Reporter's Notebook

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.

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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.”

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The Forsyth County Public Library
The central library of the Forsyth County Public Library Deborah Fallows

When it came to planning the new public library for downtown Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the people of the city had a lot to say, from the visionary to the practical. The library should “make an important statement” and “be a place for the public to be together,” Nan La Rosee, the central operations manager of the Forsyth County Public Library, told me during a recent visit.

She went on to rattle off the wish list of specifics, from meeting spaces, an outdoor place to sit and gather, somewhere to eat, an architecturally significant building, and an art gallery to more seating areas, an atmosphere full of light and spaciousness, and on and on. About a decade earlier, the voters had passed a bond that would provide some $28 million to build the central library, so they were well invested and interested.

The people’s ideas and more have been realized on a grand scale, with spaces to suit all kinds of activities and meetings and gatherings. I peered into the 290-person auditorium during a screening of Thor: Ragnarok, from the popular Avengers series then being run at the library. I walked by the big glass windows of the 10-person conference room, where a full house of young adults, laptops open, was in animated conversation about something—maybe a class, maybe a civic issue, maybe start-up plans. La Rosee said the always discreet librarians “try not to oversee too much” and strive to strike the right balance so that the meetings have a public connection and are not simply for private profit. After all, she reminded me, “the library was built from taxpayer money.”

Inside the central library of the Forsyth County Public Library (Deborah Fallows)

There are three smaller rooms with space for up to four people, one with assistive technology for the visually impaired; a sound-production room; and three more rooms tucked in a back corner of the inviting children’s space for private, supervised meetings among, for example, children, parents, and social workers. The library also has a demonstration kitchen and a computer teaching lab.

When I asked La Rosee what the public has to say now that the library has been up and running for two years, she said they report back that all these spaces in the new library contribute to the sense that this is a “hub of Winston-Salem in touch with the people” (her emphasis).


The central library of the Forsyth County Public Library is the main library for the city, but it is also a neighborhood library for a diverse population: those who live in the historic downtown homes, or in factories turned loft space, or in the subsidized housing, or the homeless. Nearly every other library I have visited in the past six years welcomes homeless people who spend their days there. Winston-Salem has addressed its homeless patrons in a creative way. The library was awarded a $150,000 multiyear grant from the state, provided by funds from the Library Services and Technology Act, for staff to learn how to help the homeless with job-readiness strategies and skills, and it hired a permanent peer-support specialist to work with homeless individuals to help them navigate through their often complex set of challenges, from housing and financial assistance to medical services and mental-health counseling.

The Wi-Fi–enabled outdoor deck at the library (Deborah Fallows)

New collaborations have happened courtesy of the new space. Wake Forest Baptist Health’s Sticht Center for Healthy Aging and Alzheimer’s Prevention, which is also a neighbor to the library, found the library a great place to reach out to new populations it could serve. It is in the second year of an ongoing series for the senior members of Winston-Salem on “aging well.” The children from the Downtown School, a nearby pre-K–eight magnet school where many parents who work downtown send them, visit the library regularly. Each elementary class visits the library monthly to learn library and research skills, or to get in-depth information for a class project. Older students come as a group for specific projects they are working on. The library is a natural, convenient, safe, and trusted place for seniors and children to try new things and to spend time. These meetings strengthen the texture and empathy of a community in the same way that YMCAs or public recreation spaces or free arts performances do; they provide the opportunity for town residents to simply be in the presence of others with whom they might not cross paths in their everyday lives.

More perspectives from inside the library (Deborah Fallows)

When I first walked into the library, I wondered for a moment: Is this an art gallery, or is it a library? The answer is really both. The welcoming open plan, the accommodating wall space, the changing perspectives of the interior you see as you wander from section to section and even floor to floor are a natural invitation to enjoy the library’s permanent collection of art from Ralph Philip Hanes Jr. and many others. Hanes, who was part of a sprawling civic-minded and philanthropic family of Winston-Salem, donated works that include Andrew Wyeth’s Watering Trough. There is much more: a sculpture by Jean René Gauguin, the son of Paul Gauguin, and a very, very large metal sculpture of an open book with the word library engraved in several languages, by the Alabaman Deedee Morrison. The sculpture greets visitors on the front lawn by the main entrance.

Deedee Morrison’s sculpture Library (Courtesy of Fam Brownlee / Forsyth County Public Library)

The stewardship of the library’s art struck me as both serious and fun. As for serious, the library cleaned and restored the Hanes collection before placement in its new home. As for fun, on the afternoon that I wandered in, La Rosee was just heading out to pick up more art pieces that people had donated to the library. The way she said it, when she kindly delayed her departure to talk with me, gave me the sense that this particular kind of (pleasant) errand occurred frequently.

Another surprise is the North Carolina Room, described by La Rosee as the “crown jewel” of North Carolina historical and genealogical collections. There is a photograph collection from the region that dates back to the late 19th century; a map collection; the ever popular genealogy section; historical legal information; newspaper archives; travel, culture and folklore holdings; and on and on. You could spend days, months inside this room.

Looking into the North Carolina Room (Deborah Fallows)

On the technology side, Winston-Salem installed more than five dozen computers for public use, two dozen more used for training new users, seniors, or those seeking to upgrade tech skills for possible new jobs; for Spanish speakers; and with technology for those with disabilities. And looking ahead to the day when more users will bring in their own laptop rather than use the ones at the library (a planning notion that other libraries have mentioned to me as well ), the library has made plenty of room for empty table workspace with plenty of charging stations.

Winston-Salem’s maker space is modest compared with those I’ve seen in many other towns, like Brownsville, Texas, and my hometown of Washington, D.C., which have lots of computer-assisted technologies like 3-D printers and laser cutters. Others have maker spaces like the one I saw in Dodge City, Kansas, which rely on donated equipment like sewing machines and basement-shop tools. The one in Winston-Salem has a modest collection of hardware, 3-D printers, and sewing machines, but La Rosee described it as more of a space for “making and doing” sessions and teaching.

If you’re interested to follow the latest research on how people use libraries, how they value their local libraries, and some of the changing trends in libraries and library use, please go to the Pew Research Center’s collection of surveys and reports. (For the record: I worked at the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project in the early 2000s.)

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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.  

