Reporter's Notebook

The 2019 journalists for Report for America
The 2019 journalists for Report for America Courtesy of Report for America

Because I’m not a politician, I don’t have to wear an American-flag lapel pin. (I’ve never seen a photo of, say, Dwight Eisenhower, or FDR, or JFK, wearing a flag pin. Richard Nixon did it occasionally, in the Vietnam War era. It became de rigueur for public figures some time after the 9/11 attacks of 2001.)

But this is the story of a pin I’ve started wearing recently. The pin says Report for America, as you can see below. You could read those three words as an imperative-mood reminder of what people in the journalism business are supposed to do (at least the Americans). They also represent a promising movement, in discouraging times.

The fate of local news looms very large in the fate of smaller-town America:

  • Cities and regions need to hold their business and public leaders accountable. National news is not going to do that for them.
  • They need to understand what Deb Fallows and I have called “the civic story”: what makes this town different from others, what challenges it’s gone through and what opportunities it might seize, and where it stands on an arc that might lead to a more promising future. Only their local publications will help them refine and share those stories.
  • They need simply to have a forum for connection: What businesses are opening (or closing) in the town, what people are moving in and out, what opportunities there are for children, older people, those interested in music or sports or history or gardening.
My jacket, just now (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

Independent local publications are of such tangible importance that (according to a much-noted academic study last year), bond ratings go down, and the cost of issuing bonds goes up, for cities or counties that don’t have viable local newspapers.

Yet nearly every place we’ve gone, we’ve heard about the economic pressures on local newspapers, websites, and other publications as being even worse than those weighing down the press as a whole.


Which brings us to: Report for America. Earlier this month, in Houston, Deb and I met the 60-plus young men and women whose photos you see at the top of this item. They’re part of the second “corps” of Report for America members headed to newspapers, broadcast stations, or other news sites mainly in rural or small-town America, where they will add coverage on issues that will shape those communities’ futures.

Last year, for its first corps, Report for America sent out a total of 13 reporters. This year, more than 60. Next year it’s aiming for 250, toward a goal of 1,000.

The Report for America project is part Peace Corps, part Teach for America, part something entirely new. No one innovation or source will in itself be the answer to local journalism’s crisis. But a lot of experimental approaches might add up to an overall answer—and Report for America has the potential to be an important part of that solution. (For the record: Deb and I have no connection with RFA except being given the lapel pin and some RFA-branded reporter notebooks when we spoke at the training session in Houston, plus having known its co-founder, Steven Waldman, for many years.)

What’s the Report for America concept? It is—from my perspective—a shrewd combination of short- and long-term incentives and ideas.

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Trees are reflected in a puddle at Presque Isle State Park in Erie, Pennsylvania.
Presque Isle State Park in Erie, Pennsylvania Carlo Allegri / Reuters

Over the past three years, Deb Fallows and I have written frequently about the lakeside city of Erie, Pennsylvania, and its reaction to the loss of traditional manufacturers over the past generation.

One continuing theme has been the importance of the city’s overall openness to outsiders—refugees, other immigrants—in trying to make an economic, cultural, and civic future for itself. (Yes, including recognizing decades-old obstacles for many of its African American residents.)

One example of Erie’s embrace of diversity, whom we’ve often mentioned, is a man in his mid-30s named Ferki Ferati. He was born in Albanian Kosovo; spent part of his youth in refugee camps; and has become a central figure in Erie’s civic scene, as president of the innovative Jefferson Educational Society. He and his wife, Katya, originally from Russia, recently had a son, named Adrian.


