The Rust Belt Reader 

Could a regional newspaper improve the midwest's prospects?

Richard Longworth's travels through the heartland took him to the newsroom of one of the midwest's largest newspapers. Longworth, a retired Chicago Tribune globe-trotter who's now a fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, doesn't want to embarrass the paper by naming it, but its influence once extended far beyond the city it served. Over the past few decades, though, it's slowly declined—much like that city, and much like the entire midwest.

The paper's editor told him: "I've got a staff here of really smart newspaper people and almost none of them have probably been outside the United States. I've got to name one of them the foreign editor, and that person is going to have to edit the AP foreign wire, and there's nobody here with the world view, the international sophistication, to take that wire and turn it into something meaningful for my readers."

Longworth told me this story in a recent exchange of e-mails after I'd finished reading his new book, Caught in the Middle: America's Heartland in the Age of Globalism. In his telling, the midwest is a region largely abandoned by heavy industry, conquered by corporate agriculture, and occupied by immigrant workers essential to the economies of desperate towns whose natives loathe them. Longworth's midwest reminded me of America's south half a century ago—a failing region mired in a romanticized past. But if the lost war and jim crow scarred the south, they also united it. The midwest must learn to think globally and act regionally, Longworth insists, but today it's state against state, county against county, town against town. Decades of good pay for rote work on the assembly lines of patriarchal corporations deadened the spirit of entrepreneurism, in Longworth's view, and when those corporations eventually moved their plants south and then overseas midwesterners were left naked to their obsolescence.

"As a former newspaperman," writes Longworth, "I worry about how Midwesterners will learn about the globalized world that will determine their future. Once the Midwest boasted excellent newspapers—in Chicago, Minneapolis, Des Moines, Detroit, St. Louis, Madison, Cleveland—committed to telling their readers about their world." But no longer.

Longworth spends little space on newspapers in his book because in his view they didn't cause the problem and they're not playing much of a role in solving it. But I found myself envying the south for its legendary editors who stood tall against the Klan and White Citizens Council. "I wouldn't draw too tight a parallel," Longworth advised me. "For one thing, there were precious few of these courageous southern editors—so few that we probably know most of their names—Harry Ashmore, Hodding Carter, a few others... Second, it seems to me that the truly good ones didn't necessarily have a deep intellectual capacity so much as a strong moral sense."

In other words, sin hasn't brought rust belt states like Ohio to their knees, and righteousness won't be enough to restore them. That will take a lot of really smart people working together—among his other ideas, Longworth thinks the great research universities of the Big Ten should be pooling their resources to help build a high-tech 21st-century regional economy.

Unfortunately, even papers that do try to tell this story find their readers in denial. "Every once in a while a paper will rear back and really try to do a job—a big series on economic changes," Longworth told me. In the last few years, "the Cleveland Plain Dealer did this, with a long series called 'The Quiet Crisis.'... An editor at the paper told me the series was generally well received, 'but the two pieces specifically on globalization and immigration landed with a dull thud.' The Dayton Daily News did a good series, which most of the local leaders seem to have put down as useless negativism. This is a town that has already lost more than half its population."

Longworth thinks the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel probably leads all midwestern papers at sending reporters overseas to put hometown issues in a global context. The Tribune "has a very good foreign staff," he told me, "but needs to work harder at linking their stories to readers in Chicago."

"Newspapers are failing" at their task, Longworth writes, and one reason is a report issued by the "once responsible journalism school at Northwestern University, urging papers to draw readers by stressing local news.... All over the Midwest, local news, no matter how trivial, is squeezing out the global coverage that readers need to make sense of their world."

Longworth was referring to the "Impact Study of Newspaper Readership" produced between 2000 and 2002 by NU's Media Management Center, which at the time was run by John Lavine, now dean of the Medill school of journalism. What the research showed, the MMC reported, "is a strong reader appetite for news that is intensely local and personally relevant. In recent years newspapers have focused more and more on 'local news' [but] there is still a large, unrealized potential for local news of a particular kind.... It includes 'chicken dinner' news—community events—but is not limited to events. It includes stories about ordinary people, and it could be reasonably concluded that this extends to coverage of other news topics through their effects on ordinary people."

This prescription doesn't rule out close coverage of corporate decisions in Zurich and Frankfurt, so long as they're framed in terms of their effect on plant workers in Michigan and Minnesota. But if localism per se is the objective, there are easier, cheaper, and more reader-friendly ways to achieve it than by wading into international finance. As the study went on to say about the right kind of local news, "It also includes obituaries, which at their best can be engaging stories about people's lives."

"Increasingly," Longworth told me, "decision-makers get their news from elite sources and too many voters don't get any news at all." He recalled stopping for gas outside Des Moines and spotting both the New York Times and the Financial Times for sale at the station. Not too many years ago both papers would have been all but impossible to find in Iowa, while the Des Moines Register was everywhere. "The Register once covered Iowa like a blanket," Longworth, a native Iowan, told me, "giving that state a common source of news and, in the process, a common agenda." But to save money it pulled in its horns. Today's newspaper racks offer a mix of national newspapers that the elites read and hyperlocal papers strong on obituaries and chicken dinners. The trouble is, those national newspapers don't focus on the special problems of the midwest. So in Caught in the Middle, Longworth makes a proposal: "If the Midwest is to act as a region, it needs a trusted publication to set the regional agenda."

Is anyone planning a paper that would do that? I asked him. "The answer is no," he replied. "So we're left to speculate on how one could begin.... Here's a potentially money-making idea. The Tribune could launch a Midwestern newspaper, a sort of regional [Financial Times] that covers both the Midwest and the globe with true quality journalism, and would work hard to link the Midwest to the globe. It would be smaller in size, with considerably higher newsstand and subscription prices, less reliant on advertising, devoid of the kind of Dear Abby features that bring in readers now.... This would be an elite paper, sure. But it would inject global knowledge into a region that desperately needs it. And who knows, it might be read by local editors and reporters who could be inspired to do some of the same sort of reporting on their own back yards.

"If I was Sam Zell," Longworth continued, "the public and profit potential in a project like this just might appeal to me."

But if he were Sam Zell, he'd be an entrepreneur who thinks the Tribune Company has been leaving a lot of money on the table but makes his own living by doing deals, not by creating. A genuine press lord might want to know more about Longworth's idea, but Zell doesn't claim to be one.v

For more on the media, see Michael Miner's blog, News Bites, at chicagoreader.com.

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