Reporter's Notebook

Bob Garfield
Courtesy of Bob Garfield

From an author’s point of view, the most important quality of any book is its done-ness. Once you accept that a book is as good as it is going to be, and as finished as you can stand to make it, the miasma lifts and you can move on—to the next writing project!

From a reader’s point of view, the most important qualities of a certain kind of non-fiction book are brevity, specificity, and humor. I’m talking about “theme”or “argument” books that address a current issue—as opposed to, say, biographies, which can be at their best when long and meandering, or narratives or histories, which are designed to immerse you in the details of another time and place.

When the purpose of a book is to advance a new or different way of thinking about a topic, it should be: as short as possible (so the reader gets the point efficiently); as specific as possible (so the reader can test the argument, and perhaps change future ideas or behavior); and as droll as possible (because, obviously).

American Manifesto: Saving Democracy from Villains, Vandals, and Ourselves, a new book by Bob Garfield, passes these tests. It is short, specific, and droll. It is very much worth reading, for ideas about the next stage in the world’s recovery from failed, weak, and in other ways troubled media systems.

Garfield is known to most of the world as co-host, with Brooke Gladstone, of the public radio show On the Media, from WNYC in New York. I’ve known him in that way, from listening to the show regularly and being an occasional guest on it. But I’ve also followed Garfield’s work through the years on the topic of this book—actual programs and systems to improve the media, both financially and substantively. In American Manifesto he pulls together many of the themes he has developed. The result is something that’s neither, on one extreme, a detailed, step-by-step “white paper”-style report on media improvement—nor, on the other, just an op-ed-scale lament.

Instead it’s part diagnosis, part prescription. As he puts it in the early pages, in a passage that gives an idea of his writing tone:

This book is a cry for help in three parts. The dry way of describing it: “An examination of the tragic confluence of the American preoccupation with identity and the catastrophic disintegration of mass media, yielding a society that may be irretrievably fractured, unless we act now.” A less dry way of putting it: “Run for your life. We’re being Dumptied.” As in Humpty, the self-satisfied jumbo egg that once sat atop a big, beautiful wall and wound up in countless irreparable pieces.

Take note: I am not speaking of Trumpty Dumpty. The greatest threat we face is not from a rogue president, but from ourselves.

The three parts that follow are about, first, social and political division; and second, the collapsing economics of traditional media. (“Media have been ‘disrupted’ like the Hindenburg was ‘disrupted.’ A three-century-old mass-media model has been blown to smithereens, and the surviving journalistic fragments are not only too poor to adequately watchdog the government, but also algorithmically segregated from huge swaths of the electorate. O, the humanity.”) The concluding third section is a six-point action plan for individual, corporate, and political remedies.

For most people who have followed the future-of-media debate, the book’s greatest value will be in part three, the recommendations. I won’t give away all of Bob Garfield’s action plan. But I will say that one of its main public-policy proposals involves modernizing antitrust laws and enforcement, to catch up with the technological, financial, and social realities of this age.

The title of that chapter is “No, Really, Trust Busting.” The term “trust-busting” comes of course from the original Gilded Age era, when new and maturing technologies (railroads, automobiles, mass production, mass communication, industrialized agriculture) created new fortunes and new inequalities. The Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, the Teddy Roosevelt trust-busting efforts of the early 1900s, the rise of the labor movement, the state-by-state spread of reform laws—these were all responses. For democracy and civil society to survive after our Second Gilded Age, something comparable is necessary now. So Bob Garfield argues, and so I agree.

(By the way, one of the best political speeches I’ve heard on this topic was by a U.S. senator, back in 2016. You can read about the event where the senator spoke, which I happen to have attended, here, and get a PDF of the speech text here. Spoiler: The senator was Elizabeth Warren, and the speech was given long before she launched her presidential run. The event was titled “America’s Monopoly Problem: What Should the Next President Do About It?” It took place when most of the political world assumed that the “Next President” in question would be Hillary Clinton, because of her then-enormous lead over Donald Trump in the polls.)

I was glad to have read American Manifesto, and I think most media- or politics-minded people will be too. Congratulations to Bob Garfield on its done-ness, and good news for the rest of us in its brevity, specificity, and wit.

All notes on "Washington, District of ..." >
A "fly-brary," courtesy of the Deschutes Public Library, at the Redmond, Oregon, airport
A "fly-brary," courtesy of the Deschutes Public Library, at the Redmond, Oregon, airport Courtesy of Deborah Fallows

Continuing the photo essay about public libraries, which showed many examples of children’s rooms and adult spaces, this collection shows some of the multitude of activities happening at public libraries. It also includes some of the kinds of collections besides books, and some of the public places where books are available to borrow besides at traditional libraries.

Makerspaces are becoming popular in libraries around the country. Some are sophisticated, others modest. Makerspaces harken back to Benjamin Franklin’s early days in the Philadelphia subscription library, where he conducted some of his early experiments in electricity. Ben Franklin was the founder, in a way, of modern makerspaces in libraries.

Makerspace in the Brownsville Public LIbrary

The southmost public library near the Rio Grande in Brownsville, Texas, has an observatory that is used occasionally. The library also hosts movie-and-popcorn events for children who are incarcerated in detention centers alone after having crossed the border from Mexico to Texas.

Outside the Southmost library in Brownsville, Texas

The modest makerspace inside the Dodge City, Kansas, library. It was put together by a young librarian who grew up across the street from the library. He has gathered mostly people’s cast off items, like sewing machines and audio recording equipment.

The door to the small makerspace in the Dodge City Library

Learning the ropes in the maker space at the Washington, D.C., Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. The library is currently under renovation.

The makerspace at the old MLK Jr. public library in Washington, D.C.

Kids’ activities are held after a summer science program in the Dodge City, Kansas, library. The library invited a traveling program from Wichita. Middle schoolers helped herd the littler kids around the “challenges” after the program. There were hundreds of people participating.