This month, Ferati’s father, Selman, suddenly died, at age 68. An appreciation of what he stood for, and the values he thought America might advance, is available online here. A sample:

Standing up for justice and opposing oppressive governments is what many dream of doing. Selman Ferati, the 68-year old, father of six, spent most of his life doing just that. He was among the first to show his opposition to the Milosevic regime (Yugoslavia), a regime that believed that non-Serbians living in Yugoslavia were second-class citizens …

Selman stood by his beliefs even as Milosevic carried out genocidal acts against Albanians and Bosnians living in Yugoslavia. His family became his priority, and he led them out of the Kosovo to Macedonia—and eventually (most of the family) to Erie, Pennsylvania in 1999. Despite these extraordinary circumstances, Selman never showed fear—he led, and in leading, he leaves behind a legacy of integrity and action! He provided and encouraged his children to take advantage of their new found freedoms, to “dream more, learn more, do more and become more.”

Another tribute can be found here.

Sympathies to all of those related to and inspired by Selman Ferati.

To those who didn’t know him, his life is a reminder that idealistic people from outside America’s borders have continually prompted the country to live up to its own ideals. He had asked to be buried in his native Kosovo, but his spirit lives on in his adopted home.

More from this series

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Boxes of food awaiting distribution from 'God's Storehouse' in Danville, Virginia
Boxes of food awaiting distribution from 'God's Storehouse' in Danville, Virginia Courtesy of Deborah Fallows

We began the first morning of our recent visit to Danville, Virginia, at an early-bird breakfast with the Rotary Club, where my husband, Jim, and I heard several personal hopes, celebrations, and notes of gratitude from its members, as they pitched bills into the Happy Dollars bucket. One Happy Dollar for good wishes to a son about to deploy with the military; another for a granddaughter, a rainbow baby (Google that), who had made it to her first birthday; two for the boys whom the mom had hauled out of bed to come to the breakfast on their first day of summer vacation.  

After breakfast, we gratefully followed one of the Rotarians to Gatewood Auto and Truck Repair to see Gary, whom we heard was very good and always fair, hoping he could fix the passenger window of our 19-year-old Audi, which was suddenly stuck open. Gary fixed the window, a repair that soon seemed minor compared with the day’s second auto surprise, when the bottom shell fell off the underside of the car, right onto the street. (I learned that the official term for this part was the “belly pan.”) Thank God for the networks of small towns, I thought, and for Gary Gatewood, and the friendly folks at Mr. Tire, who repaired that belly-pan issue.

I continued a quarter-mile down the road to see Karen Harris, the executive director of God’s Storehouse, a food pantry serving low-income people along this southernmost border where Virginia meets North Carolina. On top of their other problems, rural areas that have lost industries and suffered long-term economic decline, like this part of Piedmont Virginia and North Carolina, often have high rates of obesity, diabetes, and other nutrition-related disorders. God’s Storehouse illustrates one response. During our travels around the country, we have seen groups in many regions coming together to use strength in numbers to imagine ideas and create effective action around health, economic development, education, the arts, and many other areas.

God’s Storehouse is part of the expansive Health Collaborative of the Dan River Region. It includes some 50 member organizations and 90 individuals, who approach the health and well-being of its residents to include not only healthy eating, but also access to health care, an active lifestyle, and inviting places to live, work, and play.

God’s Storehouse opened in 1987, a collaborative effort of many faith communities around Danville and surrounding Pittsylvania County. Pooling resources, they figured, would be a win for all.

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Jobbers Canyon Historic District was a warehouse area located in downtown Omaha, Nebraska. In 1989, all 24 buildings in Jobbers Canyon were demolished, representing the largest National Register historic district lost to date.
Jobbers Canyon Historic District was a warehouse area located in downtown Omaha, Nebraska. In 1989, all 24 buildings in Jobbers Canyon were demolished, representing the largest National Register historic district lost to date. U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

Two previous reports, first here and then here, described the bittersweet heritage of old tobacco and textile buildings in the former mill town of Danville, Virginia.

The bitter was obviously the loss of what had been the city’s economic mainstays. The potentially sweet was that Danville never got around to demolishing the old structures—and now is beginning to turn them to new use.

A reader who used to live in Omaha rues the different decision that city made:

I am a historian generally by inclination, and an architectural historian by profession, and so I heartily agree with any and nearly all efforts to adapt old, historic buildings to new purposes …. This make sense both in the place-making and the economic sense.

