Chicago, Trump, and what comes next for journalism

I was in Chicago with Sharon a few weeks ago when Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election. It seems like a distant memory now, but I sensed quite a bit of optimism the day before the election as we explored the city. Maybe it was just residual joy from the Cubs winning the World Series and the massive parade that had taken place just a few days before, but it was there. The lines at early voting stations were incredibly long and we marvelled at the Americans patiently waiting to do their part for democracy. People wouldn’t wait that long back home, we thought!

Early Voting in Chicago

The next day was the election. We spent some time downtown and were approached by GOTV volunteers who asked if we had voted yet (how’s that for blending in!). We told them, “sorry, we’re Canadian” and they chuckled. We wished them good luck as we moved past and they responded, “thanks – we’ll need it!” A crack? Later that day we were taken on a tour of Chinatown, which included visiting some polling stations. It was business-as-usual for the most part, but at the second polling station we encountered a heated debate between an elections officer and an activist that someone had complained was getting saying a bit too much to voters. There was passion there, a real sense that this mattered!

No Electioneering

That evening we went back to our temporary home and watched the results come in. Like many people, we couldn’t quite believe it. We stayed up to hear Trump’s speech and made sure to watch Clinton’s the next morning. Then we ventured back out to explore more of Chicago. Gone was the optimism we felt a few days earlier as a sense of shock set in. We overheard people talking about the election everywhere we went. We walked past the beautiful Trump tower as a police officer stopped to take a photo of it. I wondered why he wanted it.

Protesting Donald Trump in Chicago

That night we stumbled into the massive protest against Trump that wound its way through central Chicago. We saw the large gathering at the base of Trump tower and we saw the protesters marching again later in the evening near Michigan Avenue. On social media we could see that similar marches were happening in major cities all across the country. For the most part it was peaceful, but the heightened police presence did make us feel a little uneasy.

On Thursday, two days after the election, I attended the People-Powered Publishing conference in downtown Chicago. The purpose was to discuss “innovative projects and practices that build stronger connections between reporters and the publics they cover.” Understandably, the room full of journalists wanted to talk about the election and what happened and why. And about what will happen next.

There have been a few positives, of course. The New York Times has seen subscription growth that is ten times the same period last year and donations to organizations like ProPublica are up significantly. Journalism leaders like Marty Baron and Margaret Sullivan have used their platforms to reiterate the mission and purpose of journalism and to articulate the importance of holding the powerful accountable.

But most of the news has been negative. Trump continues to denigrate the media while the media continue to amplify his lies. Questions about access abound, especially after Trump called the media in for a major dressing down. That’s likely just a taste of what’s to come. Fake news is a big topic of discussion, with calls for Google and Facebook to do more to stop it, raising fresh concerns about just who a modern media company is. And to top it all off, “post-truth” was named word of the year for 2016.

So, what did happen? How did the media fail to see a Trump victory? And what comes next?

Maybe social media and the echo chamber that often results is to blame. “Psychologists and other social scientists have repeatedly shown that when confronted with diverse information choices, people rarely act like rational, civic-minded automatons,” wrote Farhad Manjoo in the New York Times just days before the election. Instead, they look for sources that confirm their existing preconceptions and biases.

Or maybe it had more to do with the campaign Trump ran against the media. “As a result of Trump’s attack-the-messenger strategy, for perhaps the first time in U.S. history no mainstream outlet has any influence over the voters backing one of the presidential nominees,” wrote Jack Shafer in a popular Politico piece. Trump received billions of dollars worth of free publicity as a result.

Or maybe the media just refused to believe it was possible that Donald Trump could win, as The Atlantic’s Salena Zito wrote back in September: “The press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.”

Of course, the reality is that Trump won the election by getting millions of Americans to vote for him. The views of his supporters were too often dismissed by the media, wrote Kyle Pope in the Columbia Journalism Review. “Now a new era needs to begin, a period in which reporting takes precedent over opinion, when journalists are willing to seek out and understand people with whom they may have profound personal and philosophical differences.”

That can’t be done by simply visiting the so-called flyover states. It can’t be done by perpetuating the “us vs. them” attitude that often permeates newsrooms, even unintentionally. It will require listening. Not just hearing, but genuinely listening “for the sake of understanding and building truly reciprocal relationships with communities,” as Josh Stearns wrote in 2013.

If Trump and Brexit are just the latest in a growing wave of populism, then we should expect more uncertainty, more uncharted territory, more previously unthinkable becoming possible and even likely. Good journalism that serves the community is going to be more important than ever, but we can’t keep doing it the way we’ve always done it. We can’t just tweak things and hope for a different result. We need new approaches, new business models, and new experiments. Some will fail, but that’s okay. We need to figure out what works and what doesn’t.

Importantly, we need to support good journalism wherever we can. Both to keep the good stuff coming and to provide opportunities for new experiments. That post has some great suggestions on how to find and support trustworthy journalism. Of course if you’re in Edmonton, I hope you’ll consider supporting us at Taproot Edmonton!

Listening is central to what we’re doing at Taproot. The curiosity of our community drives the stories we produce and the collective knowledge and insight of the community helps us to make those stories come to life and to have impact. I was thrilled to find a great deal of interest in our approach at the conference in Chicago, and I was grateful to hear about all of the other interesting experiments that are trying to achieve similar objectives. A little bit of optimism returned as I listened to others talk about how we can change journalism for the better.

We don’t have all the answers, but with Taproot we’re doing our part to produce good, trustworthy journalism and to figure out what the future of local journalism looks like. If this is important to you too, help us by becoming a member!