How Journalism Lost the Big Picture By Ignoring ‘Small’ Stories

    by Heather Bryant
    November 22, 2016
    Photo by Jon S on Flickr and reused here with Creative Commons license.

    This piece first appeared on Medium.

    It’s time to reckon with some problems that are long past due for solving.

    After the election, we are awash in think pieces, hot takes and other assorted variations of “How did this happen?” including my own contribution.


    Challenges and deficits have been identified. Some of them are new and rest on the shoulders of the digital world we now live in. And in many cases, they are ones we’ve heard before.

    Among these problems, here’s the one I keep coming back to: We missed real stories. We missed important voices. We missed the part of journalism that involves talking to people rather than making assumptions or broad generalizations about communities we didn’t know well.

    Larger, more broadly published stories that actually acknowledged the genuine sentiments of rural, working class, less educated and/or middle America voters were few and far between.


    It’s also worth noting that some of the ones that rang particularly true were written on comedy sites.

    We’ve been ignoring the truth of rural America since before Sarah Palin was a Vice-Presidential candidate. Too many news organizations realized too late that those perspectives were real and an actual force to consider.

    So what’s next?

    Resources are stretched thin. Attempts to open new newsrooms across rural American should not be the first solution we jump to.

    The first important reason is that rural America, while primarily centered just East of the Rocky Mountains, is not just one place.

    Rural America as defined by the USDA (the lightest yellows and greens), stretches from sea to shining sea. (USDA Map)


    I included Alaska and Hawaii because political forecast maps have a tendency to forget they exist, and they have voices that matter too. (USDA map)


    We can look at maps to start to suss out where rural is. But the more important question is who.

    Rural is an identity more than it is a designation of population.

    There’s a little bit of rural everywhere. And it’s as complicated, simple, nuanced, ignorant, intelligent, rich, poor, political, easygoing, uptight, suspicious, naive, friendly and rude as any suburban or urban place.

    The second important reason is all of the areas on the map that rest somewhere between rural yellows and greens and metropolitan blues are the homes to working class people who’ve also been commonly absent or altogether misunderstood in much of news coverage for a long time now.

    What’s realistic for the journalism industry?

    A little advice from these places: When things break, we don’t just get a new one. We’re not made of money. We fix it and make it work.

    While a few more newsrooms could pop up, journalism as a whole would be better served by supporting and improving the newsrooms that might already be in these places.

    Everyone is struggling to have enough resources just to cover the diversity and issues of the complex places they are actually based in. It’s not the time for big newsrooms to jump into areas they are new to.

    Our audiences will be better served by hearing from journalists who truly understand the places and people that they are reporting on.

    I’ve heard many stories about the old media model of using local journalists like fixers. And I’ve known of plenty of times when Real Journalists have turned up their nose at small town stories they’ve deemed Not Real News.

    The time for that is over.

    People’s stories and lives are real news to them, no matter where they live. Their feelings are real. Their perspectives are real. Their opinions are real. Their struggles are real. And their choices and their votes have a very real impact. For better or for worse.

    Newsrooms have much in common with many of the people we’re not fully reporting on. We’re all just hanging in there, getting by as best we can, scraping for the money to get through.

    It’s time for us to move past the competitiveness of an industry that doesn’t look anything like itself when there was the money to go around.

    Collaboration is our best and most viable option for immediately improving the state of media in our country.

    If I walked into a New York City newsroom tomorrow, hellbent on writing the definitive piece on what New Yorkers thought about anything, I would be laughed out and rightfully so. You cannot download the lifetime of expertise from local reporters, no matter where they are. You will never know their communities like they do. Parachuting in will not result in a story that has any resemblance to reality.

    If I did a shot for every time an Outside reporter went to Alaska and came back with a story that included the phrase “[Inaccurate description of an Alaska Native person’s identity] has 7 words for snow but only one for…” I’d be feeling considerably better about the past week. Actually, come to think of it, I’d be dead from alcohol poisoning.

    So our challenge as we move forward — particularly mine as I work through this JSK Fellowship — is this:

    How do we help newsrooms create effective, meaningful editorial collaborations?

    We need to shift attitudes on what news is worthwhile and what isn’t. There are both obvious and not obvious answers to this and it will take our collective wisdom and experience to gauge when and how to amplify news that requires extended reach.

    We need newsrooms that are talking to each other. Regularly, not just when something big happens.

    We need to reflect constantly about what voices are being missed. It’s not enough to see it in hindsight. We have to seek it out every day and support the the newsrooms best qualified and most capable to fill the gap.

    We need to help newsrooms find the kind of collaborations that are right for them and facilitate that process.

    I’m talking to journalists across the country, and even some in other countries, about how we go about this cultural and process change. It’s an exciting conversation and I want you to be a part of it.

    Have you been a part of a collaborative effort and can share your experience? I’d love to talk to you. Toss your name in this form here or send me an email at hbryant (at) stanford.edu.

    Know of any collaborations, either formal or informal? Put them in this spreadsheet and help map the ecosystem of collaboration. It doesn’t matter how old it is or whether or not you were personally involved. I’m looking for everything from massive investigative undertakings to small newsrooms that trade photos on stories they can’t both cover.

    Even if you’re not currently collaborating or know of anyone who is, but you still think this matters, you can be a part of the community talking about this and join our Collaborative Journalism Slack.

    Heather Bryant is currently a JSK Fellow at Stanford working to help newsrooms build effective and meaningful editorial collaborations. She is also the founder and director of Project Facet, an open source software project to help manage the editorial process and facilitate collaboration between newsrooms. Facet received a Knight Prototype Grant in 2015.

    Tagged: audience engagement community journalism heather bryant rural communities small stories

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