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The ruins of the Roman Forum, in a print created by the Swiss Photoglob Company at the turn of the 20th century
The ruins of the Roman Forum, in a print created by the Swiss Photoglob Company at the turn of the 20th century Library of Congress

The new print issue of the magazine has a short thought-experiment article, by me, on what happened after the fall of the Roman empire. (As I point out, this concerned the Western empire only—the one based in Italy, and the one Edward Gibbon described in The Decline and Fall. The Eastern empire, based in Constantinople, had many more centuries to run.)

In a first round of reader responses, historians and others reacted (mainly) to the article’s (intentionally overstated) headline, “The End of the Roman Empire Wasn’t That Bad.” And in a second round, a veteran of governance issues named Eric Schnurer argued that a renewed focus on local-level renewal and innovation was proper, since localities were the only places where innovation had ever occurred.

Here is another round, on the point I mainly hoped the article would raise: how Americans, ever optimistic about the rebound capacity of their perpetually self-reinventing system, should think about the possibility that “it’s different this time,” and that national-level governance might finally be strained beyond its rebound abilities. Over to the readers:

1) Civil servants still want to serve. In my article I quoted Philip Zelikow, of the University of Virginia, on the difference between national-level and local officials. At the state, local, and regional level, Zelikow said, elected and career officials have no choice but to work together and actually solve problems. Whereas at the national level, politics is more and more about culture war—“who you like, who you hate, which side you’re on,” as Zelikow put it.

A career official at a national-level agency replies:

In November, I will mark 32 years of federal service.

My grandparents came here with nothing. I’m an age of rising tides; my parents had the grit and good fortune to grant me and my brothers and sisters every reasonable opportunity, and then some.

That’s fundamentally why I entered public service, and that’s fundamentally why I remain in public service. I am grateful, and feel a responsibility to give back.

Your essay, comparing our federal state to Rome in its age of decline, strikes a chord, and in doing so fills me with an undeniable melancholy.

I push back against Zelikow’s “which side are you on” fatalism about national governance, even as I admit I see evidence of it all around me.

I’m not tossing in the towel yet.


A 19th-century photo of the Roman-era arena in Arles, France (Library of Congress)

2) Optimates vs. “Populares”: The battle goes on. From a history professor of my own Boomer generation:

I have been thinking about that [Roman] period quite a bit lately, as we see the collapse of societal norms and the failure of many central governments to actually govern.

I see the present as actually more in parallel to the fall of the republic in the first century B.C.E.

At that time, the empire had begun to take form, with vast amounts of wealth pouring into the center, but mainly enriching the senatorial oligarchs. The men who had fought the wars were forced off their land, which came to be farmed on vast plantations by slaves. The new global order failed the yeomen, mainly because the rich, who controlled the government, refused to relinquish any of their wealth to help the impoverished citizens.

Seems familiar.

The society broke into two warring parties: Optimates and Populares (the “Best” and the “People”). They engaged in wars with each other, mobilizing personal armies, and violence came to be used as a means of government with leaders of each side being killed by mobs, culminating in the death of Julius Caesar. The society had become so divided that in the end, the only way to govern was by autocratic rule: Augustus.

I fear that we are near that point, and that a demagogue will arise who has more shrewdness than our current demagogue-wannabe. Trump has blazed the pathway that others can well follow.

Trump’s party represents the Optimates—the wealthy—but we could just as well see a leader representing the Populares come to power. Think if Huey Long had been successful in the 1930s. Populism can cut both ways; call them national populism and social populism …

We are seeing the breakdown of liberal democracy across the world, as happened in the 1930s. It was finally restored after a decade of slaughter. It may not be restored again. At the least, something new has to take form, and that will not come from our generation.


One interesting parallel to the period that you do discuss in your piece is that the “barbarians” were not invading the empire to loot and pillage. Mainly, they wanted to share in the wealthy and stable Roman society, get a bit of land for their people, and be secure from tribes like the Huns on the other side of the border. They knew Rome very well; many of their leaders had been leaders in the Roman armies, and many were Roman citizens. The Vandals were not really that vandalous …

In the same way, people are now migrating en masse into Europe and the U.S. in pursuit of better lives, to participate in the wealthy and stable Western societies, to escape poverty and brutality.

Climate change plays a significant role in driving people out of their homelands, and that will only become worse over time. Another factor, of course, is Western as well as internecine wars (think Iraq and Syria), and Western support of brutal governments (Central America).

But the influx of a mass of outsiders into the Roman empire (especially the western part) did ultimately lead to the breakdown of the wealth and stability they had come for.

There were many reasons for this, including intertribal battling among the newcomers and the disappearance of the Roman legions as a controlling force, but there was a continuing social disintegration and insecurity. The stable Roman civitas crumbled, quickly in some places (Britain) and more slowly in others (Gaul). I am not bringing this up to agree with Trump’s mantra to “build the wall” (which is folly—the Romans tried in some places), but rather to stress that we must have a rational immigration policy and consensus that prevents destabilization. Mass immigration creates nationalist anger, which is fuel for nationalist demagogues.


As the Roman society disintegrated, government did become ever more localized. That worked for a while in some places (like France), but in time trade shrank, education declined, government services passed away, and instability increased.

One could imagine some parts of the U.S. doing quite well for a time without a federal government, but other parts might do very poorly. Infrastructure would fall apart, as it did in post-Roman Europe. More people would flow across unpoliced borders, adding to the disruption and to the reactions. This would not play well in a society as well armed as the U.S.

No one knew that “Rome had fallen” when Odoacer brushed aside the grandly named Romulus Augustulus in 476, only that the Germans now ruled Italy in name as they had in fact for the past decades. Even in our own long lives, can we know what history might see as having passed in our lifetimes, perhaps that we are now at the transition from the 500-year Modern Age into what-we-do-not-know (as John Lukacs has written)? Life went on, as for the frog in boiling water whom you have analyzed …

Several hundred years after the fall of Rome, new forms and new states began to take shape amid the ruins, and by the 12th century, western Europe was again thriving. But it was a long and difficult time between the fall of the empire and the rise of Europe. I would not wish that on my children and grandchildren, or on theirs.

The long-term results of the failure of governance we are living through will be regrettable, though perhaps as necessary as the Dark Ages.


