April 30, 2019

Attention alone won’t tell Postindustrial America’s story in 2020

All eyes — and campaigns — are focused on Middle America. That’s not good enough.

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By MATT STROUD AND CARMEN GENTILE

Photo AND VIDEO By NICK CHILDERS

Here we go again.

CNN is trodding down a well-worn road toward the 2020 presidential election with the same tired, cliche-ridden reporting from Erie, Pennsylvania, asking: How do Pennsylvania voters feel about Trump for 2020?

We saw loads of this type of reductive reporting from cable news and mainstream print outlets in the run-up to 2016. A reporter asks a few “working folks” from Postindustrial America who they plan to vote for and why, portraying their seconds-long sound bytes as an adequate measure of the pulse of the region.

One such common cliche was the diner interview. Seemingly every news story had it: A group of “working-class” folks at their favorite local eatery in the Rust Belt or Greater Appalachia talking about who they’d vote for in the 2016 presidential election and why.

Judging by the stories churned out by much of the mainstream media leading up to Trump’s election, you’d think political opinions in these two distinct and diverse regions couldn’t be offered unless accompanied by a hot order of bacon and eggs.

While there’s nothing wrong with reporters talking to people over a meal about their homefront concerns and political persuasions, the fascination with diners reflected a kind of cursory political reporting that served no one well. It gave little context to big issues, and often treated random opinions as representative of entire swaths of the country. It was drive-thru chatting passed off as sit-down journalism.

As journalists and book authors in Pittsburgh, this irked us.

These stories often portrayed regions like ours as little more than a collection of small towns that were backward-thinking and irrevocably doomed by a changing economic landscape that left them behind.

The reality is that much of what we see in the Rust Belt and Appalachia, a region we call “Postindustrial America,” could not be further from this oft-perpetuated stereotype.

Sure, some do in fact feel overlooked and disrespected by the “coastal elites,” a resentment stoked into a frenzy over the last two decades by conservative talk radio and cable news — which unfortunately serve as the only news sources in small communities where the local newspaper has long stopped printing.

But that’s not everyone in the region that we know — and cover daily at postindustrial.com.

Innovation and economic revival are the cornerstones to success stories like the reinvention of Pittsburgh following the collapse of the steel industry. Today the region is home to cutting-edge robotics, leading medical centers, and some of the brightest minds creating your favorite apps.

It may come as a shock to some on the coasts that Postindustrial America is not, in fact, made up solely of laid-off steelworkers and misinformed miners, as so much of the mainstream media portrayed it leading up to Trump’s election.

However, that wasn’t a journalistic sin relegated just to the 2016 election. For years, much of the national news media has seen Postindustrial America this way. And it’s happening again in the lead-up to the 2020 election.

Politicians have gotten the message that Hillary Clinton may have lost the 2016 election because she didn’t take the region — and perhaps more overtly the coal industry and the communities it helps to support — seriously enough. It’s likely that the main reason candidates such as Tim Ryan and Pete Buttigieg are receiving attention is their connection to Postindustrial communities. And it’s telling that Donald Trump went to Grand Rapids, Michigan, to give his first campaign rally after Attorney General William Barr’s March 24 “no collusion” report summary.

But journalists seem to have missed it. As the campaigns grow in prominence, we’re seeing the same kinds of drive-thru political reporting. Outlets continue to pop in on small towns to conduct a few interviews without investing real time and resources into exploring the issues that matter to people in the communities where “working-class” folks live, work, and gather — whether it’s at a diner or not.

We started Postindustrial Media to explore the whos, hows, and whats of the region’s major issues. Sure, people care about immigration, but who are the people actually immigrating here, and how are they assimilating into the communities and industries around them? People have concerns about opioids and their influence on our communities, but how are new policies changing that influence? Automation and exporting may have decreased the number of available coal jobs in the region, but what’s left for workers in the industry? And what realistic opportunities exist for the economies built around the industry?

We will report the myriad stories that will inform the electorate in Postindustrial America — and tell their stories to the rest of the country.

We implore the national media to do likewise, even if it means doing a little more legwork than ordering that second cup of coffee at the local diner.

More importantly, we’re asking you — our loyal readers who rely on Postindustrial for in-depth, nuanced reporting and analysis from Postindustrial America — to help us continue this mission by contributing to our Kickstarter campaign and subscribing to our new print edition starting in late May.

Photo by Justin Merriman of American Reportage
Matt Stroud, an accomplished journalist and book author, is a former staff writer with Bloomberg and the Associated Press who has written for Esquire, Harper’s, BuzzFeed, The Atlantic, and The New York Times.

Carmen Gentile
Carmen Gentile has worked for The New York Times and CBS News, among others. His book, "Blindsided by the Taliban," documents his life as a war reporter and the aftermath of his brush with death after being shot with a rocket-propelled grenade while embedded with U.S. Army forces in Afghanistan.

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