Summer kids’ program in the Dodge City library

Here’s an entry from an art competition at the Greenville, South Carolina, public library. This was sponsored by the local Michelin company, and the requirement was to use old tires in the creation.

An art contest entry made of tires at the Greenville public library

Attention Walmart shoppers: This building is now home to the McAllen, Texas, public library. The internal space is vast, enough for exhibitions and receptions. The external space boasts plenty of parking and room for concerts, catered by local food trucks.

The entrance to the McAllen public library, with food trucks and concert set-up

Libraries catalog much more than books. When some people are looking for somewhere to donate their treasures, or others can’t bear to simply trash their memorabilia, they think of the library. At the A.K. Smiley Public Library in Redlands, California, archivist Nathan Gonzalez addresses some of the vast holdings donated by residents of Redlands. The town is in the process of building the first Museum of Redlands, populated largely from the outgrown archives of the library, and which the library will oversee. The library already oversees the Lincoln Shrine, an entire building of a nationally-renowned collection of Lincolniana, just across the lawn from the Smiley library.   

All notes on "Washington, District of ..." >
The topiary garden at the Columbus, Ohio, public library
The topiary garden at the Columbus, Ohio, public library Courtesy of Deborah Fallows

Since Jim Fallows and I began traveling the country for American Futures and Our Towns nearly seven years ago, there has been one beat that began as a surprise to me and grew into the most heartening story I’ve witnessed of American resilience. That is the story of public libraries and how they have responded to the challenges facing American towns.

If you haven’t been in a public library lately, you probably wouldn’t recognize where you were if you entered one tomorrow. This is no longer, as I wrote early on, your mother’s library. The books are still there; the readers are still there; the librarians are still there. But sharing the same space are children busy with all kinds of active—and sometimes noisy—programs, inventors in maker-spaces, historians and amateurs researching genealogy, job-seekers scouring the internet, homeless people settling in quietly for the day, women and a few men heading to the yoga space, others watching movies, young entrepreneurs grabbing lattes, people considering the art exhibits, librarians helping others research a medical issue or housing issue or how to earn a GED, tutors helping school kids with math, people checking out hiking backpacks, fishing poles, wireless hotspots, snow shovels, and seeds for vegetable gardens.

And in their offices are the librarians and staff figuring out how to fill all these wants and needs of their communities and to anticipate what can possibly be coming to their town next, like a hurricane or, God forbid, a shooting. I saw many backroom views of libraries, from the depths of their groaning archives to their automated transport and delivery systems of books among libraries. I also ran into many pop-up versions of libraries in odd places from front yards to public parks to the middle of a lake.

After telling so many of their stories one by one, I wanted to show you what some of the libraries look like. These are my amateur photos of some of the libraries I’ve seen around the U.S., and even a few others I’ve visited around the world.

The libraries were in cities as small as Eastport, Maine, population 1,300, and as big as Columbus, Ohio, population 890,000. Most cities were in between in size, largely ranging from 10,000 to 65,000.  I also visited public libraries in Shanghai, population 24 million, and across Australia.

Here are some images that stay in my mind about libraries. This first of two collections features the children’s areas and the adult spaces. Coming up next will be what’s in the library beyond books, and alternative public libraries.

The first photo here is inside the Peavey Memorial Library in Eastport, Maine.

The children’s area of Eastport Maine’s Peavey Memorial Library

Children’s rooms: Whenever I asked directors or librarians about the most important efforts in their libraries, or their top dreams and aspirations yet to come, they invariably answered some version of: “It’s the children; it’s all about the children.” And they homed in on reading readiness or school readiness or child development, particularly for the kids who need it most. Attracting children, and their parents, into libraries is a prime mission.

Brownsville, Texas, built a wonderland of a children’s room and have newly gone all out into the ultra-modern space for teenagers.

The children’s space in the Brownsville Public Library

The Space14s (get it?) in the Brownsville Public Library

A former Walmart has been transformed into the new and spacious McAllen Texas public library:

The children’s space in the McAllen public library

In my hometown of Vermilion, Ohio, on the shore of Lake Erie, the children’s area is built on the nautical themes familiar to the kids who grow up there. (I spent many a summer day in this library, but it didn’t look like this.)

The children’s area of the Ritter Public Library in Vermilion, Ohio

The San Bernardino Public Library’s central location has poured precious resources into the children’s room, hoping to attract many parents as well through their children and the offerings there. The collaborative mural featured world-renowned artist Phil Yeh.

The children’s section in the Norman F. Feldheym Central Library in San Bernardino

The Hughes Main Library in Greenville South Carolina:

The children’s room in the Greenville public library in South Carolina

The Demopolis, Alabama, public library was formerly home to a furniture store and warehouse. The children’s area is part of its pride and joy.

The children’s room of the Demopolis Public Library

The Deschutes Public Library in Bend, Oregon, changes the look of their children’s space from time to time. This one was all about superheroes.

The children’s area in the Deschutes Public Library

The small Highland Park Texas Harvey R. “Bum” Bright Library  has a very cozy children’s room and a librarian who always directs children to the right books.

A happy child in the Highland Park public library

The Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library, a branch of the New York Public Library in the Flatiron district, has a children’s braille collection.

The children’s shelf of braille books in New York City

Adult Spaces: The adult spaces in public libraries show an entirely different and often contrasting side of a public library. They range from extraordinarily elegant to cozy and welcoming, to dramatic, to waiting for that upgrade. Here is a sampling:

The mezzanine level of the public library in Demopolis, Alabama, in the former furniture store and warehouse, overlooks the California-craftsman style main reading room. Bill and Melinda Gates visited some 20 years ago as a kick-off to their philanthropic donations of computers to public libraries.

Overlooking the main reading room in the Demopolis, Alabama, public library

Inside the Linn-Henley Research Library of the Birmingham Alabama’s Central Library, the walls are painted with murals by Ezra Winter. They are some of the historic showpieces of the Birmingham library.

