After writing nearly 500 posts over the last few years on health care, Medicare, and Social Security, I have observed that, for the most part, voices of ordinary people affected by policy changes decreed by elites and passed on by the press have been absent from the discussion. That raised a question: Why and for whom are we really writing? So I turned to Don Barlett, a partner in the legendary reporting duo of Barlett and [Jim] Steele of the Philadelphia Inquirer, later of Time and now at Vanity Fair. They have the distinction of winning two Pulitzer Prizes and two National Magazine Awards, so I figured they could tell me about why their work connected with the public, especially in ways that reportage does not always do today. Their series “America: What Went Wrong” chronicled what was happening to workers in the early 1990s in a period of great economic dislocation. It was later turned into a book. Their new book, The Betrayal of the American Dream, will be out next year.

Trudy Lieberman: What was the key ingredient that made your series, “America: What Went Wrong”, connect with people?

Don Barlett: It brought all the pieces together. One phrase we heard over and over was “I thought this was happening only to me. They thought they were alone.” There’s no question the story hit a nerve because people saw themselves in it. There were 400,000 to 500,000 reprints, and the book was on the best seller list for eight months.

TL: Can you give some specifics about how that series connected so strongly with ordinary workers?

DB: We interviewed workers who had lost their jobs in industries that had given people a solid middle class living. And not high-income jobs. Jim would interview a shoe worker in Missouri and I would interview a glass worker in West Virginia and when we returned to Philadelphia and typed up the notes, the stories were identical.
These industries were the glue that held small towns together. For the first time you saw how government policies were destroying a way of life.

TL: What else was going on?

DB: The news media portrayed this economic dislocation as a temporary recession. But in fact it was structural. In western Pennsylvania, work from a transformer plant was being shipped to Mexico. Wages were being lowered and benefits eliminated. A lot of the blue collar guys had nothing. One called COBRA a fraud. He had just gotten a bill for it which he had a hard time paying. We each spent a lot of time in different parts of the country. Reporting was an ongoing process. We interviewed people who worked in these plants and they were having a problem finding new work. All of a sudden, their lives were turned upside down by forces they never saw coming. The series was very popular with people, but not with economists. That was the last time people still believed their government.

TL: What do you mean by putting all the pieces together?

DB: We looked at who was profiting. Who was making money off these government policies that led to the destruction of people’s lives. This is still going on today. We’ve been getting e-mails from people asking when are you going to revisit this issue. A number of people are saying ‘I just discovered this’ (the old series).

TL: Is the web a good medium for this sort of reporting?

DB: Yes and no. Yes for gathering information. Not necessarily for replacing the function served by newspapers. You need to walk people through a complex issue so they understand it. There’s no walking through on the web. You lose them. It’s a great research tool, but as a communications tool, it leaves much to be desired on serious issues. It’s great for gathering information but someone has to put it together and explain what it means.

TL: Is that being done?

DB: Everybody is trying, but you can’t deal with all serious issues in a sound bite. There are longer pieces but readers are in and out. They don’t seem to be absorbing it.

TL: But in some ways the web does let us connect with people.

DB: The clicks don’t reflect anything. The page views don’t reflect anything. They can be a nervous tic. But if people take the time to write an e-mail or a letter, they’re hurting, and they’re connecting.

TL: Is the web, then, a superficial way of connecting?

DB: Yes. It’s in keeping with the Facebook mentality. Everybody wants to know where I am today, but that’s different from really connecting with the economic concerns of people. It’s the Paris Hilton-Lindsay Lohan School of Connectivity.

TL: Why are we disconnected from our readers?

Trudy Lieberman is a fellow at the Center for Advancing Health and a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR’s healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.