On the Road

NPR's "100 Days" series takes a journalistic road trip

Faye Womack, until recently a worker at a houseboat manufacturing company in southern Kentucky, was just laid off, and has no other job prospects in sight. Monica Owen-Head, a college senior, has no idea whether she’ll be able to get a job—beyond her current, part-time waitressing gig—after graduation. Carl Harm, a mechanical contractor from Traverse City, Michigan, has seen his workload drop from twelve houses in previous years to one house last year. Jason Palmer used to be a supervisor at a video production company in Atlanta; after losing his job last year, he turned to scavenging and selling scrap metal to pay the bills.

We meet Faye, Monica, Carl, Jason, and many others in “100 Days: On the Road in Troubled Times,” an NPR series that puts a journalistic spin on that most quintessential of American pastimes: the road trip. In it, David Greene—NPR White House reporter turned national correspondent—travels the country’s midsection, his course guided by input from listeners, e-mailers, and Twitterers, to document the intersection between politics, economics, and everyday life. “In any modern presidency, the first 100 days are considered a yardstick for what can be accomplished in a first term,” the series’ introduction notes. “In 2009, the new president faces a global financial crisis and the need to restore the confidence of Americans.” The series aims to accomplish that classic journalistic goal: putting human faces to an abstract problem. Telling the stories behind the headlines, from the vantage point of those who are living them.

“100 Days” began, as the best road trips do, with an itinerary that left plenty of room for deviation. (“ROUGH plan for my trip down I-75: Rest of this week in OH. Feb 2-6 in KY & TN. Feb 7-11 in Georgia. Feb 12-20 in Fla,” Greene tweeted in January. “Would love ideas.”) It ended up bringing Greene from Michigan down to Ohio, and then to Kentucky and then to Georgia, and finally to Florida. Listener tips, from Twitter and more traditional platforms, have dictated the stopping points: a listener introduced Greene, for example, to Majestic Yachts, Inc., the Kentucky houseboat manufacturer that recently had to lay off all twenty-seven members of its close-knit staff. A chance meeting brought Greene to Dayton, Ohio, to report on the business of a man he met in Michigan. “It’s been fun to just roll with it,” Greene told me.

The final product of that rolling—stories that play out in audio, in images, in text, and in interactive maps before us—is a powerful if unscientific survey of the recession’s effects…not on Washington power-brokers or on I-bankers’ girlfriends, but on people living in those regions that are largely undercovered by the national media. Through Greene’s travels, we meet the people so often caricatured by politicians and, indeed, by the media itself: struggling small-business owners, waitresses, students, and others in the group the media often shorthand as “everyday Americans.”

Greene narrates their stories in such a way—in a manner both casual and intensely personal—as to make us think of them on a first-name basis. And we learn that, despite the challenges they’re facing, Faye, Monica, Carl, Jason and their fellows are still generally hopeful that the economy—and their lives—will improve. “Over and over again, I heard people say they’re not giving up hope—at least not yet,” Greene reports.

“100 Days” leverages its on-the-ground reporting with information-gathering of a more ethereal variety: Greene takes story and other ideas from his (currently) 1,075 followers on Twitter; comments on the series’s NPR Web page; and e-mails and other more “traditional” reporter-source conduits. Which, overall, infuses “100 Days” with a where-the-wind-takes-us spirit and an unapologetically random air. (“Anyone ever sleep at Billie’s Swamp Safari in the Everglades? In a $35 chickee hut? We’re considering it,” Greene tweeted last week. The next day: “Help! Where should we stay on Lake Okeechobee tonight?”)

But, then, its randomness is kind of the point. “My hope is that it gives people the feeling that they’re riding along with me,” Greene says of the series. And that along-for-the-ride sensibility also means audiences share in the freewheeling quality of the trip itself. The stories we hear come to us via shoeleather’s sometimes strange serendipity. Greene met Bob Westerfield, a Dayton resident, while Westerfield was on a snowmobiling getaway in Paradise, Michigan. A few days later, Greene produced a piece, datelined “Exit 52, Dayton, Ohio,” exploring Westerfield’s troubled business: creating scoreboards for high school athletics. “Schools are putting off purchases that aren’t essential,” Greene notes in the piece, “and the advertisers that help pay for the scoreboards are also short on cash.”

Through Westerfield’s plight, Greene examines the financial struggles of Ohio public schools—”Westerfield knows his company is a gauge of the recession. He sees every day how desperate schools are for money”—and the state’s broader financial struggles. As Greene drove to Dayton, Governor Stickland’s State of the State speech played on his car radio. “I must ask all Ohioans to accept the sacrifices that these times demand,” the governor told his listeners. As Greene noted to his own listeners, “He said no one will be spared.”

For all its use of social media tools—Twitter, Flickr, Google maps, blogs, etc.—”100 Days” is about the old as much as the new. The series takes traditional (which is to say, time-honored) approaches to newsgathering—shoe-leather reporting, personal conversations, an openness to new information—and repurposes them for the digital age. The series harnesses the power of social media to produce stories that are evocative and informative and, by most measures, important.

Which doesn’t mean the reaction to its stories has been uniformly positive. “I am irritated with how everyone in the press thinks the first 100 days of someone’s presidency is important,” Kelly Beard writes on a comments page. “What a useless metric to measure someone by. Get it together NPR and stop perpetuating this pointless number.” Wanda Wynn took issue with Greene’s story about the less-booming-than-normal snowmobiling season in Northern Michigan. “Please, could we have something about the positive side of of things about the down turn in the economy,” she declares. “I am thinking of the many pounds of carbon dioxide not released into the atmosphere.”

Still, “100 Days” is a testament to what a guy with a voice recorder and a camera can do these days…when he also has a decent internet connection. The series doesn’t try to be more than it is; in many ways, in fact, it revels in what it’s not. Though Greene’s reporting is original, his platform is largely outsourced. The online versions of Greene’s stories link to Twitter and Flickr feeds, and to his various contributions to NPR’s Planet Money blog. The series landing page features a prominently embedded Google map. And its stories themselves practice the kind of narrative transparency that sees journalism not just as a product, but as a practice—the old it’s the journey, not the destination cliche writ reportorial. In the Stone Soup Kitchen in Atlanta, Greene meets Sam Terrell, the cafe’s kitchen manager. He keeps his culinary job just to pay the bills, Terrell tells Greene; but his real passion is rapping. Terrell “came outside with me so we could pop one of his CDs into my rental car,” Greene reports.

“This is called ‘The Best Years’ right here,” Terrell said as one of his songs played. “We’re kind of being ironic. At the same time, this is the best time in our life, it’s also the economy’s bad, everything is sort of crazy, everybody’s losing their jobs, and, you know, record companies are kind of slow. But we’re still out here enjoying ourselves, making the best rap, just living it up the best we can, because these are the best years of our life.”

I bought Terrell’s CD for $10, so his message and his music are sticking with me as I drive on south.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.