Inside the Linn-Henley Research Library in Birmingham

The State Library of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia:

The spectacular reading room in the Melbourne public library

The reading room in the New South Wales public library in Sydney, Australia:

Inside the public library in Sydney

The reading room in Raymond M. Blasco MD Memorial Library, in Erie, Pennsylvania, overlooks the waterfront where the Tall Ships dock.

A public-library reading room in Erie, Pennsylvania

The McAllen Public Library in McAllen, Texas, has moved into the building of a former Walmart. The space for books is vast.

Inside the McAllen Public Library

The Brownsville, Texas, public library creates much of their own artwork. These are the end panels on the shelves in the reading area.

Endpanels in the Brownsville Public Library reading area

Overlooking the atrium in the stately Shanghai Public Library, where I watched hundreds of people working on laptops and drinking tea, in the foreign-periodicals section:

Inside the Shanghai Public Library in China

The small Elk Rapids District Library in Michigan provides a room with a view for its readers.

Rock and read in the Elk Rapids public library

All notes on "Washington, District of ..." >
Main campus of Sinclair Community College, in downtown Dayton, Ohio
Main campus of Sinclair Community College, in downtown Dayton, Ohio Courtesy of Sinclair Community College

Let’s take another look at Dayton, Ohio. For context, here is a report on how the city has dealt with the loss of major industries over the decades, and with the mass shootings in its nightlife-and-cultural Oregon District this past summer. And here is a report on how the University of Dayton—a private, Catholic, research university located a few miles from downtown—is reconceiving its mission to emphasize revival of the community as a whole.

Today’s subject is another major part of the local higher-ed equation, Sinclair Community College. Sinclair is very large as community colleges go, with an enrollment of about 28,000 students per year in college-credit courses, and another 12,000 in other programs.

It also has a very long history. It was founded in the late 1880s, growing from vocational-training programs that a young Scottish immigrant named David Sinclair had established at the local YMCA. The main clientele was factory workers, many of them immigrants, who were pouring into this part of Ohio (as with other midwestern cities) during its industrial-age boom. The original Sinclair’s ambition was to provide specific technical training and general “Americanization” courses in civics and language.

“Many community colleges around the country are celebrating their 50th or 60th anniversaries now, because they were part of the big post-World War II educational expansion,” Steven L. Johnson, who has been president of Sinclair since 2003, told me in Dayton last month. “We’re into our 133rd year.” He said that while some institutions might have predated what David Sinclair and his contemporaries set up in Dayton, today’s Sinclair Community College appears to have the longest history of continuous operation among all U.S. community colleges.

David Sinclair (center, in black suit), namesake of Sinclair Community College, in the late 1880s. (Courtesy of Sinclair Community College)

In dispatches from around the country, Deb Fallows and I have argued that community colleges are the indispensable part of this era’s U.S. educational establishment. We’ve seen and described this in Mississippi, and in rural post-tobacco Virginia, and across Michigan, and many places beyond. I still believe what I argued about community colleges earlier in this journey — namely, that while every branch of American education is always “important,” from preschool and K–12 to the most intense research universities, community colleges really are the crucial institutions of this economic and political moment. That is because:

  1. They’re local- or state-based, and thus far freer to experiment, adapt, and innovate than most federally run institutions are at this moment of paralyzed national politics.
  2. They’re more and more the institutions that feel responsible for matching people who need opportunities with the fastest-growing opportunities of this era. (For instance, in much of the country there have been more openings than candidates for relatively high-wage “skilled trade” jobs: from welding and construction, to engine and robotics maintenance, to many aspects of the ever-expanding health-care industry. Many community colleges emphasize preparing graduates for jobs that are in demand right now, while also developing skills and adaptable-learning techniques that will apply for whatever jobs emerge a decade from now.)
  3. Because they’re often dispersed across a state, with branches in smaller cities and rural areas, many of them have taken a lead in devising region-wide and rurally focused development plans. Most everyone knows that America outside the big cities faces its own set of challenges, from attracting new residents to creating new economic strongholds to dealing with physical and mental-health problems. The people working hardest toward solutions, at least among those I’ve met, are disproportionately at community colleges.

Sinclair students in a machine-tool workshop. (Courtesy of Sinclair Community College)

What makes Sinclair unusual and worth notice, apart from its long history? I was struck by three aspects.

  • First is the sheer scale of its impact on the community. According to Sinclair officials, at least half of all Dayton-area residents have taken classes there at some point.
  • Second is the way it is trying to broaden access to its programs—for groups ranging from high school students to people in correctional institutions.
  • Third is its integration and cooperation with other parts of the region’s educational and economic structure. You don’t always see research universities and community colleges working together; in Dayton they appear to be doing so.

First, the scale. When I met Steven Johnson and Adam Murka, his chief of staff, on Sinclair’s campus, I asked about their claim that half of Dayton-area residents had taken classes there. How could this possibly be true?

“Let’s do the numbers,” Johnson said, all of which highlighted the fact that Sinclair is a large institution in a medium-sized town.

The city of Dayton itself has just under 150,000 people. Depending on how you count, the surrounding metro area totals somewhere between 700,000 and one million. Beyond the tens of thousands of students Sinclair enrolls each year, it employs about 3,000 people. Spurred in part by an Ohio program that encourages high-school students to take local college courses, nearly 8,000 Dayton-area high-school students take classes for credit at Sinclair before they graduate from high school. When the local economy goes down, as it did dramatically after the 2008 financial collapse, Sinclair’s enrollment goes up further still, and people who have lost jobs re-train in hopes of finding new ones.

Steven Johnson, president of Sinclair Community College since 2003 (Courtesy of Sinclair Community College)

“We know that if you add it up, every decade we’re educating about 125,000 different people in the area,” Johnson said. “Over time, it means that we’ve directly touched the lives of about half the people within an hour’s drive of here.”  