I thought I’d share with you, although you probably already know [JF note: I didn’t], the unfortunate case of Omaha—the opposite, in some ways, as the experience of Danville.

Omaha had a large group of buildings downtown in what they call “Jobbers Canyon.”  The area was full of warehouses for the many wholesale and provision companies that were headquartered in Omaha, which (along with Council Bluffs) was a rail hub for Union Pacific Railroad.

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Jake Soberal and Irma Olquin, co-founders and co-CEOs of Bitwise Industries in Fresno, which announced a big expansion today
Jake Soberal and Irma Olquin, co-founders and co-CEOs of Bitwise Industries in Fresno, which announced a big expansion today Courtesy of Bitwise Industries

Four years ago, my wife, Deb, and I wrote about an ambitious and unusual tech startup called Bitwise Industries, in the gritty and long-struggling city of Fresno in California’s Central Valley.

For an introduction to Bitwise and its co-founders, Irma L. Olguin Jr. and Jake Soberal, please see “California’s Centers of Technology: Bay Area, L.A., San Diego, and … Fresno?” For what is at stake in their efforts to foster an inclusive, advanced-tech culture in an agriculture-dominated city, please see “Three Ways of Thinking About Fresno (and Why You Should Care).”

Short version: For anyone who cares about unequal opportunities in the new economy, what’s happening in Fresno deserves serious attention.

The strong continuity through Bitwise’s short, intense history has been its founders’ awareness that they were teaching technical skills, and promoting new businesses, for more than purely business-related purposes. Almost everyone in the tech business talks-the-talk about the info-age bringing benefits to all. In my view Bitwise has come much closer than most to walking-the-walk.

Since 2013 it has trained more than a thousand developers in Fresno. Deb and I have seen these classes and talked with students, many of them from agricultural or non-college backgrounds, and have written about their stories of new opportunities. It has fostered or attracted some 200 tech companies to its startup spaces. It runs three business operations: the coding school called Geekwise Academy; its real estate operations, which now include some 200,000 square feet of workspace; and a custom software business called Shift3 Technologies, which hires Geekwise graduates and others for commercial projects.


Today Bitwise is announcing a serious next step. It has received $27 million in “Series A” (startup) funding to expand its operations to other “cities like Fresno” across the country. The funding is led by Kapor Capital, founded by Mitch Kapor and Freada Kapor Klein and based in Oakland, and the New Voices Fund, based in New York. The company says that the funding represents “one of the largest Series A ever raised by a Latinx female-led company.” Irma Olguin comes from a family of Central Valley field laborers and has often stressed that she would like her own against-the-odds rise to tech-company leadership to become a less exceptional tale.

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Aerial view of the River District of downtown Danville, Virginia. The structure in the center is a farmer's market. On the left, is the city's Science Center and Digital Dome. In the background, warehouses being restored as lofts and business sites. Courtesy of River City TV

Previously in this series: why the ups and downs of economic history have left the southern Virginia town of Danville with a genuine problem (what to do after its big mills closed), but also a significant advantage (the physical infrastructure that those old tobacco and textile sites left behind, much of it quite beautiful.)

Years ago, on the first reporting visit that my wife, Deb, and I made to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, I mentioned that the city seemed strangely “over-retailed” for a place of its size. That is, it had a super-abundance of malls, professional offices, restaurants, and other facilities. Why? As we learned, these reflected Sioux Falls’s emergence as the service-and-retail center not just for its own population but for the broad surrounding area.

In a similar way, Danville can now seem strangely “over-warehoused,” with more century-old large, stately brick structures than you would expect for a town of some 40,000 people. The buildings sprang up in Danville because it was so prosperous a trading and manufacturing center from the late 1800s onward. And they survived largely because the city became so economically troubled that no one could afford to tear them down.

