Wednesday, February 25, 2009

What Really Smart Reporting Looks Like

Between January and November last year, John Russo and I were interviewed about the presidential election by more than 40 journalists from around the world. Most wanted to know how white working-class people would vote. Would traditional values keep them from supporting a white woman? Could they set aside their racism to vote for Obama? Would they be lured by Sarah Palin’s small town patriotism and her hunting photos? The questions were predictable, and most reflected reporters’ assumptions that working-class voters are a homogeneous and old-fashioned group.

Jonathan Kaufman, political editor for the Wall Street Journal, was different. While other reporters asked us to help them get in touch with one or two workers or direct us to the local union hall, Jonathan asked us to set up focus groups and invited us to come along for the conversation. While other reporters assumed that the working class today is pretty much the same as it’s always been, Jonathan asked thoughtful questions about how people’s experiences in the workplace might influence their ideas about race, gender, and class in politics. I was impressed from the beginning.

It wasn’t until Kaufman came back to Youngstown last week and we had time to talk about his life and work that I fully understood why he took a different tack. First, he’s just an incredibly smart and well-informed guy. He doesn’t rely on stereotypes or common wisdom for his stories. He analyzes trends, based on his own critical understanding that how people think -- and how they vote -- is shaped by complex social factors. You can hear the complexity and sensitivity of his thinking in our conversation; he takes time to develop an answer, coherently and engagingly, revealing the multiple layers and angles of a topic.

Second, he has a long track record of reporting on issues of race, class, and gender, so he knows the terrain well. Not only does he understand the issues, he also understands what it takes to get people to talk honestly about it. In our interview, he describes his approach – the value of focus groups, the advantages and limitations of his own persona, the importance of having a good editor and colleagues to check his thinking.

Kaufman also understands why some people in Youngstown didn’t like his story, and why he heard comments from so many friends and colleagues from other places who told him that his story gave them a whole new, and much more complex, image of this community.

If you missed the panel discussion where Jonathan Kaufman, Marilyn Geewax, and Connie Schultz discussed how the media has reported about Youngstown, you can view the video on the Vindicator’s website.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Volunteering for a Stronger Community

My mother was a volunteer extraordinaire. She was president of a series of community organizations in Washington, DC and then in Denver. She organized summer camps that brought urban and suburban kids together, across class and race divides, to play games, put on skits, and so on. She led adult education programs, girl scout troups, fundraising drives, and more. She believed in getting involved. My mother would have loved the conversation I had this week with Maureen Drummond about the Hands-On Volunteer Network.

As Maureen explains, volunteering is not just about serving others, though that matters. It’s also about a sense of belonging, of making a difference. And the time we spend working at a food bank, tutoring children, cleaning up the neighborhood, or simply stuffing envelopes helps us develop relationships and skills even as it contributes to improving our neighborhood and the broader community. When people get involved, they gain insight into the problems and assets of their communities, and the relationships and skills they develop create “civic infrastructure.” That’s what the Points of Light institute, the national organization with which the Hands-On Volunteer Network is connected, calls the development of human resources that make stronger communities and social change possible.

I hope that listening to Maureen will inspire you to want to get involved. The Hands-On Volunteer Network’s website can help you get started.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Economic News from the Inside Out

On this week’s Lincoln Avenue, I’m talking with Marilyn Geewax, the senior business editor for National Public Radio news. But just as important, a local girl. Marilyn grew up in Campbell, and she was finishing college when the mills started to close down. Coming home from an internship in Dayton to write about the mill closings started her on a career of covering business and industry, and she brings to her work, and to our conversation, both a Youngstown perspective and the experience of years working as a journalist, including reporting on Youngstown.

Equally important, she is both covering and experiencing the struggles of the current economic crisis. As a business editor, she’s working with NPR reporters to identify important stories and examine them thoughtfully, to help the rest of us understand a confusing and frightening time. As an individual, she’s also beginning a new job, in a new part of her industry. She moved from print journalism to radio when she was laid off from the company for which she’d worked for many years – not because she wasn’t doing her job well, but because the company was adjusting to changes in the industry and to the economic situation.

Add to that experience an MA in international economic affairs, and we’re talking about someone who is in a unique and valuable position to understand and comment on the current economy – an issue with which I think many of us are struggling. How should we understand the economic shifts that are creating such havoc? As Geewax suggests in our conversation, we have to see the big picture – past and present, local, national, and international.

The topic is sobering, but her perspective is refreshing. She brings realism and optimism to the conversation, personal experience and an analytical view. It’s too bad that we don’t hear editors’ voices on the radio more often, because what Marilyn Geewax has to say is worth listening to.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Political Reality in Ohio

Last week, Ohio Governor Ted Strickland laid out his plans for balancing the state budget and developing new programs in his 2009 State of the State address. On this week’s Lincoln Avenue, local Representative Bob Hagan weighs in. As Hagan reminds us, while this kind of speech presents the Governor’s plans with great certainty, the reality will be messier.

What I liked best in Strickland’s speech is the idea that K-12 education needs significant change, not minor reforms. While I don’t support all of the strategies he laid out, I do think that extending the school year, more interdisciplinary teaching, project-based learning, and improved training for teachers are all good ideas. But, as educator Bill Mullane explained on Lincoln Avenue last year, making dramatic changes in education is incredibly difficult. From Mullane’s perspective, that’s because of the power of the familiar. Most of us had similar school experiences, and it’s hard for us to imagine organizing education in a different way.

But as Hagan explains, the challenge isn’t just about resistance to change from parents or teachers. It’s about the political process. Strickland presented his ideas as actions that the state will take, but in truth he can’t do much on his own. The state legislature has to approve policies and budgets. The Ohio House and Senate will develop their own plans, which may or may not reflect Strickland’s ideas. The final product will result from negotiation and compromise. In principle, compromise sounds like a great idea. In theory, that would generate policies that take into consideration the needs of different constituencies. In practice, compromise – especially political compromise -- rarely generates true innovation.

We see this with the on-going debates about health care, on both the state and federal levels. Real innovation would involve some sort of single-payer system – a completely different way of approaching health coverage. Compromise leads us to plans that seek to extend the current system to cover more people.

In a tight economy, I think we’re more likely than ever to lean toward compromise. We take the conservative route because we don’t want to risk wasting our limited resources. That’s the challenge that the Ohio legislature now faces: how to design policies for change in an environment of worry.