climate impacts. The story said:

    After Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris climate accord, more than 400 U.S. mayors, representing most of the U.S. economy, said their communities would still adhere to it. “That is where most of the leverage lies on sustainability—with mayors and governors,” Morley Winograd told me.

    He gave the example of planting trees, which might sound insignificant but, according to a new study by researchers in Switzerland, could be a crucial step toward removing excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. “This could spread city by city, state by state, with no federal involvement or limitation,” he said.


    The tree-planting movement has gained surprising momentum. For example, check out this report from Louisville, on its ambitious “Green Heart” project to assess the impact of urban green space. Or this, from Tulsa, about the difference its “Up With Trees” program has made. Or the “Greenprinting” map tool, from the Trust for Public Land. Or the MTree tool.

    More tree-planting in Redlands, Ca. (Courtesy of Karen Bell.)

    For now, here’s an illustration of one community taking an innovative step. This story has three bonus reactions for attracting my attention.

    First, the community in question is my original homeland, the small inland-California community of Redlands, in San Bernardino County.

    Second, the tree-planting initiative is of a variety often mocked in the nation’s capital but of growing importance at the community level: namely, a “public-private partnership.” It’s a collaboration involving a private company (the mapping firm Esri); a local university (the University of Redlands); and the community’s public schools (of which I am an alum).

    Third, the news is reported by a new local publication, the Redlands Community News, which fits the pattern I have reported on from Maine and Mississippi and Massachusetts, in offsetting the pernicious effect of private-equity control of local newspapers. (More reports are coming on this local-journalism theme, from Michigan and Tennessee and Massachusetts and beyond.)


    It’s an idea with a history: Arbor Day planting ceremony, New York City Public Schools, in 1908. (Bain News Service, via Library of Congress.)

    One of our good friends in Redlands, Shelli Stockton of the University of Redlands, explains the idea. The reason for spelling this out is the possible application in cities elsewhere:

    Idea:

    Increase the awareness of the benefits of trees through education and give away trees to plant. Redlands’ specific project involves presentations at school assemblies, providing each elementary student in our city a tree to plant, and mapping and measuring the results with GIS [online maps, like those developed by Esri in Redlands].

    The project will take place in April 2020 in honor of the 50th worldwide Earth Day celebration. Approximately 12,000 trees will be distributed.

    How It’s Done:

    Identify key partners in the project, including a funder to pay for the trees, an audience with whom to communicate and distribute the trees, and a person(s) to organize the project. In our case the players are:

    • Funder: a local company with an interest in the environment and climate change issues
    • Audience: the local school district and private schools
    • Organizer: the local university

    How This Works Locally:

    Redlands has been named a Tree City USA Community  by the Arbor Day Foundation for 22 years. It has a volunteer-led city Street Tree Committee who assist city staff in overseeing issues regarding the city’s urban forest … There was even a project to plant trees in honor of a nine-year-old girl who died of leukemia.

    The University of Redlands is also 10 consecutive year Tree Campus USA school and has more than 4500 trees on its 160-acre campus.

    It’s a medium-scale idea with potentially very large effects. And of course planting trees is only the first step: they need to be watered, tended, cared for. But it’s an important start, which other communities could consider. And please continue to write in, at OurTowns@TheAtlantic.com, with more suggestions.

  • Rebuilding After Incarceration

    Two women involved with Project Lia look up at windows they helped restore.
    Two women involved with Project Lia look up at windows they helped restore. Courtesy of Jensen Productions and New America

    More than 2 million Americans are in the country’s prisons and jails now, giving the United States both the largest number of prisoners and the highest per-capita incarceration rate in the world. For the U.S., the rate is well over 700 prisoners for each 100,000 of population. According to a recent BBC report, the only close contender is Russia, with an imprisonment rate of over 600 per 100,000 population. Most other developed countries are far behind—or ahead, in social-welfare terms. The rate for England and Wales, for instance, is under 150 prisoners per 100,000 population. Mexico’s rate is about 200 per 100,000. China, with a national population four times larger than America’s, has fewer total prisoners (at least according to official reports).

