Solutions journalism in the time of Trump
Bridging the here/elsewhere divide in a country grown accustomed to failure.
Most of the people who pass through Raton, New Mexico, on I-25 are bound for elsewhere: Denver to the north, Albuquerque to the south. Ever since Raton’s coalmines went bust, there hasn’t been much to draw new residents, or to hold tourists beyond a quick pit stop at McDonald’s. Yet as Staci Matlock reports this month for “Small Towns, Big Change,” Raton is on the upswing: visionary local leaders are exploring new business opportunities; public infrastructure funding is rolling in; and entrepreneurs are setting up shop. While Raton’s future isn’t assured yet, it’s brighter today than it’s been in a decade.
If you listened to Donald Trump this election season, you might consider Raton’s optimism anomalous. Trump’s election was a victory for many factions, from working-class Rust Belt voters alienated by the status quo to the insidious alt-right. Most of all, though, it was a triumph for failure. Throughout his campaign, Trump portrayed America as essentially a failed state — besieged by ISIS abroad and immigrants at home, hollowed out by manufacturing’s collapse and Obamacare’s costs, plagued by crime, venality, and political correctness. Towns historically reliant on extractive industries, like Raton, were purportedly the bleakest of all.
There was, of course, some truth in Trump’s grim appraisal. America has grown more unequal, and economic recovery has primarily benefited society’s wealthiest strata. In other ways, though, things are pretty good. Under President Obama, violent crime has plummeted; the labor market continues to climb from the pit of recession; and prices at the pump have somehow fallen at the same time as national carbon emissions.
That contradiction has manifested in startling ways. At the Republican convention, delegates were almost universally optimistic about their own region’s economy, even as they insisted the country was itself on the brink of collapse. The Atlantic’s James Fallows spent the last three years interviewing residents of rural towns and small cities, and observed the same disconnect. “(A)lmost every place you went, people felt, boy, it’s really a troubled time for America,” he said recently on Fresh Air. But from Allentown, Pennsylvania, to Ajo, Arizona, folks felt that “things were moving at least in the right direction” in their own communities.
We truly are a nation divided — and one of the starkest lines runs between “here” and “everywhere else.”
The reasons for this division are complex, but the media surely shoulders some blame. Among our countless lapses during the interminable election cycle, one scarcely received mention: the persistent failure to report not only on the problems afflicting America, but on the solutions that are revitalizing it.
One popular analysis posits that Trump’s strength was his story — a neat if ugly narrative of decay and decline, terrorists and criminals, onerous regulations and corrupt politicians. No wonder that story struck a chord: It’s the same one that voters encounter every time they turn on the TV or collect their newspaper. Combine the media’s affection for disaster with Americans’ profound ignorance about how the other half lives, and you have a recipe for mutual contempt. When people in rural areas consume news about cities, they’re bombarded with violence, civil unrest, and the condescension of distant cultural elites. When city dwellers read about their country counterparts, they’re treated to a steady diet of meth addiction, guns, and rural blight. Each side comes to view the other as the irredeemable source of social rot.
Since April, the Solutions Journalism Network, in partnership with the LOR Foundation, has been trying to demonstrate that solutions reporting can help bridge our deepest social chasms. We set “Small Towns, Big Change” in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, a region that lags near the bottom of the country in categories from education to healthcare. In partnership with seven newsrooms, including newspapers, magazines, and television and radio stations, we produced six packages of stories over six months, each collection organized around a theme, from environmental protection to combating substance abuse. All told, we produced more than 50 stories about prospective fixes to seemingly intractable challenges. How can towns protect themselves against wildfire while safeguarding their water supplies? How can group therapy sessions combat opioid abuse? How can community-run libraries fill the educational void left by underfunded schools? And how can economies that depend on natural resources, like Raton’s, escape the boom-bust cycle?
We also looked beyond our own Southwestern region for inspiration — from Washington State tax laws that are keeping farmers on the land, to data management systems in New Jersey that help hospitals track their patients. Sharing success stories across the country, even the world, melts the line between here and elsewhere: Not only do we have common problems, we can draw succor from common solutions.
There is a perception that solutions reporting is not “real” journalism; Fallows referred to “(t)he great difficulty of presenting positive developments in ways that don’t seem silly or sap-like.” As our project showed, however, solutions-style reporting can be as investigative as antagonistic journalism. One particularly strong story focused on Española, a community ravaged by opioid abuse, where an array of interventions haven’t overcome the poverty and unemployment that leads people into addiction. Solutions reporting doesn’t gloss over structural inequity; neither does it throw up its hands in surrender. Our victories have been modest but real: After one of our reporters published a story about an education program for the children of migrant farmworkers, she received an email from a college professor seeking to recruit the program’s graduates. These stories mattered.
So, too, does where we told them. Right now, editors at coastal urban newsrooms are wringing their hands at their failure to comprehend Trump’s rural support. That wasn’t for lack of trying: “Profiles from Trump country” was such an overdone trope that it became the terrain of satirists. But not even skilled reporters can understand rural communities by parachuting in for a week. As local newsrooms become an endangered species, we’d all do well to remember that preserving small-town news organizations is in everyone’s best interest, including urbanites’.
Covering Trump’s presidency will pose unprecedented crises for journalists. Reporters will be tasked with calling out the lies and depredations of a man who has shown a historic disregard for the truth and disdain for the press. Trump’s personal entanglements, unreleased tax returns, and refusal to recuse his family from operating his businesses suggest the potential for massive corruption. Oppositional journalism will be more important than ever.
But covering Trump, and closing the rifts he’s exposed and widened, will also require telling new kinds of stories — stories that refute the claim that America’s institutions, policies, and communities are shattered. We have problems, sure, and big ones. Yet we have as much reason to hope as to despair. Trump campaigned not only on the country’s brokenness, but on the promise that he alone could fix it. By reporting on solutions, we can demonstrate that America is already under repair — a form of resistance in its own right.
Ben Goldfarb is a project editor at the Solutions Journalism Network