Now many of them are being revived, reoccupied, and put to new use, as previewed here. The center of the activity is the “River District,” on the southern bank of the Dan River near the Main Street bridge. Decades ago, this was a center of tobacco trading and the textile business. One of the enormous factory buildings for Dan River Mills, known as the “White Mill” and abandoned for years, sits not far away.

“If you were here ten years ago, it would have been obvious that we were a mill town without a mill,” Rick Barker, a Danville native and entrepreneur who is now a downtown developer of historic properties, told me this month. “Now we’re becoming something else.”

What is that something? The purpose of this dispatch is to give a few  illustrations of a city in the middle of becoming, and some brief background on work that’s been done and work that remains.

The Continental, site of a one-time tobacco trading, handling, and drying center. The structure also once housed a tobacco “prizery,” where tobacco leaves were pressed into tight layers for shipment. It is now being developed as downtown lofts. (Courtesy City of Danville.)
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On this date 11 years ago, which was Father’s Day in 2008, I posted a tribute to my own father, who was then in the final months of his extraordinary life.

I’m mentioning it again this weekend, after Deb’s and my own sons have shown themselves to be wonderful fathers, both as a holiday-themed observance and because a document I linked to in the original post has vanished from its online home.

My father, James A. Fallows, in his teens, on the Ursinus College football team.

That document was a brief commencement speech I gave in 2008 at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania. Ursinus is the small private college my dad had attended briefly during World War II, before heading off to medical school and service as a Navy doctor. With the passing years, the  link I posted from the Ursinus site has gone the way of a great many links and become a 404.

I recently found a copy of the speech, and for cloud-archive purposes I post it again here. I still believe what I said those many years ago.

Happy upcoming Father’s Day to our two sons and to all other relevant honorees!

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A sign that once read "Home of Dan River Mills," now in downtown Danville, Virginia
A sign that once read "Home of Dan River Mills," now in downtown Danville, Virginia Courtesy of the Danville Regional Foundation

Factory towns face problems when the factories shut down. Everyone has heard versions of that story—involving steel and auto plants in the Midwest, sawmills in the Northwest, coal mines in Appalachia or copper mines in the Southwest, other facilities in other towns.

On a recent visit to Southside Virginia—the part of the state bordering North Carolina, and far from the tech-and-government-driven boom of the D.C. suburbs in northern Virginia and the military-based economy of Norfolk and the Tidewater—we were reminded of the problems cities had even when those factories were up and running. We also learned about the way they are trying to apply the mixed blessings of a lost manufacturing heritage as they figure out their next act.

Our visit was centered in the city of Danville, which Deb Fallows wrote about here. Danville is the major city within Pittsylvania County, which is geographically one of the largest in the state. The city’s population is about 40,000, split roughly 50-50 black and white. In its day, it was one of the richest places in the Piedmont area, and a major center of first the tobacco and then the textile industries. Danville was also, for a one-week period in April 1865, the final capital city of the Confederacy—with implications down to the present, as we’ll explore in upcoming dispatches.

Now textiles have disappeared almost entirely, and tobacco hangs on in much-reduced form. (These days, the main tobacco-business force is JTI, or Japan Tobacco International, which has bought brands like Natural American Spirit and Benson & Hedges, and has expanded its warehouse and processing facilities in Danville.) While Virginia’s population has boomed—roughly 4 million in the 1960 census, 6 million in 1990, 8 million in 2010, and rising—Danville’s is a little smaller now than it was in the 1960s. This part of southwestern Virginia and western North Carolina has endured the simultaneous collapse of the three industries that were the mainstays of its many small towns: tobacco, textiles, and furniture making. Danville’s comparative good fortune is that it didn’t have as many furniture factories to lose as some neighboring places did.


And yet: Danville is now benefiting from another aspect of its battered industrial heritage, which it is beginning to turn into an important city asset. How? Please read on.