    Just under 10 percent of America’s prisoners are women. Men and women who are “returning citizens” face some common challenges in restoring their place in economic, family, civic, and social life—for instance, the stigma of a criminal record. Some other barriers vary by gender. Women are statistically more likely to be expected to care for children or other family members, men more likely to have been arrested for violent offenses.

    In Indianapolis, a program called Project Lia helps women who are leaving prison reenter economic and social life. As its mission statement puts it:

    The Project Lia program is for women rebuilding their lives after incarceration. Program participants receive educational opportunities in financial literacy, communication, business ethics, and health and wellness, as well [as] support for a future job search.

    Our program length is designed to be 6 months–12 months. As you advance through our technical skills and life skills program curriculum, you may advance in job title and pay, with the goal being a successful transition to a long-term career opportunity.


    In two previous installments, we’ve shared videos from our friends at New America about civic-renewal projects in Indiana that are very important in the state but get little national attention. The first, about a successful job-training program called Build Your Future, is here. The second, about an ambitious public-arts project run by the Big Car Collaborative, is here.

    Now a third video, about how Project Lia is trying to help previously incarcerated women regain their economic and social footing.

    As you can see from Project Lia’s site, its emphasis is on “renewal” in the broadest sense of the term. Toward its aim of helping its graduates begin rebuilding their lives, many of its projects involve reviving disused or abandoned buildings, as you’ll see in this video, and recycling material that would otherwise just go to landfills.

    Thanks to the videographer and editor Michael Jensen, the executive producer Fuzz Hogan, plus our other friends at New America.

  • How Art Can Renew a Community

    Children at an event put on by the Big Car Collaborative in Indianapolis
    Children at an event put on by the Big Car Collaborative in Indianapolis Courtesy of Jensen Productions and New America

    This is No. 2 in a series of three videos from our friends at New America about the realities of community revitalization and economic recovery in the much-discussed Industrial Heartland of America. It’s based on an Indiana tour that Deb Fallows and I made this spring, co-organized by New America Indianapolis and Indiana Humanities.

    Installment No. 1 was about an innovative, inclusive job-training program called Build Your Future. This one is about the topic on which Deb and I have most changed our minds—or, really, had our eyes opened—during our travels over the past few years.

    That topic is the role of public arts, “place making,” cultural festivals, and other arts-based means of generating civic connections and promoting economic development.

    A Big Car Collaborative arts event in Indianapolis (Courtesy of Jensen Productions and New America)

    Half a dozen years ago, before we began these city-by-city travels, if you’d asked me about “the role of the arts,” I would have said something like: “Yeah, sure, arts are great! Everyone should like art [etc.].” Now we have a vivid place-by-place sense of the difference that ambitious public-arts programs can have. For instance:

    The film below is about one of Indianapolis’s (many) answers to the question of how arts can renew a community.


    Children at a Big Car Collaborative event in Indianapolis (Courtesy of Jensen Productions and New America)

    The video focuses on the Big Car Collaborative, which is a multibuilding art space and civic-engagement organization in Indianapolis. Among its events are its First Friday gatherings and art tours. Check out the video for more.

    Thanks to the videographer and editor Michael Jensen, the executive producer Fuzz Hogan, plus our other friends at New America.

  • Building Your Future in Indiana

    Michael Brannon, a carpenter apprentice and graduate of the Build Your Future program in Indiana
    Michael Brannon, a carpenter apprentice and graduate of the Build Your Future program in Indiana Courtesy of Jensen Productions Inc. and New America

    This spring, Deb Fallows and I made a trip through Indiana for a series of events and meetings co-organized by New America Indianapolis and Indiana Humanities. We were in Muncie, Fort Wayne, Indianapolis, and the small northern-Indiana town of Angola. You can read some of our series of reports here from Fort Wayne, here from Muncie, and here from Angola, with links to others.

    While we were there, a video team from New America made a series of three short films. They’re about the up-close realities of issues that usually appear as slogans or abstractions in so many speeches, policy papers, and panel discussions.