3) The new corporate “nationality.” A Westerner who has lived for years in Japan writes about the local-versus-national tensions within the United States:

One idea is to reorganize the 50 states into seven regions that match the baby bells created when AT&T was broken up … The merits to such a reorganization are to unify many basic services: Do we really need 50 DMVs and 50 Medicaid programs and who knows how many other layers of bureaucracy that get repeated state by state? This could enhance basic services at the subnational level … On the other hand, it may create the equivalent of seven proconsuls competing among themselves to follow Rome’s decline into empire …

What seems more likely to me to occur over the next 50 years, and something that I oppose, is a rift, with sovereign-individual stance married to the corporatization of society …

Instead of citizenship being based on contiguous borders, our lives are bounded by what membership card(s) we carry. I can go to an Amazon condominium after buying dinner at Whole Foods paid for by my Amazon coins via my Kindle and travel in my Amazon car ad infinitum. And if I am a Sapphire member, better deals as I jump from location to location but stay in the Amazon or Apple or Goggle or Facebook or whatever bubble. When a person uses an “out of service” provider, of course rates go up, and pity the people who cannot afford/are rejected in their membership bids. Blade Runner marries Brave New World.

Finally, on the question of if this time is different compared with other times due to change! change! change! Yes and no. I believe that in past periods, starting around 1870, in these early periods, the degree of change was much greater than now. No electricity versus Wi-Fi and rechargeable batteries; no telephones/movies/radios versus watching reality TV on your cellphone, etc., etc.

But the pace of change does seem to be much faster and disconcerting for all generations. This deserves further explanation, but who has the time to read, let alone write … ?


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The Temple of Castori, in the old Forum in Rome
The Temple of Castori, in the old Forum in Rome. In 2003, archaeologists discovered evidence that Emperor Caligula had turned this temple into the front porch of his residence. “Everyone knows this guy was a little crazy. But now we have proof that he was completely off his rocker, that he thought he was one of the gods,” Darius Arya, one of the directors of the excavation, said after the discovery. Tony Gentile / Reuters

What’s the point of writing a “thought experiment” article, like mine in the current issue about the bright side of the Dark Ages?

It’s to generate some thoughts! On top of the first round of responses—which were variations on “Actually, the Dark Ages were pretty dark”—here is a stand-alone. It is from my longtime friend Eric Schnurer, who has worked in and written extensively (including for The Atlantic) about governance at all levels, from the local to the global.

He writes now about the proper lessons to be drawn from comparing modern America’s prospects to those of Rome, after the fall. What follows is a long but highly condensed version of his note. I would direct your attention to the place where he ends his argument: Local innovation is important now, and always has been. The difference now is the potential and scale of global/local connections.

Over to Schnurer. I have added some subheads in bold to highlight the stages of his argument—which, again, I hope you’ll think through to the end:

I read with interest your piece on the fall of the Roman empire … in part because of the fact that you were really discussing a number of contemporary issues of obvious interest to me.

I think of these being less the local aspect, and more the large-scale global future …

It’s not the fall of the Roman empire we should worry about. It’s the fall of the Roman republic. One could argue that the fall of Rome wasn’t so “awful” [JF note: This is Edward Gibbons’s term], because, by that time, Rome was pretty “awful” itself. The empire’s peak— particularly the heights of both power and intellectual advance of the Five Good Emperors—was long behind it.

However much as I may like Trajan and Marcus Aurelius (and I always found it interesting that Gladiator set its story in this period, and has Russell Crowe restore democracy at the end, as if to fantasize how great Rome would be if the history we know had simply ended after Trajan and we then got to go back to the republic … ), Rome’s true greatness begins and ends for me (and I suspect for you and most of your readers) with the Roman republic. In fact, I don’t think the problem with the U.S. today is that it resembles Rome at the end of the empire, but rather that it resembles Rome at the end of the republic.

Or, rather, not long before, with the rise of the Gracchi—the increasing economic inequality, the increasing political polarization, the total eclipse of “the greater good” by what we’d call “special interests,” the turn toward political violence, all of which led eventually to the spiral of destructive civil war, the collapse of democracy (such as it was), and the wholesale replacement of the system with the imperial dictatorship: Looks a lot like the present moment to me …


The real question: Where is America headed? Sure, you can talk about the growth of monasteries and universities in the Dark Ages as a wonderful thing, but (a) what we really mean by that is how wonderful it is that there were islands of light in what was otherwise a sea of darkness, (b) that darkness went on a long time, (c) what came out of it, which you/we now celebrate as the result, was essentially:

  • the rediscovery of the lost knowledge of Greece and Rome (not to mention the Islamic world) that kindled the Renaissance and Enlightenment;
  • the reemergence of something resembling “globalization”; and
  • the end of the horrific destructiveness of the Middle Ages—due largely to the institution of local fiefdoms that your piece celebrates as a sort of Brandeisian laboratory—thanks to their replacement by the modern nation-state and the European state system, which represented a recentralization of authority and stability, not a devolution.

What I actually find more interesting is what your piece says about where we’re headed, which is what I’ve been focusing on, lo! these many years.


Seeing the world through a distorted 20th-century lens. I think there’s a tendency—especially among people of your/my generation [JF note: For me, the dreaded Baby Boomers]—to see major change and progress coming in large-scale, centralized, and particularly federal efforts.

This is a warping effect that the civil-rights and Vietnam eras, with a dose of coming-right-after-the-FDR-era, has had on our understanding of U.S. history.

I’ve seen it in myself and like-minded peers who went into law to change the world and discovered, by the time we got out of law school, that the court system is reactionary and basically always has been that way, except for about six years; the idea that the Supreme Court is the great instrument for social advance that gets us around the parochial-ness of our politics has it exactly backwards.

This is symptomatic of a larger misperception: Yes, great changes come suddenly and on a grand scale—but to say that that’s “the change” is to misunderstand the chaotic nature of all systems.

Sand piles collapse all at once, scientific revolutions occur due to sudden “paradigm shifts,” civil-rights and Reagan revolutions and the rise of Trump/Brexitism burst on the scene—but these are long-term dynamics that may have large-scale effects but play out on the level of individual grains of sand.