I asked Johnson and Murka if they knew of any other community college with proportionately as large a regional impact. “We wouldn’t know about all of them, but I’m not aware of any,” Murka said. Johnson, who has been an administrator at colleges in Arkansas, Texas, and Florida, said that in his experience, “this footprint is unique.”

We met in the college’s Building 12, its main administration building, which includes large meeting spaces. “It’s not a joke; everyone in the community has been here at some point,” Johnson said. “Every gala, every civic event, every big gathering has happened here. We are just part of this place.”

Like many other community colleges, Sinclair offers programs in health care, and law enforcement. “Whenever you hear a siren in the Miami Valley, there’s an 80 percent probability that someone in that emergency vehicle—fire, police, paramedic—is Sinclair trained,” Johnson said.

The scale of the Sinclair commencement ceremony, held at the University of Dayton Arena (Courtesy of Sinclair Community College)

Second, the ambition to broaden and include. For residents of Montgomery County, of which Dayton is the county seat, Sinclair tuition is now $3,500 per year, which the college says is the lowest in Ohio. Over the past dozen years, the number of students completing a degree or certificate has gone up more than five-fold—low completion rates being one of the long-standing failures of America’s community colleges. In 2005, about 1,500 Sinclair students completed their degrees or certificates. Last year, more than 8,000 did. The number of degrees and certificates completed by minority students has also risen sharply. (From just over 500 in 2012, to nearly 2,000 last year.)

The broadening strategy that most got my attention was Sinclair’s “Prison Education Program,” to offer people still in correctional institutions courses that lead to certificates or associate degrees. “We have all this human talent—latent talent—now incarcerated,” Johnson said. “What they need is not random ‘enrichment’ courses, but a pathway, to something specific.” The courses lead to certificates and degrees in food-services, addiction counseling, social work, agriculture and forestry, supply-chain management, and other fields. About 2,000 incarcerated students are now enrolled, at 15 institutions across the state.

“This program is also unusual in its scale,” Adam Murka said. “Lots of states are involved in prison education, but I’m not aware of anybody doing as much as we are, toward credentials where people can actually get jobs.” He pointed out that people with felony records are barred from future employment in some fields, notably including teaching and medical care. “We’re concentrating on fields where they can find work.” According to Sinclair, recidivism rates have fallen dramatically among people who have completed these courses.

Third, collaboration between this community college and the area’s main research institution, the University of Dayton. Sinclair and UD are not the only important higher-ed organizations in the region—another important one is Wright State University—but they have a long history of collaboration, as opposed to the arm’s-length, disdainful, or competitive attitude with which some four-year universities  view their community-college counterparts. For instance, since 2016 the two institutions have offered a program called the “UD Sinclair Academy.” Under this system students start at Sinclair, earn an associate degree there, and then transfer their courses for full class credit at the (much more expensive) University of Dayton.

There are many more aspects of the Sinclair story that I won’t go into here. The one that tempts me most: their advanced work in “Unmanned Aerial Systems,” or drones, including a very high-ceilinged “Indoor Flying Pavilion” (video here) where the little devices can fly and be tested and calibrated in all weather.

Opening of the Indoor Flying Pavilion, in 2015 (Courtesy of Sinclair Community College)

Instead I’ll return to the question I earlier asked the leaders of the University of Dayton: how the rest of the country should think about the situation of Dayton, with all it has lost and all it is trying to regain.

Steven Johnson grew up as part of a large farming family in rural Wisconsin. Adam Murka is from the Dayton area and graduated from the University of Dayton — before working as an aide for the area’s Republican congressman (and former Dayton mayor), Michael Turner.

How does each of them think about Dayton now—and think it should be understood, by the rest of the country?

“Dayton is proud,” Steven Johnson said. “I like to say, having lived in Austin [where he went to graduate school, at the University of Texas], that Dayton was the Austin of the Industrial Age in America. It was the place in the 1930s, 40s, 50s, 60s. It was a booming place. People really didn’t see themselves in any way, shape, or form as ‘second class,’ compared to the very biggest cities. That consciousness remains.

“This is an extraordinarily competent place,” he said. “People here understand how to do things. And it’s a big enough place to have all the components of a city’s life—and small enough that it’s not siloed.”

Both he and Murka said that everyone in Dayton was aware of the larger “declining Rust Belt” perception mage applied to the region as a whole, and the particular way Dayton’s opioid and factory-closing problems have dominated national-media attention to the town. “There’s this image, ‘Dayton was once great and booming, and now it’s just horrible,’” Johnson said. “It’s frustrating because I think, Would you look more closely at this region? There is a lot happening here. On average, the quality of life is very high. Of course I immediately have to stress on average, because of our obvious problems. But if you take me to Austin, in five minutes I can show you all its problems and contrasts too.”

About Dayton’s woebegone image, Adam Murka said, “Among Daytonians, and maybe everywhere in the Midwest, there is a very strong allergy to self-promotion.” Murka said that he had spent an earlier part of his career in Washington D.C., “where that allergy does not exist. I don’t necessarily mean that as a slam,” he said, “But—of course you promote yourselves! Or in Texas they might say, ‘It ain’t bragging if it’s true.’ Here that’s just not done.”

With appropriate allowances for broad-brush regional caricatures, Murka said there was an upside of this taciturn midwestern approach: “It means it’s a great place to do business. If somebody makes you a promise, they’ve very likely to keep it. The downside is that people don’t know about all the promise you have.” He said that if he told a loyal New Yorker, “Man, your city must be a terrible place to live,” then “in the best case, they say ‘What the hell is wrong with you?’ And in the worst case it degenerates quickly.” But tell a Daytonian about the city’s woes, and the reply is likely to be, “Yeah, we’ve had some hard times here ...”

“I have seen more optimism in the last five years than in the past 15,” Steven Johnson said, about the developments in downtown Dayton and varied business and cultural startups. Adam Murka made a similar point in a different way.