    These are issues such as “restoring opportunity,” “re-creating middle-class jobs,” and “bringing hope to the heartland.” Or about working with “returning citizens,” those who have been incarcerated, to increase their chances of a successful return to economic and family life.

    To put it another way: Everyone talks about creating opportunity. Here’s what it looks like when people do something about it.

    The first film, shot in Fort Wayne and around Indianapolis, describes the work of an innovative program called Build Your Future (BY, for short). It’s five minutes long, and you can see it below.

    Thanks to the videographer and editor Michael Jensen, the executive producer Fuzz Hogan, plus our other friends at New America. Two more films shot in Indiana are ahead in the series. The next one is about an art-collaborative project in Indianapolis called Big Car.

  • Valentyn Ogirenko / Reuters

    The Press Is Embracing False Equivalence—Again

    Coverage of the president’s pressure on Ukraine suggests the media learned nothing from 2016.

  • ‘Lessons From Danville’

    By the Dan River, in the River District of Danville, Virginia, this summer
    By the Dan River, in the River District of Danville, Virginia, this summer James Fallows / The Atlantic

    This summer, Deb Fallows and I visited the southern-Virginia town of Danville, and the surrounding rural areas of Pittsylvania County, Virginia, and the adjoining Caswell County, North Carolina. In its heyday, Danville was a thriving textile and tobacco community. The famed Dan River Mills operated along (you guessed it) the Dan River, which flows through the center of town and from which the town draws its name.

    After the textile mills closed and much of the tobacco business collapsed, Danville went through a long decline—like many other communities in this part of the Piedmont region.

    Over the past few years, a fascinating recovery has been under way: in the downtown, through reuse of abandoned mill and warehouse structures as new residential and office spaces; in areas that had lost mill jobs, through agricultural, chemical, and advanced-manufacturing start-ups; through creative use of money provided through the “tobacco settlement”; through advanced broadband capacities; and in other ways. You can read the set of articles that Deb and I did on Danville and its region here.


    Today The Roanoke Times has an editorial called “Lessons From Danville,” which mentions our reporting and extends some of the implications to other small towns and cities in the region and beyond.

    Because so much of the reason for Deb’s and my ongoing reporting is the hope that ideas and solutions that have been tried out in one place—like Muncie or Fort Wayne, Indiana; or Brownsville, Texas; or Eastport, Maine—might apply elsewhere, we’re gratified by efforts, like The Roanoke Times’, to consider the experiences of other communities.

    Samples from its editorial:

    Danville still has plenty of troubles, of course—the Ikea plant there recently announced its closing. But economic development everywhere has always been several steps forward and several backwards at the same time. The big picture is that Danville is undergoing a remarkable transformation, from a Southern mill town without any active mills to a poster child for how to build a new economy out of the ruins.

    And:

    Whatever Danville has done, it’s mostly done on its own, which ought to be a pretty powerful message but also perhaps a scary one to some communities. National politicians can be glib about assigning blame—be it foreign competition or rapacious corporations—but local leaders need to ignore all that and get to work fixing their own communities.

    The lesson for voters: If your local elected officials aren’t doing that, replace them with ones who will. Danville provides a pretty good “up-by-the-bootstraps” example of what can be done.

    Worth reading and considering, beyond Virginia and North Carolina. Thanks to the editor of The Roanoke Times.

  • There’s Hope for Local Journalism

    Editor Ed Miller and publisher Teresa Parker with Vol. 1 No. 1 of The Provincetown Independent as it comes off the press on Sept. 6
    The editor Ed Miller and publisher Teresa Parker with Vol. 1 No. 1 of The Provincetown Independent as it comes off the press on September 6 Courtesy of Sophie Ruehr

    Everyone knows that local newspapers are in trouble. That’s why Deb Fallows and I have been chronicling examples of smaller papers that have bucked the economic trend—in Mississippi, in coastal Maine, in rural communities across the country.

