Man Of The People
How Evan McMorris-Santoro Is Making National News Local Again
In Pewaukee, Wisconsin, dozens of constituents line up holding signs emblazoned with “DISAGREE.” They’re here to voice their opinions to Jim Sensenbrenner, a Republican congressman who frequently holds these town hall-style meetings across what he views as a retail politics state. Evan McMorris-Santoro is here too, reporting for Vice News Tonight.
The finished segment is brief and subtle, yet it provides a potent illustration of Pewaukee’s citizens: real people with real concerns that are unbound to partisan lines. “You mentioned we didn’t see this kind of divisiveness over the last eight years…you were kidding, right?” McMorris-Santoro chuckles to a blank-faced Sensenbrenner. The timing is uncanny — especially as the congressman introduces a xenophobic “BUILD WALL Act” just two days after the episode airs.
In the ongoing effort to untangle the conundrum that was the 2016 election, many have argued that journalism’s coastal perspective isolated rural America — especially rust belt states, like Wisconsin, which voted Democrat in recent elections. For McMorris-Santoro, his entire career has pivoted around amplifying the oft-unheard voices in key electoral states.
After forgoing the pursuit of a philosophy degree at George Washington University, he found himself back in his native North Carolina writing for the Moore County Independent, a small, local paper. “When I got my first byline,” he says, “it was like I had waited my whole life for it.”
Following the paper’s closure, and a stint at Tennessee’s The Lebanon Democrat, McMorris-Santoro returned to Washington D.C. to work at The Hotline, a news aggregation service. There, he would read up 200 local papers each morning in an effort to isolate the day’s biggest political headlines. “We could tell you what the big story would be four days ahead of the national news cycle,” he recalls.
Eventually, he ended up at Buzzfeed’s D.C. bureau in 2013. “One of the reasons I went there is because Buzzfeed is a place with this mentality of finding an audience, not judging based on platform or age, and providing content based on how the audience wants it,” he explains. “That was a radical idea back then!”
Though he labels his pathway to journalism as “traditional”, McMorris-Santoro acknowledges that, due to the massive decrease in local reporting, it would be difficult to replicate today. “When you’re a local reporter, the impact is so much more clear and the value of the business is so much more obvious,” he says. “One of the reasons polling was off during this last election cycle was that there was simply less of it, due to lack of funding…there’s less information from top to bottom”
As one of the very few reporters covering Bernie Sanders’ campaign from the get-go, McMorris-Santoro could sense the undulating political climate early on. “We learned a lot of the polish and soundbite-heavy, slick campaigning that we understood to be the hallmark of a successful politician may not be as important as we once thought,” he says. “There was an idea that conventional wisdom was off, and maybe you should be skeptical of it.”
It was this idea that fueled his Buzzfeed podcast, the aptly titled No One Knows Anything, which began shortly before Sanders withdrew from the race. The fully reported podcast often featured McMorris-Santoro traveling to more rural locales, and always included the perspective of at least one “real voter.” Topics ranged from a debate as to whether Hillary Clinton is actually liberal, to an examination of Canadians’ perspectives on U.S. politics.
When the opportunity came to adapt the podcast to Vice News Tonight, HBO’s first daily news series, he couldn’t pass it up. “It’s weird, as a reporter, to put yourself in your stories,” McMorris-Santoro realizes, “but I learned from the podcast that I can do it in a way that’s inviting to people. That’s why I took the Vice job.”
Though his reporting style has remained consistent in its premium channel iteration — his recent segments include visiting Lansing, Michigan to investigate the debate over whether the city should adopt the label of “sanctuary” — McMorris-Santoro recognizes that merely dispatching city writers to rural areas might not be the best solution. “We shouldn’t need the New York Times to fly a reporter from the city to Ohio once every few months just to go around to the diners and see what’s going on,” he says. “What we need are reporters who work and live in those communities, and know what’s going on.”
Still, he sees potential in the renewed public interest for quality journalism. “When I first became an internet reporter in 2007, it seemed impossible that people would pay for news again,” he continues, “but over the past few months, there’s been a huge surge in subscriptions in places like the Times and the Post.” McMorris-Santoro hopes that this upswing leads to reinvestment in areas where major news brands have closed their bureaus.