“One of the nice things about having gone through catastrophic change, is that you have gone through it,” Adam Murka said. “You know you can do it.”

“We are a place that knows what it is. The smartest thinkers in the world say that the rate of change is going to increase exponentially. We know we will be able to adapt to those kinds of changes, because we’ve already done it, several times.”

All notes on "Dayton, Ohio" >
The Tides Institute & Museum in Eastport Maine (left) and other historic buildings along Water Street Courtesy of the Tides Institute & Museum of Art

During our travels to towns around the U.S., Jim Fallows and I have come across several artist-in-residence programs, for example in Ajo, Arizona; Eastport, Maine; and Tulsa, Oklahoma. Here is the report from one of those artists, Richelle Gribble, on her experience of being an artist in a new place, how it fits into her practice of art, and how she sees her role in the community.

There is a second perspective of artists-in-residence, and it comes from the communities who host them. Why does a community bring an artist into its life? What do the artists and their presence bring to a town and the people who live there?

For that perspective, I went to Kristin McKinlay, who developed and directs StudioWorks, the artist-in-residence program of the Tides Institute & Museum of Art (TIMA) in Eastport, where Richelle Gribble worked. McKinlay and her husband, Hugh French, founded and run the formidable and influential TIMA, as our colleague John Tierney has written about here.

The inspiration for StudioWorks, McKinlay told me, was that a goal of TIMA was not only preserve history, but to “foster the creation of new work.” And for the town, the goals were equally lofty: to add to the cultural landscape, to bring a new energy, and to help revitalize the downtown. And for the arts: to support the work of artists.

StudioWorks, as renovations finished up (Courtesy of the Tides Institute & Museum of Art)

The artist residency fit with the mission of TIMA, which also includes publications, like this stunning book on Eastport architecture, partnerships with other organizations, letterpress cards, a poster series, and education initiatives.

The Tides Institute launched StudioWorks in 2013. Since then, they have hosted a broadly diverse group of 57 artists from all over the world for stays of two weeks to two months. That number represents a big presence in Eastport, population 1,300. It also represents a big commitment, for 57 artists to travel the 250 miles “downeast” (north and east) from Portland or 115 miles east from Bangor. No one arrives in Eastport accidentally.

Looking out to the Bay of Fundy from the inside of StudioWorks (Courtesy of the Tides Institute & Museum of Art)

The program has grown through hard work and good luck. The Tides Institute bought and renovated a Water Street (the main street) storefront building for StudioWorks. As did many residents and tourists, Jim and I wandered in off the sidewalk early in our first of several visits to Eastport, to see and talk to Richelle at work. Soon, two houses were donated to the program, making for more living and workspace for the artists. Those were within a block of downtown and walkable to just about everything you might really want or need in Eastport. They also bought the old Free Will North Baptist Church, a building large enough to accommodate Undertow, Anna Hepler’s installation, which she describes as  “the hull of an empty ship in … the nave of an empty church,” which we also saw during a visit to Eastport.

Free Will North Baptist church is now an arts workshop and installation space (Courtesy of the Tides Institute & Museum of Art)

The program is funded by foundations, grants, and private funding and provides a $2,000 per month (or prorated) stipend for the artists. Artplace America, a grantfunding organization whose imprint we have seen across the country, was an early supporter, and its impact is akin in a more modest way to Carnegie’s in libraries or the WPA projects in schools, post offices, recreation facilities, parks,  and so on.

The many artists brought many different perspectives to Eastport. Their work and connections have spilled out all over town; in schools, in library workshops, on the pier, along the waterfront, and door-to-door.

McKinlay rattled off descriptions of some of the projects, many of which engaged with the essence of Eastport as a town that is intimate—in every sense of its proximity, history, economy, and culture—with water. Eastport’s placemaking is inseparable from its water.

Here are brief descriptions of some of the work:

Elizabeth Bennett hung drawings off the working fish pier along Water Street, right across the street from StudioWorks. The high tides brought water that erased parts of the drawings as it came in.

Amanda Thackray made paper by hand using the local seawater, and printed on it the shapes of plastic garbage and marine trash that she found while walking along the coastline. Thackray wrote about her residency here.

Amanda Thackray in the print studio (Courtesy of the Tides Institute & Museum of Art)

Montana Simone, whom we met in Eastport last summer when we were there with an HBO film crew, preparing a documentary based on Our Towns, was deftly climbing and scrambling around the ramshackle old pier supports, next to the abandoned sardine canning factory. She wrapped two supports with huge canvases, leaving one in place for what would be two months to be marked and stained by the rising and falling tides.

Montana Simone wrapping canvas at the old pier (Courtesy of the Tides Institute & Museum of Art)

Onya Hogan-Finlay and Kim Kelly hosted an event for the community that included a walk; a picnic with local food shared on a specially-created cloth screen-printed with images of seaweed and other regional flora; and a drawing session on paper letter-pressed with the event title  “Low Tide High Tea.”

The Low Tide High Tea picnic for Eastport residents (Courtesy of the Tides Institute & Museum of Art)

Will Rose made animations about Eastport wildlife, and then followed up later from London for an artist talk with Eastport school kids via Facetime.

Adriane Herman, inspired from her interests in pollution, trash, left and reclaimed items, and her commitment to recycling, worked with found items, such as discarded books and papers. She took her passion into the community in a few ways. She worked with teachers and students at the school on many projects, from zine-making to exploring the local burn pile as a subject for artistic study. She also offered a workshop series at the public library, Peavey Memorial Library, and volunteered at the ultimate local recycler, Eastport’s thrift shop, New to You.

Adriane Herman with Eastport's Shead High School students (Courtesy of the Tides Institute & Museum of Art)

Seliena Coyle undertook a “selfie” project where community members took and developed self-portraits using pinhole cameras and a makeshift darkroom.