There’s a great George Bernard Shaw line about the moment of success occurring long before the moment that it is apparent to the crowd; this is true of just about everything. Brown v. Board took 40 years of small litigation steps—not to mention dramatic changes throughout society, including the integration of the armed forces during and after WWII, just as the massive mobilizations of the peasantry in the Napoleonic Wars led eventually to the democratization of Europe. The big events are the capstones—they are always driven and made possible by small-scale, localized innovations that eventually flow together into what is by then an inevitable deluge.

Brown’s and Scheidel’s celebration of the breakup of the empire as allowing local innovations strikes me as wrong in the same sort of way: These local innovations are always occurring, because that’s where innovation occurs.

This is like the discussion I’m having these days with my 26-year-old niece, who wants to go overturn the entire capitalist and food-production systems to bring about the millennium; having once been 26, I get it, but I have to keep telling her that, with rare exceptions like the Russian Revolution, French Revolution, Taiping Kingdom, etc., you rarely get to upheave the entire system all at once—and when you do, it usually doesn’t turn out too well … In any event, my argument would really be that all of those were not sudden upheavals, any more than Trump’s election was; they were simply culminations of longer trends that started from smaller scale “innovations.”


The enlightening place to look is always local. If you want to know where the world is headed, you need to find the unknown lunatics toiling away in a lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey, or a patent office in Basel, or a garage in Menlo Park, California, or the mayor’s office in South Bend—not what the world leaders and experts are saying … I don’t know if finding what people are up to should be encouraging of optimism—I mean, some local innovation includes some bizarre people meeting in Munich beer halls who a decade later launch WWII—but it’s instructive

Local is where most people always choose to get involved: It’s not just the current dysfunctionality that channels most people into school-board meetings instead of seeking to draft new national legislation. Some small number of crazy people like you and me are drawn to the latter, but that’s a distinct minority, always has been, and always will be.

My work has brought me into contact with people all around the country who were thinking about productive little ideas about how to improve their neighborhoods, their kid’s school, their small business and how it affected their workers, etc. … My contribution has been largely in recognizing them and thinking, Hey, that would make a great basis for a “program” that my candidate could propose, scale up, and fund as governor!

I eventually concluded—as has anyone I know who has thought about government systems from the standpoint of achieving results instead of promoting one’s career—that what state and (ESPECIALLY) national governments do is simply to fund to-scale solutions someone else has discovered, tested, and proved at an “atomic” level …

The way to make a contribution is to go start a school that works, or a neighborhood organization that solves a problem …


Coming to a “point of rupture,” which sounds bad, but … And that takes us to where we’re actually headed as a result. You quote Morley Winograd talking about “networked localities” taking control of global policy. I think that’s sorta correct: In the Aztec language, there’s a phenomenon of two words being placed together to mean something both synergistic and different from the words separately; e.g., “the flower the song” meant “poetry,” and “the water the fire” meant “conquest” or “destruction.”

I think you need to look at your/Winograd’s phrase networked localities in the same way: It’s not just, or even, about the devolution to localities—the “networked” part is essential, and changes the meaning.

Your own work focuses very much on local action and innovation; I’ve been arguing that the virtual world fundamentally changes all of this: It undermines territorial structures like nation-states and the new world order—in that way, Brexit, Scottish devolution, California and even cities going their own way on the Paris accords, cities globally becoming the players rather than nation-states, etc., are all foreseeable developments …

I think we will start developing worldwide “communities” that are not physically connected, but rather are “localized” in the sense of being nodes of innovation or communication or consumption or whatever in a non-physically-contiguous/nonphysical network …

And that’s ultimately what the post-empire question is about. The entire system of civilization as we know it—not simply “the American empire”—is coming to a point of rupture. There may very well be a largely recognizable U.S. at the end of it (although I doubt it), but that will be irrelevant, because the world in which that U.S. is embedded—its political structures, its economic structures, its entire intellectual framework, and its physical manifestations—will all have changed as radically as the 13th century is from today.

And all that massive change will happen massively more quickly than in the 13th century … I write and talk about stuff like this, and people think it sounds “awful” and scary. Where I perhaps share a bit of your optimism is that I don’t.

Sure, the entire world as we know it being wiped away sounds scary, but it’s not necessarily “awful.” If you told people in the 13th century about the world today—family, church, village, political overlord, entire basis of the economy, entire intellectual framework (“Evolution?” “Relativity?” “Quantum mechanics?”), all as you knew them completely gone—they’d think that 100 percent awful. But do you know a single person who would rather be living in the 13th century than today?

More from this series

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A portrait statue of Edward Gibbon, author of "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," in the Library of Congress in Washington
A portrait statue of Edward Gibbon, author of "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," in the Library of Congress in Washington Library of Congress

The new issue of the print magazine contains a story by me called “The End of the Roman Empire Wasn’t That Bad.”

The title (which, like most titles, I didn’t write) represented (like many titles) intentional overstatement-for-effect. But the point of the piece was to suggest that maybe Americans should shift the way they talked and thought about the Roman Empire as a metaphor for this country.

For as long as there has been an American republic, some Americans have worried about its impending Roman-style decline and fall. I said: What about the time after Rome fell? What could we learn by imagining ourselves in our version of the Dark Ages—with a failed system of central governance, and life going on at the duchy-by-duchy, monastery-by-monastery level, which for us would mean cities, states, and regions?

You can read the whole thing yourself—and it isn’t even very long. Readers have weighed in with a range of views.

In this first roundup, I’ll highlight only critical ones. You’ll see some common themes here, expressed with clarity and erudition that make it a privilege to reach this kind of readership—even when, as now, they’re giving me a hard time writing in to disagree. I’ll have a brief response at the end.

Let’s begin:

  1. Not “transition” but “collapse.” From a reader in an academic post:

Oh my, you dove into a nasty controversy here. While scholars like Peter Brown and Walter Goffart make an  interesting case about “transition,” people like Bryan Ward-Perkins have made what I think is a more compelling case about “collapse of civilization.”

A few things to keep in mind—and on these no one debates:

  • Population fell. That is a vaguely neutral sounding term, but that is shorthand for murder, rape, starvation, and disease.
  • Literacy diminished dramatically or was largely lost.
  • Material possessions diminished in quality and quantity. People were poorer.