    But what “everyone knows” about the main source of the problem may be wrong—or misleading enough to divert attention away from a possible solution.

    The conventional view of the local-journalism crisis is that running a small-town newspaper just isn’t a viable business anymore—now that internet advertising has drained off revenue, and now that virtual communities and social media have displaced real-world connections and communities.

    Those pressures are all too real. (Sobering details on the collapse of ad revenue are here.) But some of the remaining success stories in this troubled field suggest that the ownership structure of local news organizations may matter as much as internet-era advertising shifts, in determining which organizations survive and which perish.

    In short: Increasing evidence suggests that the local newspaper business may still be viable, simply as a business. What it can no longer do is provide the super-profit levels that private equity groups expect from their holdings, and that they demand as a condition of even letting the papers exist. But the same papers that are doomed under private-equity ownership might have a chance in some different economic structure.

    This proposition—that newspaper ownership is as important as internet-era advertising trends, in deciding local journalism’s future—was examined at length in a 2017 article in The American Prospect by Robert Kuttner and Hildy Zenger (the latter a pen name). It has been a theme connecting our previous newspaper-survivor reports, from Maine to Mississippi. And it is the idea behind a new weekly print newspaper whose first edition came off the presses this month, in Provincetown, Massachusetts, at the tip of Cape Cod.


    The long-established paper for “Outer Cape Cod,” the communities from Provincetown southward, was the Provincetown Advocate, founded in 1869. In 2000, it was bought by the Provincetown Banner, and in 2008, the Banner was sold to GateHouse Media Inc., a private-equity-run chain of mainly smaller papers across the country. Long-established newspaper chains like Gannett, Knight Ridder, and McClatchy have their problems and detractors. But their goal, as Kuttner and Zenger pointed out in their Prospect piece, was fundamentally to operate newspapers. Their operations paid at least lip service to the idea that newspapers had a civic and community role, beyond their sheer economic existence.

    The modern trend in small-paper ownership is their takeover by private-equity firms, of which Alden Global Capital, its subsidiary MediaNews Group (formerly known as Digital First Media), and GateHouse are the best-known examples. For these institutions, newspapers are a financial asset like any other—like a tract of commercial real estate, like a steel mill or a suburban mall. The profit-maximizing model they have applied to countless small papers has been: slashing costs, mainly by laying off reporters and editors, so as to boost short-term profit rates; continuing the cutbacks, so as to maintain profit margins, even as a thinner paper attracted fewer readers and ads; and when there was nothing left to cut, declaring bankruptcy or closing the paper, which had in strictly financial terms reached the end of its useful life.

    The Banner, in its GateHouse years, has gone through a version of this cycle. (For the record: I have called and sent messages to relevant GateHouse officials, and will report back if I hear from them.) At the time of its sale, it had a staff of about 20. By early this year, the staff was down to four.

    “When people think about corporate ownership of newspapers, they think the problem is that the company is telling you what to write—like Sinclair, with its broadcast stations,” says Ed Miller, a longtime newspaper entrepreneur who worked as an editor at the Banner starting in 2015.

    “The fact is, they couldn’t care less what you write,” he says. “Their only interest is how much profit you can squeeze out of the operation, so the way they actually undermine the reporting of news is simply by laying off staff. The cuts make the job so overwhelmingly difficult to do that there’s just no possibility that you will get into serious news coverage, or investigating the stories that need to be dug out.”

    In July of this year, Miller resigned from the Banner. This month he and his wife, Teresa Parker, published the first print edition of a new weekly print newspaper, The Provincetown Independent, aimed at readers, advertisers, and citizens in the towns of outer Cape Cod. This month’s paper was a preview, and regular weekly print publication will begin in early October. In the meantime, new stories are being posted online.

    Hang gliders over the Cape Cod National Seashore (Courtesy of Edward Miller)

    The territory the Independent is covering is more diverse than the vacation-time imagery of Cape Cod might suggest. The communities in its market—Provincetown, Truro, Wellfleet, and Eastham—have median incomes at about the national-average level (or in the case of Provincetown, significantly below it). Some of the residents have vacation homes there; some are service workers, small merchants, and businesspeople, or part of the working fisheries. Provincetown has long been an LGBTQ haven; the outer Cape has well-established arts, scientific, marine-science, and tourism-oriented institutions.

