One reason young midwesterners wrestle with their tuition bills, of course, is the downturn in the regional economy. The failure of journalists at the Detroit auto show to venture out of the Cobo Center reflects a broader indifference on the part of national news organizations toward the severe dislocations taking place in the nation’s midsection. Michael Sallah, who worked for thirteen years as a reporter at the Toledo Blade before taking a job as investigations editor at The Miami Herald in 2005, says that “from time to time reporters will swoop in and do an obligatory story on an auto or steel plant that’s closing and the effect this will have on Youngstown or Bryan, Ohio.” But that individual closing, he notes, is actually part of a much larger story—the slow death of American manufacturing. NAFTA and free trade in general have had a devastating effect on blue-collar America, and only by covering that story on a regular basis can the depth of the transformation be appreciated. “So goes the Midwest, so, in many cases, goes the rest of the country,” Sallah told me.
In the 2006 election, the surprising margin of the Democratic victory placed a long-overdue spotlight on the stagnating fortunes of the nation’s middle and working classes. That trend, however, has been under way for years in the Rust Belt, and had a national news organization been based there, it could not have remained hidden for so long.
Since there’s little chance of a national news organization’s suddenly picking up and moving to the Midwest, it’s more useful to think of ways of moving some of the Midwest into those organizations. With all the talk about the need to increase racial and ethnic diversity in the newsroom, it might be worth discussing the importance of more regional (and class) diversity as well. During my visit to Bowling Green, several faculty members told me of the frustration they’d had in trying to place their students in internships at top-tier news organizations. Even an in-state paper like the Toledo Blade, I was told, often seemed to prefer Ivy League grads.
Berkley Hudson, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, told me of a phone conversation he’d recently had with an editor at Smithsonian magazine who was considering taking one of his students for a six-month internship. The student was from a small town in Kansas, and the editor, he said, was worried that she lacked the sophistication to work for a national magazine. Hudson explained that the student had a degree in literary and cultural studies from Carnegie Mellon and could talk knowledgeably about Foucault; she was, he said, “as good as anybody who went to Choate, St. Paul’s, and Harvard.” Eventually he managed to overcome the editor’s resistance, and the student got the internship. Such skepticism about midwestern students abounds, he says. A graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, Hudson says that the Ivy League network operating there gives students access to a much broader range of job opportunities than is available at the Missouri J-school, as respected as it is. “I’m sure that that bias has an effect on what we read,” he adds.
With an election year fast approaching, reporters from the East and West coasts will soon begin their quadrennial “rediscovery” of Iowa. They’ll spend a few days interviewing locals in diners and at hardware stores, trying to take the “pulse” of Middle America. They’ll stop by the Des Moines Register for the requisite interview with the columnist David Yepsen. Then it’ll be off to New Hampshire. Wouldn’t it be refreshing to assign a reporter to Iowa or Ohio for a full year before the election so that he or she could get some real insight into what the people there are thinking? That would certainly beat having to listen to another round of pundits in New York and Washington trying to make sense of the 2008 exit polls.