I know you are on a pitch about the renewal of our country at the local level. I think that is wishful thinking, but whatever. But the Roman example is a doleful one. Yes, some institutions thrived, but people didn’t. They became poorer, less secure, and less literate.

Seeing the Fall/Transition of the Roman empire as anything other than a human catastrophe is an interesting academic exercise, but let’s keep it at that.


  1. “The roofs have rushed to earth, towers in ruins.”  From another reader, who in his day job is a successful software designer. (This is Mark Bernstein, of Eastgate, designer of the program Tinderbox and long-ago guest blogger on this site, when “guest blogging” was a thing.)

The indispensable book on the end of Rome in the West is Bryan Ward-Perkins, The Fall Of Rome and the End of Civilization.  It’s a very short book, it’s important, and it’s fun to read.

One key observation: in the 4th century, an impoverished Italian shepherd ate his dinner on imported tableware, drank imported wine and seasoned his salad with imported oil. He covered his roof (and maybe his manger’s roof as well) in mass-produced roof tiles. In the 6th century, the proudest possessions of kings were fancy safety pins, and their palaces were wooden halls with thatched roofs. In the years of the Empire, Rome imported so much olive oil that the 53 million decommissioned amphorae now form the hill of Monte Testaccio. In the eighth, kings made do with whatever the local brewers could manage, and poured for their guests from decorated beakers made next door.

In the fourth century, Romans built the Old St. Peters and repurposed the Lateran; it’s been through lots of rebuilding but the Roman building was about the modern size.  It’s big. In the sixth century, they built Santa Maria In Aracoeli—a small building, constructed on some of Rome’s prime real estate out of mismatched scraps and bits of junk. The junk was nicer than anything money could buy.  And they built S. Agnese fuori-le-mura, which is the size of a nice house.

A Pompeiian perfume-seller left us long brothel graffiti as a tribute to a lovely evening. Lots of poor people left us graffiti. Charlemagne never quite managed to learn to write.

To the best of my knowledge, we know too little about what happened to North Africa in this era. It wasn’t pretty. In the second century, North Africa was a real economic powerhouse and a huge food exporter. The irrigation system was wrecked in battles over tax cuts for wealthy estate-owners, and that was that. It was an ecological disaster that made the Western Empire unsupportable.


I’m not sure that the delocalization of governance in the West is an encouraging lesson, either. Yes, there were bright spots—Lindesfarne, Kells, Aachen, Kyev—but they were bright in contrast to the prevailing misery. Look at the opening of The Ruin (trans. Aaron Hostetter https://anglosaxonpoetry.camden.rutgers.edu/the-ruin/):

These wall-stones are wondrous—

calamities crumpled them, these city-sites crashed, the work of giants corrupted.

The roofs have rushed to earth, towers in ruins.

Wrætlic is þes wealstan, wyrde gebræcon;
burgstede burston, brosnað enta geweorc.
Hrofas sind gehrorene, hreorge torras,

Whoever wrote this knew more than we about what living in the 8th century was like, and he seems pretty certain that things had once been better than they were.


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Conservative Party leaders getting the news of their big defeat in yesterday's vote: from left, Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, and Jacob Rees-Mogg. What can Americans learn from the dissident faction that outmaneuvered them?
Conservative Party leaders getting the news of their big defeat in yesterday's vote: from left, Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, and Jacob Rees-Mogg. What can Americans learn from the dissident faction that outmaneuvered them? Jessica Taylor via U.K. Parliament via Reuters

After the riveting debate in Parliament yesterday about the terms and timing for Brexit, 21 Tory “rebel” MPs defected from the Conservative party on a major vote. They joined members of other parties in dealing a crushing defeat to Boris Johnson’s plans and probably his governing prospects.

After the vote, I opined on Twitter that the 21 Tories, who included several revered party elders, set an example in political courage for U.S. politicians. The 21 knew very well that they would pay a price. Johnson’s party-leadership team made clear before the vote that it would “remove the whip” from MPs who defied them, which meant that dissidents would be kicked out of the party, and in the next election they would be “delisted” as candidates to retain their seats. For most, this would seriously dampen their political prospects.

By contrast, American politicians can seem paralyzed by the mere threat of being “primaried,” or of losing a funding source, or of becoming the object of Donald Trump’s angry tweets. Therefore I wondered, in my short item, why can’t we be more like the Brits? More specifically, why can’t members of our governing party, the 53 Republicans who control the Senate, stand up to their party’s leader the way these Tories stood up to Boris Johnson?

A reader in the U.S. writes in to say, Wait a minute. Here is his case:

While I admire the courage of the 21 Tory Members of Parliament who
voted against Boris Johnson’s government, and I wish that Republican
Members of Congress, would stand up to President Trump, I don’t think the comparison is necessarily a good one.

The actions of Boris Johnson’s government have forced a clear and
immediate choice on the Tory Members in a way that we haven’t seen in the US under the Trump administration.

Since the referendum in the UK, Parliament has been unable to move one way or the other on Brexit. This isn’t so different from what is
happening in our Congress.

Boris Johnson’s latest move forces a decision with immediate
consequences: (1) a no-deal Brexit could have a severe impact on the
lives of the majority of the people in Britain, including supporters
of the Tory party and (2) prorogation of Parliament at this critical
time is a direct threat to the power of the legislature in British
politics. We can’t read the minds of the rebel Torys, but avoiding
being tied to a no-deal Brexit and being a member of a Parliament with
diminished powers could be seen as self interest.


As much as I am horrified by almost everything the Trump
administration is doing, nothing yet has come close to this in
bringing an immediate and visible threat to a significant majority of
Americans (or Republicans) and directly challenging the power of
congress.

Many things Trump has done will have severe consequences, but it seems that much of this is still invisible to most Americans. If
Trump’s administration has been talented at anything, perhaps it’s
been in avoiding anything with the immediate and widespread impact of a no-deal Brexit.

Republican legislators have not faced anything like prorogation or a
no-deal Brexit. I have no confidence that they would show similar
courage, but we can’t say for sure.

Perhaps the closest thing to prorogation of Parliament that happened
is the refusal to vote on Merrick Garland’s nomination. That wasn’t
Trump, and unfortunately, John Bercow wasn’t there to help us.