Seliena Coyle and the pinhole-camera selfie project on Water St. (Courtesy of the Tides Institute & Museum of Art)

Alicia Eggert took 720 conceptual art photos spanning every single minute of a day from noon to midnight. She knocked on Eastport doors asking to photograph people’s timepieces—from grandfather clocks to microwave clocks to wrist and pocket watches. When Eggert asked for advice on how an artist with such a project might be received at the front doors, McKinlay answered, “The only risk is being invited in for pie.” By the end of the project, people opened their doors with the greeting, “We’ve been waiting for you.” One resident even lent Eggert his watch collection, saying she could fill in some missing minutes that way. McKinlay told me that this wide effort grew into a big wave of good public relations about the artist-in-residence program and contemporary art practice.

McKinlay and I also talked about the economic impact of the program. For those who remain skeptics about the positive economic impact that the arts can have on a town, here are some answers.

In Eastport, three abandoned buildings and a church have been renovated with local contractors and artisans into showpieces. The contractors become their own best marketers, displaying their products for future renovations from businesses and prospective homebuyers in Eastport. The buildings also then require maintenance, landscaping, and lawncare. A local high school student is employed as a year-round intern for the program. A few artists have brought young children with them, and used for-pay childcare in town while they worked. The artists-in-residence become part of Eastport tourism, including the considerable population of artists who live in town and galleries that display their work. The $2,000-per-month artist stipend is largely spent on local commerce.

McKinlay told me a touching story of how the artists can contribute to both the hard economics and the soft cultural spirit of the town.

Tracey Cockrell recording sound, Reversing Falls Pembroke (Courtesy of the Tides Institute & Museum of Art)

Tracey Cockrell, a sculptor-in-residence, was building speakers out of seaweed and electro-conductive thread. She made field recordings around the region with a waterproof microphone. She went next door to the S. L. Wadsworth & Son Chandlery, the hardware store the artists frequent for supplies (and is also one of my favorite Eastport shops; you can find most anything there!), looking for Plasti Dip, a flexible rubber coating to waterproof her microphone. This time, the shop didn’t carry the product, but another shopper, overhearing the conversation, asked what color Cockrell wanted. She said she wasn’t sure yet. The next day, what should Cockrell find on the StudioWork doorstep, but a brown paper bag with the packages of Plasti Dip in every color. The good (and anonymous!) Eastport resident had driven more than 25 miles down the road to Calais and bought them for her.

All notes on "Eastport, Maine" >
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)  
All notes on "Dayton, Ohio" >
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)

All notes on "Washington, District of ..." >
Artist Richelle Gribble with her cotton spider web on kozo washi paper, created during her artist-in-residency in Japan
Artist Richelle Gribble with her cotton spider web on kozo washi paper, created during her artist-in-residency in Japan Naoki Isoda / Awagami Factory

We’ve seen artist-in-residence programs in a number of the towns we’ve visited. The first was in Eastport, Maine, where we ran into Richelle Gribble, a young artist based in Los Angeles, whom I consider an resident-artist extraordinaire. Over the past three and a half years, Richelle (as I’ll refer to her) has been an artist-in-residence in 15 different programs around the world, from a biosphere in Arizona to a ranch in Wyoming to the Arctic Circle in northern Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago. I’m not kidding about the Arctic Circle.

Richelle is an accomplished artist with pages and pages of a CV that includes solo and select group exhibitions, awards and fellowships, public collections, curated projects, public speaking engagements, memberships in committees and organizations, and publications. She is 28 years old.

When I was back in touch with Richelle recently, she had just returned from the Arctic Circle. I was interested in talking with her about the idea of residencies, how she approaches her time on location, what artists’ perspectives bring to a town, and what the experience brings to an artist.

We decided to talk about her residency in Japan, with its famously complicated culture, and where my husband, Jim, and I had lived for about two years back in the late 1980s, when our children were young.

                                                    *   *   *

Here’s what we talked about: Along our own travels around the country for American Futures and Our Towns, many people have asked Jim and me how we start our reporting when we visit a town. It’s a fair question, and our answer is that we do some research ahead of time—and then once on scene, we spend a day or two talking to the “usual suspects” (journalists, school administrators, city-government officials, business people, librarians, people in the arts, etc.) and ask them about the interesting and compelling stories and issues in town, and about the people we should meet. Then we head out to connect with as many people in as many on-the-ground situations as possible.

I was interested in how this process worked for an artist-in-residence, so I asked Richelle the same questions: What does she do upon arrival? How does she build a sense of the place? How does that begin to translate into the art she makes? Her answers resonated with me.

Pieces of the Land, kozo pulp, ink, colored pencil, graphite on washi, 8.25 x 11.75 x 1.25 inches. Artwork by Richelle Gribble. (Jonathan Ferrara Gallery)

Richelle told me that during her first few days or weeks in a town (depending on the length of her stay, which can range from a few weeks to a few months), she talks to lots of people in the community, engaging in conversation and listening to their language and forms of expression. She takes in the colors of the landscape and environment, looks at plants, wildlife, architecture, animal migrations, maps, photos, and the foods everyone eats. She gathers an understanding and a collection of the materials around—whether from beaches, forests, glaciers, or cityscapes. And she takes note of how the local art is made: what materials the artists use, and what their techniques and practices are. The latter were especially important, she said, as she began her international travels where the world of art could be so very different.

Then Richelle told me something that really hit home. She said she looks for recurring scenes, materials, or symbols that link one place to another, to show that all systems (social, technological, or physical) are linked around the world. This search for recurring patterns is something I did regularly via language when we visited new places. I would routinely write down interesting words or phrases that struck me—ones that surprised me or stood out. I would often make “word clouds” of a town, which taught me a lot about the culture of the place, and sometimes about universals. See a few examples here and here.