    “This is an interesting community,” Miller told me. “There are a lot of engaged people here, there is money here, this is a place that ought to be able to support a perfectly successful, profitable newspaper.” As they observed the shrinkage at the Banner, which recently laid off its last local reporter, Miller and his colleagues began thinking about a new venture they might launch.

    The approach they decided on—which you can read about on the Independent’s own site, or by Allison Hagan in The Boston Globe and Sarah Mizes-Tan for the local public-radio station WCAI—was a mix of normal for-profit business structure and nonprofit adjunct.

    The business plan is based on a four-year hoped-for course to profitability, at which point the paper would have total paid circulation of 6,000 per week, and 19 full-time staffers. So far Miller and Parker have raised a little more than half of the business capital they are looking for. The nonprofit operation has raised three times as much as its original target. This money will be used for special projects—training young journalists, supporting investigative efforts, long-term projects on “themes that are important to the community, like how young families will manage to live here,” Miller told me.


    August Carnival parade in Provincetown (Courtesy of Marcia Geier)

    For all the ceaseless technological and business change in the news business, Miller said, “the basics of the business are that people love local newspapers. If you can provide something they want, especially information they can’t get anyplace else, they will be loyal to you.”

    The weekly publication schedule of the Independent, like the every-other-week schedule of The Quoddy Tides in Maine, helps the paper resist any temptation to cover breaking national or world news, for which readers have a million faster, better sources. Instead it can cover local developments—taxes, schools, zoning, real estate, religion, business ups and downs—that simply won’t be covered anywhere else.

    “People are saying we need to come up with a new business model” for small newspapers, Miller told me. “Actually, the old business model for a local newspaper that really does its job can actually work pretty well.” He said that he canvassed owners of similar-scale papers around the country, and found that a normal profit rate was about 8 percent of revenue. For a private-equity fund, that’s nothing. “But if you’re running a normal local business, 8 percent is pretty good.” Miller said that one local-paper owner told him, “If I’m making more than 8 percent, I know it’s time to reinvest in the business—hire more people, give them raises, upgrade our equipment.”

    Cape Cod in the summertime (Courtesy of Elspeth Hay)

    One of the Independent’s advisers and business backers is Louis Black, who in the 1980s in Austin co-founded and edited the successful and influential alt-weekly The Austin Chronicle and then was a co-founder of the mega-successful SXSW. I spoke with him by phone today to ask why he’d become involved.

    “When we started the Chronicle, we didn’t know what we were doing,” he said. “It took a decade to get up to speed. Eventually we realized a paper like that creates the community. It pulls it together, then sends it out.” Black said that despite the travails of print media, this was the role that he hoped papers like the Independent could fulfill.

    Louis Black speaks during the 36th Annual Austin Music Awards (Gary Miller / Getty)

    “It’s not just about conveying information,” he said. “People have new ways to do that quickly. It’s about providing a cultural and intellectual center—and not only for like-minded people. It’s for people who want to engage in debate, and have principled debate. A strong local paper can do that. It’s not just about the words or information. It’s the spirit.”

    Black met Ed Miller and Teresa Parker because Black had a neighboring house in Cape Cod. He learned that he and Miller were both from Teaneck, New Jersey, and both had spent their careers starting publications—Black’s with more financial success. Eventually Black decided to put time and money into the new Independent venture.

    Did he think that it realistically had a chance? Black laughed, chuckled out some version of “Who knows?,” and then said: “Because Cape Cod is what it is, and because Ed is who he is, I think they have a shot.”

    Like Miller, and like me, Black is from the dreaded and aging Baby Boom generation. “We’re too old to do this,” Black told Miller, as they considered the years-long, dicey effort of starting a new publication. “But the young people don’t know how, and we have to show them. People need to see that it can be done.”