John Bercow is, of course, the gloriously histrionic speaker of the House of Commons, a role that—especially as played by him—has vastly more minute-by-minute influence over the conduct of parliamentary debates than its U.S. legislative counterparts. If you haven’t seen Bercow in action, you will quickly get an idea with this YouTube sample from yesterday’s proceedings, when Boris Johnson’s allies challenged Bercow’s judgment on an important ruling.

As for the reader’s comment that changes of the Trump era remain “invisible,” clearly he is not minimizing what they have meant. Detention camps along the border; farmers and manufacturers coping with tariffs; wilderness land opened for drilling; a president touting his own resort as a site for the next G7 conference—a lot of what has happened is all too grossly visible.

Instead, I think the reader’s point worth noting is that, for a variety of reasons, many people in the U.S. have managed to overlook or excuse away the daily toll. (To give just one example, the former “deficit hawk” Republicans, such as White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, who have gone mute as the tax-cut-driven deficit soars.) By contrast, politicians in Britain believed they faced a right-now, up-or-down, do-or-die choice about the nation’s future, which called for people to line up and be counted that day.

The U.S., too, will face such a choice, no later than November 3, 2020.

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A country road with "Good Health" written on it in block letters
Gustavo Frazao via Shutterstock

Of the many challenges for America’s rural communities, near the top of the list is access to health care. Rural clinics and hospitals are closing across the nation. When they close, it’s hard for younger families, and older residents, to stay in town—and harder to attract new businesses, or attract replacements for the doctors, nurses, and other health-care workers who may be retiring from their practices or just leaving town.

Previously we’ve reported on the realities of smaller-town and rural health care in Brownsville, Texas, and Ajo, Arizona. This is a report from the smallest city we have visited in our travels, in spectacularly beautiful though remote far Down East Maine.


Today’s health care in Eastport, Maine, traces its roots back to Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty and the establishment of the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO). In this, it is like a large number of other small communities across the country. Just as today’s libraries bear the century-old imprint of Andrew Carnegie, and many of today’s post offices and other public buildings are legacies of construction and mural-painting efforts launched during the Great Depression by Franklin D. Roosevelt, today’s remaining rural clinics are, in many cases, the effects of an initiative launched 50 years ago. Along with other OEO initiatives, such as Job Corps, VISTA, and Head Start, that remain to this day, this rural-health initiative has shaped the primary health care in poor or underserved areas long since it was started.

Back in the 1960s, enter a young medical doctor and civil-rights activist with a vision. This was H. Jack Geiger, who had spent time in South Africa during medical school and had seen the positive impact that the community health-care model had in the very poor area of Pholela. Later, back in the United States, he spent time in the Mississippi Delta for the Freedom Summer project of 1964 as field coordinator for the Medical Committee for Human Rights.

When he returned to Boston, Geiger connected his observations in South Africa and the Mississippi Delta. Along with a colleague, Count Gibson, Geiger proposed to the OEO to try out what he had learned by starting two experimental, community-based health-care programs, one in Boston’s Columbia Point housing project and the other in the Mississippi Delta. Eventually, these became models for the roughly 1,400 Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHC) that serve more than 28 million people around the U.S. today.

During our travels for American Futures and Our Towns reporting, my husband, Jim, and I visited two examples of these community-based health centers: Desert Senita Community Health Center in Ajo, Arizona, and the Rowland B. French Medical Center in Eastport, Maine.

Their FQHC designation is a godsend for rural health-care centers. It ensures that the centers will receive, among other things, enhanced reimbursements for patients covered by Medicaid and Medicare, and will offer a sliding scale for those without any coverage. It promises federal malpractice-insurance coverage for providers, extra partnerships for the centers, and more specialist care. Each center is unique in its profile, depending on the community’s needs. For example, the Rowland B. French Medical Center has providers for behavioral health counseling, podiatry, radiology, nephrology, and social support. Desert Senita has a regularly visiting cardiologist and ophthalmologist, a certified Spanish translator, and a special phone line with third-party translators for multiple languages.

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The editorial and business office of the Quoddy Tides newspaper, in downtown Eastport, Maine
The editorial and business office of the Quoddy Tides newspaper, in downtown Eastport, Maine James Fallows

This is another road report on the state of local journalism, which is more and more important, and more and more imperiled.

It is important because so much of the future of American economic, cultural, and civic life is now being devised and determined at the local or state level. Educational innovation, promotion of new industries and creation of fairer opportunities, absorption of new arrivals (in growing communities) and retaining existing talent (in shrinking ones), reform of policing and prison practices, equitable housing and transportation policies, offsets to addiction and homelessness and other widespread problems, environmental sustainability—these and just about every other issue you can think of are the subjects of countless simultaneous experiments going on across the country. Voters, residents, and taxpayers need to know what is happening (or not), and what is working (or not), in their school systems, and their city councils, and their state capitals.

It is imperiled for obvious reasons. What has happened to media revenues in general has happened worst, fastest, and hardest to local publications, newspapers most of all.

This is part of the reason Deb Fallows and I have been reporting on local-journalism innovations (and successes) we’ve seen, such as the Report for America initiative I mentioned in June, and the business model behind the last family-owned daily in Mississippi, The Commercial Dispatch in Columbus (and, long before that, the former alt-weekly that has become a leading statewide news source in Vermont, Seven Days, of Burlington).

No one of these models or examples will necessarily apply in other places or circumstances. But any illustration of success is worth noticing, for tips.


This brings us to The Quoddy Tides, the twice-monthly, family-owned and -run newspaper that has a print circulation several times larger than the population of the city where it is based.

The home city is Eastport, Maine, whose library Deb wrote about recently, and which we described in our book, Our Towns. In its heyday as a sardine-canning capital, Eastport had a population of more than 5,000. Now the canneries are gone, and the year-round population is about 1,300, and nearly everyone in town holds a combination of jobs—lobster fishing, seasonal tourist businesses, work at the commercial port or in forestry, small crafts or art studios—to make ends meet. But in this setting, The Quoddy Tides has a paid print circulation of just less than 5,000, and now has more than 50 years of continuous operation. Its editorial and business office is in a white clapboard structure that at various times was a fishing-company office and then a Christian Science church, along the bay front in Eastport’s small but architecturally distinguished downtown. It is run on a shoestring, but it has some 20 contributors and correspondents in the region, and it is full of both articles and ads, and it matters in its community.