Old warehouses, awaiting renovation, in downtown Danville, Virginia (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

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The Danville YMCA
Courtesy of Deborah Fallows

During our years of reporting for Our Towns, I’ve visited YMCAs all across the country. My quest began as a way to keep fit while traveling. I bought day passes to swim in Burlington, Vermont; Columbus, Mississippi; Redlands, California; Allentown, Pennsylvania; Duluth, Minnesota; and Wichita, Kansas.

If I couldn’t find a Y, I would swim at a local public pool, like in Holland, Michigan; Greenville, South Carolina; Dodge City, Kansas; Winters, California; and Bend, Oregon. As a last resort, I turned to nature, jumping into the Snake River in Clarkston, Washington; Lake Champlain in Vermont; Lake Erie in Erie, Pennsylvania; Lake Michigan in Holland, Michigan; the freezing Atlantic in Portland, Maine; and the also-freezing Pacific along the West Coast.

Recently I added another venue to my list: the YMCA of Danville, in the so-called Southside of Virginia, bordering North Carolina. Danville, once a thriving tobacco and textile town, has placed a big bet on its Y as more than a fun and healthy place to work out, or swim, or play basketball. It is an anchor institution for restoring the spirit and pride of Danville.

The YMCA is a natural for this role, with its 135-year history in Danville and now a brand-spanking-new, $15 million, 50,000-square-foot facility on the Dan River. Spurred on by an initial gift from the private Danville Regional Foundation, which was followed by millions more from other foundations, institutions, and individuals in town, the new Y opened in 2014. The building is a beautiful, award-winning design of brick, glass, and exposed beams, with natural light and social space. It became the first development facing the river in more than 100 years, and in homage to that history, the Y also shows off reclaimed wood from the old textile mill that once stood on its spot.

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The main street in downtown Columbus, Mississippi
Jim and Deb took this picture during their most recent visit to Columbus, Mississippi. James Fallows / The Atlantic

Yesterday, Deb Fallows and I sent an email to various loyal readers of The Atlantic. You can see what was in that message in the “Continue Reading” section of this post.

In response, I got this message, from a longtime reader in Oregon:

I would like to see someone “package” or “productize,” both recipes for solutions, and recipes for non-solutions, which you and Deborah Fallows uncover. I would like to see actionable social entrepreneurship kits and trainings made available.

Reporting is necessary, but not sufficient. Not in our present circumstances.

I don’t expect you and Ms. Fallows have the personal capacity to add such an initiative to your own plans and activities. But I suspect there are people and organizations that can do so. I would like to see you task one or more people to identify, contact and encourage such people and organizations to “package” or “productize” such social entrepreneurship solutions.

If what works cannot be reproduced, then reporting is reduced to the wistful.

Personally, I don’t have the stomach to read, listen to, or watch “what might have been,” or what can or even is happening, but only under optimum conditions. We are not living in a time of optimum conditions. We cannot simply plant and grow in any type of soil. The soil must support what we hope to harvest.

I seek no response here. Your work over the next year or two will be your response.

This is a fair, and important, observation. And it is in line with our intentions, and the themes we intend to explore.

Deb and I realize that we don’t personally have the background, capacity, or skill to be the “productizers” ourselves. But one of our ambitions is to connect people who do have those abilities.

Please stay tuned, follow along, and send us your suggestions and ideas to ourtowns@theatlantic.com.

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The new headquarters of the Communiversity, in the Golden Triangle of Mississippi, shortly before its opening
The new headquarters of the Communiversity, in the Golden Triangle of Mississippi, shortly before its opening Courtesy of East Mississippi Community College

Here’s a difference between the world of national politics and that of public problem-solving at the local and regional levels. Four or five years ago, I would have had no idea of this. Now I notice it practically every day.

In national politics, terms like partnership or collaboration are hard to utter with a straight face, or a non-sinking heart. At best, they can seem boring or (damning with faint praise) “worthy.” At worst, they seem like euphemisms for sweetheart deals or favor-trading.