    “I want to hang the sword up,” Louis Black told me. “But we can’t. We’re living in a world where if we believe, we have to engage. And it matters.”

    More from this series

  • Without a Functioning National Government, What’s Left?

    Constantinople at night, in a print from around the turn of the 20th century. The Eastern Roman Empire, based in Constantinople, endured for many centuries after the fall of the Western Empire, in Rome.
    Constantinople at night, in a print from around the turn of the 20th century. The Eastern Roman Empire, based in Constantinople, endured for many centuries after the fall of the Western Empire, in Rome. Library of Congress

    Here is one more dip into the waters of ancient Rome. For those joining us late:

    • In a “thought experiment” article in the new issue of the print magazine, I ask: What can troubled citizens of today’s America learn from the history of Rome? But the question concerned not the much-publicized lead up to “Decline and Fall.” Rather it was about the “After the Fall” era, known to the scholars at “Late Antiquity.”
    • In a first round of responses, academic historians and others pushed back (mainly) against the headline of the article. The headline said, “The Fall of the Roman Empire Wasn’t That Bad.” The academics replied, “Oh yes it was!”
    • Next, a governance expert drew parallels between the “Late Antiquity” era and the tension between centralized efforts, and dispersed local innovations, that have been part of the American saga from the very start.
    • Then, other readers suggested other ways of making connections, contrasts, and implications.

    That brings us to what will probably be the wrap-up—but who knows. Here are several more messages, starting with a long one, about further extracting Rome-and-America comparisons and contrasts:

    1) “The empire made the emperors.” In my article, I said that since World War II the United States has run an “empire without the name.” A historically minded reader draws out the implications:

    First, it’s entirely appropriate, as you do, to compare the Roman and American empires—even though the US rules its empire as Romans of the republican (not imperial) era did.  

    In other words, the US empire is an “empire of obedience.” It uses all manner of tools to persuade semi-independent states and other groups to do its bidding, rather than directly governing territories within formal borders. Direct governance and a formalization of borders occurred under the Roman princeps (emperors).

    Second, while it’s convenient to date the “fall” of the western Roman empire, it’s not especially useful from an analytic perspective. The western empire had been decentralizing for quite some time, while “barbarians” had been effectively ruling parts of it, directly and indirectly.   

    It’s critical to note these groups did not conceive of themselves as “invading” or seeking to “overthrow” Roman rule. By and large, they were forced to enter Roman territory by other attackers. Their rulers were also, by and large, Romanized. They largely ruled in cooperation with local Roman elites and using Roman techniques. Odoacer positioned himself as a local Roman ruler formally subservient to the emperor in Constantinople.

    What happened in the West was very different from what happened in the East, when the truly “foreign” armies of Islam invaded and conquered territory ….

    Third, it’s a bit of a stretch to say decentralization that happened in the 4th and 5th centuries was necessary for developments that came into their own 1,000 years later. There were guild-like groups in 1st century Rome. The Romans appear to have developed fairly sophisticated credit systems and engaged in long-range trade. Monasteries flourished in the eastern empire, which remained quite centralized and even more heavily militarized. And so on.   

    Could all of this had developed in something like the direction it took if the Roman state had not succumbed, over many years, to internal and external pressures? It’s impossible to say. But I also think it’s impossible to say it wouldn’t have.


    In my mind, here’s the most relevant lesson from Rome for current US developments: The emperors didn’t make the empire. The empire made the emperors.   

    The US has had an emperor for decades, both through the taking of power and, more importantly (and in Roman fashion), through Congress delegating its powers to him. Trump’s willingness to use those powers has revealed what has been the case for some time.


    Another scene from Constantinople, seat of the Eastern Empire long after the fall of Rome (Library of Congress)

    2) “Last Bastion of Democracy.” The message below represents many I’ve received  to similar effect, about what America’s fate might mean for China’s influence.