Eastport’s downtown, from its pier. The Quoddy Tides office is the small white building to the right. (James Fallows)

Part of The QT’s circulation secret is similar to that of Seven Days, in Vermont: It is aimed at an audience, and market, beyond its immediate hometown base. In addition to news of Eastport, The QT covers that of other down-east Maine towns such as Lubec, Machias, and Calais (pronounced like callous), and adjoining maritime islands and towns in the Canadian province of New Brunswick. It also has a substantial mail circulation, reaching subscribers in 49 states who are originally from the area, or have visited, or feel some interest or connection to it. (South Dakota is the outlier. People of Sioux Falls and Rapid City, c’mon!)

Also, like The Commercial Dispatch in Mississippi, the paper’s family ownership means that it can spend its modest resources as it chooses. It is not under external-ownership pressure to meet regular profitability targets, which has sent so many small papers into cycles of cutback and decline.

But when I spoke with the husband-and-wife couple who run the paper, Edward French and Lora Whelan, they emphasized that it was the kind of journalism they provide that has allowed them to survive.


The Quoddy Tides—named for the Passamaquoddy Bay on which Eastport sits, which feeds into the Bay of Fundy—was founded by Edward’s mother, Winifred, in 1968. She and her husband, Rowland, a doctor, had moved to Eastport from Arizona in the early 1950s, and stayed there to raise their family. (“My mother was looking for someplace not quite as hot,” Edward told me in The QT’s office earlier this month. “Coastal Maine qualified.”) Rowland became a leading local doctor, with a clinic now named in his honor. One of Edward’s brothers, Hugh, also lives now in Eastport, where with his wife, Kristin McKinlay, he runs a museum and arts organization called the Tides Institute.

In the late 1960s, as the family’s children were growing, Winifred decided that the community needed a newspaper. A previous one, from the town’s sardine-canning days, had gone out of business in the 1950s. “She had no newspaper experience,” Lora said of her mother-in-law. “But she thought these communities really needed a voice. So she talked to other small newspapers and had correspondence with people all around the country about how she should set this up.” After a year of research, she launched the paper in 1968.

Lora Whelan at work (Courtesy of Lora Whelan)

Edward, then elementary-school age, grew up helping address papers for mail subscribers, and with the page layout. In those days, a fishing boat took article text across the water to a layout shop in Deer Island, Canada, and then another boat would carry the pasted-up pages back to the U.S. for printing.

Edward French at the Quoddy Tides office (Leslie Bowman / the Working Waterfront)

Then and now, the striking characteristic of the paper is its density of local news. The most recent issue, when we visited, was 40 pages long, with many dozens of purely local, information-packed news stories.

For instance, the front page (at right) had five local stories: about the Passamaquoddy Tribal Council’s effort to defend water rights; about limits on sea-urchin fishing (a quickly growing market, mainly for export to Asia); about the impact of new tax preferences, for land conservation, on local tax revenues; a crime story; and one about an academic-freedom dispute at the local Maritime College of Forest Technology. Plus, a picture of a kayaker viewing a Minke whale—of which we saw large numbers in the bay.

The Quoddy Tides’ front page of the August 9, 2019, edition (James Fallows)

In the rest of the paper you have: high-school sports. Commercial shipping schedules and tide tables. Gardening and cooking tips. Religious news. Birth and death notices. Puzzles. Local city-council roundups. A long editorial and letters-to-editors section. Everything.

“I think it’s important for newspapers not to keep cutting,” Edward told me at The QT’s office. “If you keep cutting, there’s less and less reason for people to buy the paper. If you want to keep a healthy circulation, you have to make the investment in reporters and providing the news that people can’t find anywhere else.” If there is a “secret” of the paper’s success, he said, it is “that you’re providing information that people can’t find any other place.”

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Donald Trump
Carlos Barria / Reuters

Whatever is wrong with Donald Trump is getting worse. A week ago, it seemed noteworthy that he was canceling a long-planned state visit because an allied government didn’t want to let him “buy Greenland.”

Now: proposals to stop hurricanes with nuclear bombs; turning a G-7 news conference into a late-night cable infomercial for Trump’s own badly struggling golf resort;  “imaginary-friend” discussions with Chinese leaders that the Chinese say never occurred; orders that his officials “build the wall!” with a promise to pardon them for any laws they break in the process; and general megalomania and craziness.

Last week I argued (in “If Trump Were an Airline Pilot”) that if Trump occupied any other important position in public life, responsible figures would already have removed him from the controls. In this case the “responsible figures” are the Vichy Republicans who control the U.S. Senate, which is why nothing has happened to rein Trump in. Not one of these senators will stand up to Trump, even as he is melting down.

A few days ago, readers with military, corporate, and other backgrounds responded to the proposition that a person like Trump would already have been screened out by corporate, military, medical, or other professional systems. Here’s another round in response to that.


CEOs are worse than you think: In the previous post I quoted a reader who said that a man like Trump was par for the course in big public corporations. (“Many American CEOs are as incompetent as Trump.”) I said, in response, that it would be good to have a few more examples—apart, say, from Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos, who was able to con much of the financial and scientific world for a long time.

This reader wrote back to say: You want examples? I’ve got examples! Here is an abridged version of his reply:

I read your challenge regarding examples of CEOs who have destroyed the company and were not fired by the board for whatever reason in the face of incompetence. First, of course, scholarship:

1. Book that discusses this very same phenomenon, as CEOs are chosen for their 'charisma' vs. experience and competence. Searching for a Corporate Savior, The Irrational Quest for Charismatic CEOs  (Rakesh Khurana, Princeton, 2002). In this book there is a discussion about the parameters that boards tend to use for choosing CEOs in the US. I think you'll find some of your examples there.

2. Examples of incompetent CEOs who destroyed or helped destroy their companies after being put on the job. Don't take my word for it, try this list of “15 Worst CEOs in American History.” The criteria of the list:

“Those selected for the list fall into one of two simple categories - those who ruined the companies completely while they served as sitting CEOs and those who did severe damage from which their firms could never possibly recover.”...