In Washington I can feel the attention draining from the room whenever someone mentions “public-private partnerships”—or if Deb and I discuss some new cooperative project we’ve seen for advanced-manufacturing training in the South, or the reuse of abandoned buildings in the Midwest. The narcotizing effect is like that of the term infrastructure, back before “Infrastructure Week” became a bitterly joked-about term in Washington.

Yet in so many communities we’ve visited, everything about these collaborative efforts—finding the partners, dividing the labor, sharing the blame and credit, sustaining the relationship—has seemed not simply important but actually interesting.

Consider this analogy: Anyone studying World War II knows that part of the story is the titanic drama of the battlefield. But another important part is the elaborate backstairs strategy of collaboration and coalition building. This involved: how Churchill dealt with FDR, how both of them dealt with Stalin, how the U.S. government worked with private industrialists to turn Depression-racked America into the “arsenal of democracy,” how Eisenhower and Montgomery and Patton and MacArthur worked with and against one another, and so on.

Similarly: The movie Lincoln and the book Team of Rivals were built on the drama of Lincoln holding a political coalition together so that Union forces could advance on the battlefield.

Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill in Tehran in 1943. What they did in the conference rooms had a big effect on what happened on the battlefields. (U.S. Signal Corps via the Library of Congress)

Today’s local-level partnerships obviously lack the world-historical immediacy of these wartime struggles. But the link between process and result is similar: people paying attention to the mechanics of how they work together, to increase the chance of reaching their goal. And the stakes can be very high: reducing the human toll of opioids or homelessness; expanding opportunities for people the modern economy has left behind; improving schools and policing practices; and on down the list.


Let’s take this back to Mississippi. This post is a an update on a project in the Golden Triangle of the state—the ambitiously industrializing northeastern region including Columbus, West Point, and Starkville—which exemplifies a commitment to collaboration that other regions could usefully study.

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An empty road in Utah
Bob Strong / Reuters

Here are a few stories I found intriguing from the past week’s newspapers, on the unfolding complexities of the much-discussed “rural-urban divide.”

1) The first is by Andrew Van Dam, in The Washington Post, on the fundamental reasons for rural decline. Here’s the way his story was presented in the print version of the Post, in the Sunday business section:

The article in the Sunday business section with the title "The real reason rural America is doomed to decline."
Print headline in The Washington Post business section on May 26, 2019 (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

Just about every discussion of the political, economic, opportunity, and other gaps between rural and urban America starts from the premise that life outside the big cities really is doomed. On the basis of the headline, this story would seem to be offering yet more reasons rural prospects are so dark.

But if you read the story, you’re in for a surprise. A “spoiler alert” clue about the contents is suggested by the headline on the same story online. This headline contains two additional words, in parentheses. Here is the twist those words add:

The online headline reads "The real (surprisingly comforting) reason rural America is doomed to decline.”

(To be 100 percent clear, I’m using the contrast in headlines to underscore the complexities in the piece, not to give the Post grief of any sort.)

As Van Dam clearly lays out in the story, among the many burdens on rural America is a bureaucratic and definitional one. To oversimplify: Whenever a non–major-metro area starts developing or prospering, for that very reason it stops being classified as rural.

That is: On top of the many real challenges rural communities face, their situation looks even bleaker than it is, because of the steady reclassification of successful smaller towns and rural areas as being no longer rural.

Here is Van Dam’s explanation:

The contest between rural and urban America is rigged. Official definitions are regularly updated in such a way that rural counties are continually losing their most successful places to urbanization [as officially classified]. When a rural county grows, it transmutes into an urban one …

Imagine how unfair a sport would seem if one team automatically drafted the other’s best players the moment they showed any promise. That’s essentially what happens when we measure rural areas as whatever’s left over after anywhere that hits a certain population level is considered metropolitan. It distorts how we see rural America. It skews our view of everything from presidential politics to suicide to deaths caused by alcohol …

It makes rural areas look poorer, whiter, older and more prone to alcohol-related death or suicide than under broader definitions. Statistics such as these affect everything from Medicare reimbursement to the larger perception that the nation’s breadbasket is also a basket case.

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