In meta-terms, these starting points build toward to her goal to reflect the community or its ecosystem through her art. She hoped to build a sense of what towns have in common and what sets them apart from each other. And ultimately, perhaps, to find a greater interconnection of communities and a sense of perspective of the planet. That is a tall order, but one she bears in mind as she works locally to reflect global themes.

                                             *   *   *

Yoshinogawa: Richelle spent two and a half months in the city of Yoshinogawa, Japan, a farmland community with a population of about 40,000. It is in the prefecture of Tokushima, southwest from Kyoto. The residency was no doubt a prized one, allowing her to work at the centuries-old Fujimori family’s Awagami Factory. Minoru Fujimori took over the family factory in 1945, and was designated a “Sixth Class Order of Merit, Sacred Treasure” by the Emperor in 1986 for washi paper work (a Japanese traditional craft). Minoru Fujimori died in 2015, but the family continues the age-old eco-friendly washi paper-making technique.

Blending and coloring raw kozo fiber for pulp painting at the Awagami Factory (Naoki Isoda / Awagami Factory)

Richelle created an entirely new collection of artwork at the Awagami Factory, and she described to me the challenge of how to use the traditional materials and techniques in the contemporary art that she produces. It took some doing to try to replicate the traditional practices and mimic the gestures and movements involved, she said. Presenting her contemporary work to a community steeped and sophisticated in hallowed art forms, and explaining it through a translator, would be threading a needle of honoring the craft, reflecting the practice, and making her own art.

Leading a collaborative drawing workshop at an elementary school (Tak Abe / Awagami Factory)

Richelle found, as did we when we lived with our then elementary-school age children in Japan for two years, that the local residents were very interested in visitors and their ways. She taught workshops in local schools, met the city’s mayor, and attended press events. The Yoshinogawa residents were interested in how she innovated and elaborated on the traditional work she learned about, and ultimately, the Western perspective through which she interpreted and produced her art.

Creating kozo pulp painting at the Awagami Factory (Naoki Isoda / Awagami Factory)

Peeling pulp painting off drying board (Nonomura / Awagami Factory)

Richelle described her main project: She used natural materials to make the pulp and produce a map, “painting the land from the land” she told me. She collected traditional kozo fibers, pounded them into the paper mixing with mountain water, and used natural indigo dye from the plants grown by the river. She wanted the residents to see themselves in her artwork, to be able to identify their own house within a larger map. It was her way of broaching the language barrier. If they couldn’t connect through language, she said, “we could share a place this way. (The art became) another way of understanding each other.”

Pieces of the Land, ink, colored pencil, graphite on washi, 8.25 x 11.75 inches (Naoki Isoda / Awagami Factory)

Sorting drawings on washi paper (Naoki Isoda / Awagami Factory)

She also produced art on a small scale, drawing images of the many gifts the residents presented her, such as plants from gardens, and fruits and vegetables from their yards. She took photos of her drawings and placed them on a map she drew of the area, which she described as “showing the personality of the town in a more micro-intimate way through gifts exchanged and found objects in the area. It serves as a key or legend to give identity to the larger maps.”

Mounting a large woven web to be embedded in kozo fiber (Naoki Isoda / Awagami Factory)

Richelle also told me a charming spider-web story. Always on the lookout for spider webs, Richelle spotted them as she walked around town getting her bearings and her map sense. She was noticed. Foreigners are always noticed in Japan, in our experience. If our little boys got temporarily lost in our Japanese neighborhood, neighbors—even ones I had never seen before—would bring them home, knowing exactly who we were and where we lived. One older man was watching Richelle looking for spider webs, and after a time, he offered to guide her along her walks about town, pointing out the webs he had spotted on her behalf.

Presenting “On Place” a new collection of paper-based artworks to local community at the Inbe Art Space in Yoshinogawa, Japan (Naoki Isoda / Awagami Factory)

Her art became a way to be something way more than a tourist, to open the door to a different kind of more intimate experience with the country. More like being a scientist or a detective, she described it to me. A common component of residencies is an open-door policy, where people in the town can stop by. For Richelle, this was valuable, as much of her work was driven by ideas and messages she took in from her visitors. And for those who drop by, she thought, it is one of the few times that people get to see what happens in the studios, to learn how involved the process of making art really is—seeing the incubating, testing, and interaction, as she described it, to create the final product. They see the process from start to finish.

More from this series

All notes on "Los Angeles, California" >
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

All notes on "Houston, Texas" >
A view of a city through a camera lens held up by a hand
Kononstev Artem via Shutterstock

In 2008, National Geographic photographer Jodi Cobb and photographer and former Second Lady, Tipper Gore, talked about the role of photography at the then Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. The evening was called “How Photos Can Change the World.” Eleven years later, their comments (as reported by David Schonauer in Popular Photography) remain relevant and powerful:

Cobb at one point hinted at the frustration sometimes felt by photographers with high aims. It is one thing to take pictures, she said, and another to do the kind [of] political “heavy lifting” that actually brings about change. Mrs. Gore replied that images are an essential part of the process ... [DF: emphasis added]

During our travels with Our Towns and American Futures, Jim Fallows and I have seen many examples where the arts—whether photography, downtown revivals, productions, or memorial parks—are an essential piece, and often a trigger, in the evolution of communities and the lives of those who make or experience it.

Over the years, a number of photography projects have focused on young people as the agents of such evolution or change:

  • The 100cameras project, founded in 2009, began putting cameras in the hands of kids who have faced trauma or challenges. The idea was to use photography to help them work through their troubles.
  • The Cameras for Kids Foundation gives kids in foster care cameras and lessons to help boost their confidence and skills.
  • The Boys and Girls Clubs have long sponsored national photo programs.
  • Since 1991, Fotokids also gives cameras to kids in Central America, with a goal to break the cycle of poverty with skills and creation.

Recently, I learned about a locally-grown version of these photo projects from the state of Delaware. It is called the Our Lens Challenge, and we’re naming it another in our series of Big Little Ideas. These are simple, replicable initiatives with far-reaching positive potential. Others in the series are here and here and here.