3. Want more current examples. Sure: Take a look at “Worst CEOs of 2018.” ...


We can talk about incompetence in another sense: Are they building a company that works for the world at large, or are they building a company to feed their egos?

You may say, it doesn't matter if they do, what matters is the result. However, I think you'll find that, if we begin to discuss the ethics of owning and managing a business, you quickly get to the 'responsibility' moment, where your responsibility is to your employees, your environment, your country, and your shareholders. In that order.

The idea that shareholders must always come first has always been ridiculous and only a small mind and small heart could accept that (cue the usual Republican assessments - take your examples from people like Mitch McConnell, a man who does not understand what made the US great and only cares about getting what he wants or what he thinks he wanted when he was 30 years younger.) Take your example as Bezos. Once you have made more money than God, what's the point of not paying your employees a living wage?...

Hope you are not counting on the genius of American Business leadership to save the country from its own present course.

To reassure the reader on the final point, I’m not looking for a CEO savior. (The main theme of the recent work that I’ve been doing with my wife, Deb Fallows, is that communities need to be their own saviors.) My point was simply: Corporate oversight, however flawed, has seemed to be more effective than what we’re getting at the moment out of the U.S. Senate.

Which leads me to …


Actually, CEOs are way better than you think! A reader whom I’ve known for a long time, and whose work involves corporate governance and CEO-search processes, agrees with the original point, and disagrees with the reader above.

My friend writes:

I’d like to offer a response to the response you received [from the reader quoted above] regarding CEO’s of public companies and the Board’s judgement on their fitness to serve (“The board at a public company would have replaced him outright or arranged a discreet shift out of power.”)...

The responder’s comments are contrary to my personal experience.  For more two decades I was a Senior Partner and the Co-Leader of the [particular business area] Practice at one of the top four international retained executive search firms. My search practice was exclusively focused on C-level executive positions, not infrequently searches for CEO replacement.  In a majority of my executive searches, my client was the Board of Directors.

While the typical CEO search engagement was initiated to replace the planned retirement, often a year or more in advance, I can think of at least half a dozen searches to replace CEOs whose behavior was not only harmful to the business interests of the enterprise, but also offensive to the values of the company.

These were cases of Trump-like behavior.  This could be a painful process for the Board, particularly when the CEO was also a Founder who had overseen the selection of Board Directors over the course of many years.

I can think of four examples of CEO behavior so egregious that the Board recognized its fiduciary duty to shareholders to dismiss and the replace the CEO.  While I won’t name the companies involved, I will say that all were Fortune 100 corporations, two investor-owned systems, a specialty manufacturer, and one of the largest [insurance-related firms].  These executive searches were conducted in strictest confidence, and only the Board was aware that the CEO was to be replaced.  In contrast to your respondent’s characterization of “the medieval level at which corporate management is done,” it was clear to me and my Search Firm that in these instances the Boards acted firmly, ethically, and in the interest not only of shareholders but also of the corporation’s management and employees.


I will acknowledge that there has been a growing tendency for CEOs to recruit compliant Board Directors and undermine their independence, but I will also observe that based on many years’ experience working very closely with many of the most senior healthcare executives that the best CEOs seek strong and independent Directors on their corporate Boards.  The best CEOs of the most successful large public companies use their Directors as an extension and enhancement of management talent, and they defer to their Directors when making certain critical decisions regarding the values of the enterprise and its strategic direction.

Again, in my experience, an effective Board would not long tolerate capricious leadership, and certainly would not hesitate to act to dismiss a CEO whose personal behavior violated ethical standards, even if the enterprise was doing well.

One final note: your respondent asserts, “Many American CEOs are as incompetent as Trump.”  I demur.  With the exception of the occasional Elizabeth Holmes (Theranos), Ken Lay (Enron), or Rick Scott (Columbia HCA) – essentially Founders as well as CEOs – my personal experience and close acquaintance with a fair number of top tier executives and Board Directors is that it takes exceptional intelligence, leadership talent, and steady judgement to lead an organization as complex as a Fortune 100 corporation.  

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The Peavey Memorial Library in Eastport, Maine
The Peavey Memorial Library in Eastport, Maine Courtesy of the Tides Institute & Museum of Art

Andrew Carnegie was the force of Gilded Age philanthropy behind the building of public libraries. Along with other recognizable names who made their fortune in the late 1800s and early 1900s—Rockefeller, Ford, Mellon, Morgan, Stanford, Harriman, Heinz—Carnegie’s influence endures today largely because of the way he gave away the vast fortune he amassed.

For about 35 years beginning in 1883, Carnegie donated money from his steelmaking empire (which became U.S. Steel) to build nearly 1,700 libraries around the country and another 800 around other parts of the world. He was careful about his “formula” for agreeing to construct the commanding, elegant buildings, a formula whose elements remain fundamental in the basic operations and democratic spirit of public libraries today. The libraries were required, among other things, to support staff and maintenance, to gather at least some of their funding from public sources, and to be open and free to the public to use.

It has been stunning to see the physical and spiritual legacy of Carnegie libraries—large and small—as we have visited more than 50 towns around the country for our Our Towns reporting project. It has been inspiring to bear witness to how libraries have evolved from the simple idea of serving the wants and needs of the public to becoming crucial, essential public institutions of communities in this modern era.

Around the turn of the 20th century in Columbus, Ohio, an audacious city librarian named John Pugh hopped the train for New York to knock on Carnegie’s door, and—appealing to their shared Celtic background— charmed Carnegie into donating $200,000 for the construction of the imposing granite and marble main library in downtown Columbus. Today the building has been newly renovated and expanded, retaining its original main building and entry, where the words OPEN TO ALL are carved in granite over the door. From the library’s main reading room, you can look out the two-story glass windows onto the seven acres of topiary park with more than 200 different types of trees.

The Carnegie Center for the Arts in Dodge City, Kansas (Courtesy of the Carnegie Center for the Arts)

In Dodge City, Kansas, a small but distinguished group of residents, inspired by the town’s women’s club, appealed to Carnegie in 1905 for support to build their public library, as he had previously done for five other towns in Kansas. He gave them $7,500, and they agreed to ante 10 percent of that sum annually to maintain it. The town’s population grew and eventually outgrew the small library. Today it is home to the Carnegie Center for the Arts.

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