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.