We often use benchmarks as measures of progress. How is our favorite baseball team doing at the All-Star break? How high is the corn on the Fourth of July? How many words does our one-year-old grandson say?
And, of course, there’s the time-honored measure of how well a new president is doing after 100 days in office. In case you hadn’t heard, that benchmark is today for President Barack Obama.
Journalists use the 100 days scorecard while also poking themselves in the eye for doing so. National Public Radio’s senior Washington editor Ron Elving says, “the news media obsession with Obama has to do with the fate of the nation in perilous times; but it is also about the survival of the news business itself in a season of mortal peril.”
One of the more interesting and insightful approaches to Obama’s first 100 days comes from NPR. It’s called “100 Days: On the Road in Troubled Times.”
Correspondent David Greene has been criss-crossing the country since Obama took office, talking with citizens about the economic crisis. He’s produced stories from a few big cities and many a small town. Conversations are at the heart of Greene’s reporting. He has the ability to chat it up with folks who, in turn, offer their genuine thoughts on how it’s going for them in the midst of a recession with a new national leader.
The interviews are poignant and often powerful. Folks talk about jobs lost, careers derailed and retirement plans dashed. They talk about the impact on their families and on their health. Some are angry. Some are deeply concerned. Many express hope in the face of serious challenge.
When we listen to these stories, we learn something about our country and our neighbors. And, since this journalism is both evocative and provocative, ideally, we learn something about ourselves through the stories of others.
Greene blends voices with background sound -– trains, trucks and crowds; dishes clanking in restaurants; music blasting -– to take listeners to the cafes and classrooms, factories and festivals, and even to a new minor league ballpark where Americans work and play.
What’s special about this reporting? That’s a question I asked two dozen of my students at DePauw University. These 18-21-year-olds might not listen to very much public radio, but they came away impressed with what they heard. They felt the stories were informative and even compelling. They especially liked the natural, conversational flow of interviews.
The students said the stories were realistic, capturing the authentic views of citizens. One of their favorite stories was about a Bradenton, Florida mailman whose daily route has been changed by the impact of the recession.
Stories of worry and woe helped the students grasp the impact of the recession. Yet, they reacted positively to what they felt was a hopeful tone woven into the “On The Road” stories, people seeing possibilities even in the face of troubled times.
My students also liked that Greene’s stories were interactive on the NPR Web site, so users could suggest where Greene should go next with his reporting, while Twitter, Flickr and Google Maps were used well.
David Greene and NPR have taken a time-honored approach to radio storytelling, added some Internet-specific value and framed it within an issue of national significance. “100 Days: On The Road In Troubled Times” is not so much about President Obama and his first 100 days. It’s really about the citizens across the land, what they’re thinking and where they are headed.