July 26, 2016

Earlier this week, New York magazine published interviews with over 40 journalists about what’s wrong (and right) with the media, along with a survey sent to 113 journalists about problems in the media.

The interviews are fascinating. They excoriate the media for being addicted to conflict, gorging on Trump, cutting deals and being clueless about its audience (and the rest of the country). I highly recommend reading both articles in the series — they’re really good. But I also hope someone conducts a similar project entirely at the local level and outside of major cities.

A quick glance at the interview subjects on New York magazine’s list shows that most of the journalists they interviewed live in New York or Washington, D.C. and work for national publications. There are exceptions: A few journalists on the list live in Chicago or L.A., there are a few scattered throughout other cities and there’s this really good interview with the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin’s Sheila Hagar on the downsizing of her newsroom).

Among the 30 survey questions sent to journalists: What’s your biggest blind spot?

The first answer was: “Groupthink. We draw from a limited pool of people who generally have a similar background and class. They simply are unable to see the perspective of people who are not like them, and tend to drive out those who don’t ‘fit in.'”

This is true, too, when we draw from a limited geographic pool of people to talk about what’s right and wrong with the media. There are 41,050 reporters and correspondents employed in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Roughly 15 percent of them live in either D.C. or New York. The annual mean wage for those working in the New York metro region is about $70,000; in D.C., it’s $75,000.

Leave those two areas, and the wages drop considerably. And there are differences in coverage, in what’s deemed important and in how news plays a role in people’s lives.

I wanted to reach out to someone in a really rural location, to see what the differences are in news coverage where he lives. I also specifically chose not to seek out a journalist. It’s easy for us to criticize our industry, but talking to people outside of journalism helps us see things we might not otherwise see.

Below is an interview with Topher Brown, a former Army psychologist who now works at a clinic in Fairbanks, Alaska. Topher spends most of his time in the back-country, where he kayaks, rides his motorcycle, and takes photographs. I talked to Topher about what it’s like to live in Alaska, how he gets his news, and what stories he thinks should be covered more.

You grew up in the D.C. metro region, and you now live in Fairbanks, which is about 120 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Could you describe what it’s like to live there?

I describe it as isolated borough of 100,000 people, with a little over 30,000 in Fairbanks proper. We’re pretty isolated up here, and one of the biggest (and most obvious) differences from D.C. is that far fewer people are involved in the government or working one degree of separation away from the government.

I grew up with all of my friends’ parents working for the government, but I now live four time zones away from the capital of the United States in a very libertarian state. I would describe Alaska overall as having a “Wyoming-ish disregard for federalism,” but there’s increasing friendliness to it in rural areas where state services are scarcer.

And there’s an interesting rural/urban split. There’s not that personal connection to the government. We’re out here on our own, we do things on our own, we live in the Frontier state — and yet we live in a state that’s dependent on federal land and money. Sometimes people pretend they don’t care about the federal government, but we are very dependent on federal money — and so there’s a bit of a hypocrisy and duality there.

How do you get your daily news?

I try to stay plugged in. I’m new to Twitter, and I primarily use it on a local level (and at most on a regional level.) I use Twitter to keep in touch with people in small village communities.

For national news, I still read some of the same outlets that I used to but I really think that’s because I came from the East Coast. Most people I know get their news from the Alaska Dispatch News or the local Fairbanks newspaper, the News Miner. We’ve got Alaska Public Media, and then there indigenous-focused national outlets like Indian Country Today Media Network, which includes greater coverage of Alaskan Native stories.

In D.C., the first question out of people’s mouths was usually “What do you do?” In NC, where I live now, people almost never ask me what I do. I’m wondering if there’s a question people in Fairbanks generally ask each other?

Fairbanks is definitely a place where the people who are from here take it as a point of pride. There’s a lot of population turnover because of the military presence. And so anyone who opens a conversation who has lived here for a long time says how long they’ve been there.

That can be a point of friction when discussing politics. Alaska hasn’t even been a state for 100 years and there’s been people here for 10,000 years…so there’s a little bit of “Do you realize what you’re saying?” when a third-generation Alaskan calls himself a native.

You’ve been following a decision that allows Alaska’s native tribes to place their lands in a federal trust. Can you explain why that’s so significant to people outside of the region?

Yeah, for context, rural Alaska — which is anything outside of the road system and Juneau — is more heavily Alaskan Native, and this election year the presidential politics are being viewed alongside a consequential decision about tribal land rights. The short version is that the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the old “Alaska Exception” that barred tribes from putting their land into trust with the Department of the Interior (which indigenous people in every other state have been able to do), which will increase resources and autonomy for tribes during a time when the state government is hamstrung by declining oil revenues and partisan deadlock. This is important to understanding how national issues of civil rights, and state/Federal power play out up here.

…It would make such a good story for publications to cover because it’s much bigger than just this ruling. It’s about the national issue of federal power vs. state power, with the additional component of national power of federally recognized tribes, and it’s a really important story for Alaskans.

The conventions have been going on. I’m wondering how much of that coverage is making it’s way to rural Alaska.

I think most people are rolling their eyes. If I seek it out, I can get all of that news but we’re so removed — we’re time zones away. I certainly don’t know of anyone who went.

If someone wanted to follow rural Alaskan news, where would you recommend they start?

There’s an outlet called the Arctic Sounder that covers northern and western coasts, and surrounding villages. They don’t get updated every day but it’s a good outlet for that area. And there’s an independent outlet called Alaska Commons which is trying to fill the investigative void. They’ve done some stories about rural issues but they also cover news from the other 49 states.

There have been newspapers that have come and gone in the Arctic, too. There was one called the Tundra Times, which was a voice for Native Alaskans. It stopped publishing in 1997.

What about other publications covering Alaska?

It seems like U.S. national news outlets cover the same topics over and over again in Alaska — there’s climate change, oil, or Sarah Palin.

What’s really interesting is that we sometimes get better news about rural Alaska from outside the U.S. Canadian news outlets like the CBC will cover stories about the entire Arctic — everything from Russia and Greenland, to the U.S. If you really want to learn about arctic tourism or the struggles to fund icebreaker ships or changes of sea level, you go to the CBC.

This makes a lot of sense to me.  I think when you think specifically about rural Alaska, so many of the issues that people care about have an international component to them — What’s going on in the entire Arctic circle? How did Nunavut get formed? What are your whales doing? I don’t see that same hunger for the international tie-ins among people in the larger cities in Alaska or elsewhere in the U.S.

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Mel leads audience growth and development for the Wikimedia Foundation and frequently works with journalism organizations on projects related to audience development, engagement, and analytics.…
Melody Kramer

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