Here’s how this Big Little Idea works:

The Our Lens Challenge in the state of Delaware is an exercise for young people to use photography to engage with their communities about an issue or an observation that is important to them. High school students learn to make photos, try their hand, choose the best one of their photos, and describe how it captures a perception of their town.

As with other participatory public-arts initiatives that we have seen in towns across the country, this Big Little Idea is an opportunity to contribute a fresh perspective on a community that helps to tell its story. In this case, the bonus is to teach a valuable skill to young people and to invite them to be part of shaping and perhaps even changing the narrative of their hometown.

The Our Lens Challenge team has made it easy for anyone who is interested in trying their Idea, by preparing a set of YouTube videos to guide participants, step by step, through the process. In Delaware, the Challenge was presented as a contest, and the winners would receive a $100 gift certificate from Amazon. A number of groups in Delaware collaborated on the Challenge, although it could be replicated with a leaner operation in your town. Here are the collaborators:

Here are the YouTube videos. (Fair warning: You’ll see references to our book, Our Towns, in a few of the videos.)

Video 1, Our Lens Intro: An introduction to “identify an issue in your community or highlight a bright spot that you want to showcase”

Video 2, Opportunity Discovery: How to be inspired!

Video 3, How to Learn More about Anything: A guide for using interviews and observation to become a master of the issue and help plan how to convey the message in the photo

Video 4, Finding Your Story: An encouragement to share the positive story and spirit of Delaware

Video 5, Photovoice: an overview of how to highlight your message and show your voice through a photo

Video 6, Photo Basics: A walk through a series of photos, pointing out the elements of a photo and what they convey—e.g., how to create a “power pose” of subjects by shooting upward, or how to use lighting or focus to highlight a person or object

Video 7, Caption and Reflection: Writing a title, a caption, and a personal reflection on the story you’re telling through the photo

Video 8, How to Submit Your Entry: The nuts and bolts

Video 9, Challenge Conclusion: Encouragement and congratulations

The winners of the photo contest, from left to right: Lainey, Andrés, Aeryon, Deyon, and Zoe (Courtesy of Deborah Fallows)

Jim and I were fortunate to view the winning photos and to meet the young winning photographers and some of the organizers of the Challenge. In an email with the infectiously enthusiastic executive director of Dual School, Zack Jones, whom I met in Wilmington, he reflected on his experience with the Our Lens Challenge.

The power of something like the Our Lens Challenge is to tap into (the young people’s) wisdom and invite their voices to contribute to the broader discussion. It also invites young people to see the places they live in a more positive way. It's a reflective experience to explore your town and think deeply about how you will represent it to an outside observer.

Here are the winning photographs, with descriptions from the student photographers (identified by school and first name) of what they want their images to convey:

Lainey, Ursuline Academy, Expected Graduation: 2021

Title: 7th Street. Reflection: This photo portrays the sense of community and family that thrives in a tiny cement skate park on 7th street. When someone fell, they were picked up. There were high fives and hugs. The sense of community I felt as an outsider was so powerful. People from all over the city, no matter what age or background come together to form a family. All they know are each other’s names. How much money they make or what sex or race they are, it doesn’t matter. In this skate park, they are who they are and all are welcomed.

Deyon, Howard High School of Technology, Expected Graduation: 2022

Title: Opportunity. Reflection: This is a photo of the Hercules plaza/building. This place is full of a lot of job opportunities that are age friendly. Many people that are employed here are happy with the work they do and the amount of time they spent working here and would recommend other people to work here.

Clare, Archmere Academy, Expected Graduation: 2023

Title: The Roots of Wilmington from Atop the Brandywine. Reflection: This photo captures an overlooking view from a popular point in Brandywine Creek State Park. It not only showcases the widespread natural beauty surrounding Wilmington, but also depicts many of the unique factors of our town. The central, robust tree represents the strength and connection of our community and is a proud reminder of the origins we share. The empty bench is reminiscent of the vast wealth of opportunities awaiting both young and old, while the departing car symbolizes the role our community serves in launching ideas, movements, and change into all corners of the world.

Zoe, Ursuline Academy, Expected Graduation: 2022

Title: New & Used. Reflection: This picture was taken at a bookstore in my hometown called Hockessin Book Shelf. This small but trusty shop could be seen as a representation of my town. With enthusiastic workers that are willing to help you with any questions you might have, the care that they show reflects the passion that my town has. My town has the best of both worlds with both a used and new feel. The small shops similar to this one, you can’t quite replicate this town anywhere else.

Aeryon, Brandywine High School, Expected Graduation: 2021

Title: The Flower that Grew Through Concrete. Reflection: This flower growing through concrete symbolizes how we are capable of pushing through the obstacles and hardships of our lives. Here in Wilmington, it is so easy (especially for our youth) to be detained by those around us and distracted from achieving our dreams. Stay focused and give 110% in everything you do! Hard work and keeping your end goal in mind will allow you to blossom into a successful person from a rough city. A flower that grew through concrete.

Andrés, Salesianum High School, Expected Graduation: 2020

Title: WHY - Salesianum School, My Friends, Our Service. Reflection: Why? Seeing these words inspired me and my friends and allowed us to reflect on the true reason we were there that day: to walk to our newest service opportunity. Thus, as ambiguous as the question “Why?” may seem, our answer is to help others and be there for our fellow community members. With our school and the rest of Wilmington in the background, the numerous aspects of this image represent an intersection of my school life and the culture, the friendship, the empathy, and the collaboration that is present all across Wilmington. The commitment of my classmates to serving those in need—and now this symbol that reminds me of our collective work—that is what makes my community special.

More from this series

All notes on "Wilmington, Delaware" >
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.

All notes on "Kansas City, Missouri" >
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.

All notes on "Memphis, Tennessee" >