Columbia Journalism Review covers States of the Nation

It was an honor to talk to CJR's Alex Neason for this piece, which ran on February 9th in their members newsletter, the text of which I've replicated below: 

How to report on 'flyover country' 

By Alexandria Neason

The past couple of years have been instructive for the American press. Longstanding blind spots—the clustering of most national media hubs in cities on the coasts, a dearth of racial and economic diversity in newsrooms, and the lack of nuance in our treatment of so-called “flyover country”—have been repeatedly called out as journalists flock to towns and cities in an attempt to explain the intense political divisiveness that has enveloped the country since Donald Trump’s ascent to the White House. We’ve seen as many dispatches that deploy lazy stereotypes as we have stories that, in an attempt to avoid the former, inappropriately soften the realities of racism and hyper-populism. Often, the media has treated these stories as only worth knowing insofar as they can be hooked to some coastal angle.

In 2016, fresh off a reporting stint abroad, Ozy politics reporter Nick Fouriezos hit the campaign trail. The Georgia native was struck by what he called a “cursory” treatment of communities outside the coastal media centers (which is to say, most communities), particularly while on assignment in New Hampshire covering a campaign event. Fouriezos saw a state stuck in the middle of a stubborn opioid crisis, but the national press corps had become wrapped up in a robotic debate answer given by Marco Rubio. Fouriezos described the obsession, with a chuckle, as “basic.” It’s moments like this that led him to pitch an ambitious nationwide reporting project that became States of the Nation.

On January 1 of last year, Fouriezos, after a quick stop in North Carolina, headed for West Virginia, his first of a whopping 43 reporting trips over the course of the year (other Ozy reporters chipped in to cover the remaining states). He drove more than 20,000 miles in 2017 and took a dozen flights, reporting on haunted mansions in Missouri, the problem with Russian boars in north Michigan and on how substance abuse in West Virginia has led to a rise in the number of children in foster care. In all, more than 200 stories were written for the project, a great deal of them by Fouriezos. He spent days reporting—he often booked interviews and searched for ideas from rental cars, on his way to the next city or town—and he consumed tons of local journalism. Some story ideas were born of a single sentence in a newspaper article, and the bar for those ideas was high: Ozy has a strict editorial policy that prohibits reporters from working on stories that have been told in any national outlet.

What strikes me about this series is not just its sheer breadth, but the way the stories do not necessarily rely on the familiar talking points and narratives seen in coastal news cycles. This was a national outlet treating hyperlocal news with the same importance given to national stories. Though many of the reports include mention of the Trump administration and the ways in which these communities have been impacted by his policies, they do not rely on what critics have called a media obsession with the man. These are stories about, for example, surprising alliances in the fight to save the environment—like this story about pipeline opposition efforts spearheaded by conservatives in Georgia. What Fouriezos and his colleagues performed was indeed parachute journalism. But it was parachute journalism that made a noticeable effort to avoid the genre’s worst pitfalls.

Fouriezos had a more personal motivation, too.

“I really resonated with these stories in part because I [have] a dad who was dealing with opioid addiction in Appalachia—he lives in North Carolina—and a brother that’s been dealing with heroin abuse. So as I was driving, a lot of my thoughts were caught up with what can I do for this project when I can't be at home to help my family out?” Fouriezos tells me in an interview. “[How can I] do justice by the people I'm writing about here in this state and make sure that they can look at this and think, okay, this represents some of the most interesting values that we have in this state?”

As we move into the second year of a polarized Trump administration and a frenetic news cycle, let’s cheer on more of this kind of journalism. This week, Ozy launched a global version of this reporting project, called Around the World. Its reporters will seek to visit every country on the planet this year, and publish three stories from a different one every weekday.