    I’ll bet that the majority of people who lived under Roman rule and were not rich by their historic standards would argue that after Rome’s fall most of everything went to the crapper. Although the Romans were brutal at times, those under their rule were largely protected by Rome’s legions at the request of the local governor ….

    Suggesting that America’s fall might not be so bad based on Rome’s fall and what occurred afterwards ignores the presence of Russia and China in the world today ………..

    imagine a world without one of the last bastions of democracy, the one that feeds innovation and who has fed a large part of the world for decades. A world run by Putin and Xi, yea right, that would be pretty.


    “Combat des Huns,” by Julius Thaeter (Library of Congress)

    3)  “Goths were very popular.” A reader who is conducting historical research, and who prefaces his note with an (unnecessary) apology for errors in English he might make as a non-native speaker, writes about why “barbarian” cultures spread so rapidly in Rome’s absence:

    I just read Ammianus Marcellinus’ account (among many others) of the accelerated decline of the Empire in the second half of the 4th century and how it lead to its fall a century later.

    One fact seldom mentioned about Romanity and Greco-Roman culture is how the people that lived under it seemed to deeply hate it.

    A reoccurring fact of the era is how local populations defected to the barbarian tribes massively. People joined the Goths, the Lombards, the Franks and even the Huns in their wars against their own country! Goths were very popular among the population, even when then besieged Rome, we hear about the Roman plebs joining forces with their attackers.

    Whole provinces that had been deeply Romanised, even colonized by Romans adopted Barbarian customs so quickly it looks like they were not conquered but liberated. Gaul, Italy, Moesia (in today’s Bulgaria) went over the Barbarians in some cases as fast as a generation. By the 6th century, Italians—Italians!—were proud to call themselves Lombards. …

    There are many reasons for that; the institution of slavery, the degradation and corruption of civic institutions and services, the turbulent switch from a multireligious Empire to a monotheist and rigidly orthodox quasi-Theocracy.

    From reading A. Marcellinus, I was surprised to learn that in fact, Roman civilisation at that point was only working were the emperor was currently residing. As soon as the emperor moved, law, order and good administration collapsed. This is probably why the Emperors in the 4th century were constantly on the move ….


    Americans of the Grover Cleveland era trying to repair a classical-Roman-style statue named “National Prosperity,” in an 1893 print from Puck, by Udo Keppler.  (Library of Congress)

    4) Wrapping it up. From a reader in the Midwest:

    1) My takeaway from decades-ago reading was that European technology, commerce, wealth surpassed Roman levels around 1100 or so. If that’s right, there was a dark age in concrete senses. The trend among historians I read in graduate school was to push the Renaissance back earlier and earlier, but not to deny that there were losses requiring a renaissance.

    Then again, who knows, maybe they were wrong, and/or current revisionism has shrunk the dark age (rightly or questionably)  to nothing.

    2. If the U.S. federal government continues its descent it will probably take malign forms that will suffocate or actively crush effective local government and other cultural capital. …

    5. The question of whether our federal government is on a permanent downward trajectory raises the question of risk/reward in the most radical proposed norm-breaking for a narrow Democratic majority: filibuster end, new state creation [JF note: eg, Puerto Rico, D.C., court packing]. Maybe we’re at the point where risk-taking is the most prudent course—a grab to activate the emerging demographic majority before Republicans manage to suppress democracy altogether.

    6. The Pax Romana was also real (or was it?), and the end of Pax Americana may prove very dangerous.

    7. Environmental pressure—rising seas, desertification, natural disasters—is probably already driving and will continue driving government dysfunction, while government dysfunction accelerates environmental degradation.


    I am not entirely despairing. It’s always hard to tell what ills are cyclical and which ones are one-way streets. No one in the 1980s would have dreamed that crime in the U.S. would go into major remission; maybe mysterious forces will dissipate extreme polarization—and we’ll build new defenses against fake news/brainwashing in free societies. Maybe major technological breakthrough (or an ice age) will save us from global warming.

    But it’s hard to get too cheery about compensations for [the end of] a functioning federal government.

    Thanks once again to all who have weighed in.  

    More from this series