Class is still a taboo topic in the U.S. The Guardian’s ambitious new rural reporting projects are tackling it

26 June 2017

These things are facts: As local newspapers die out, most American journalism jobs left are increasingly concentrated on the coasts, where major publications are headquartered. Internet publishing jobs, in particular, are largely the province of coastal elites. And if you live in a rural area, you are probably not reading many articles by journalists with the same background as you.


Article by Laura Hazard Owen. Originally posted on NiemanLab.


“I don’t want us to appear condescending — ever — toward journalists across the country,” said Jessica Reed, The Guardian’s U.S. features editor. “Copublishing and collaborating with local newsrooms across the country is one way not to take them for granted — one way to do things right, basically.”

Reed is leading an ambitious new Guardian project: Inequality and Opportunity in America. The series, which is being funded through the end of the summer by the Rockefeller Foundation (as part of a larger $150,000 grant), has three components. The Guardian is collaborating with the Economic Hardship Reporting Project (a journalism nonprofit founded in 2012 by Barbara Ehrenreich, the author of the bestselling Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America), to publish writers from rural areas across the U.S. in collaborations with local newsrooms; this part of the project also includes the development of a database of editors across the country who’d be interested in partnering. The Guardian has hired its first Rust Belt correspondent, Drew Philp. And a new column, Outclassed — written by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project’s executive editor Alissa Quartand neuroscientist Maia Szalavitz — takes on that topic that Americans are uncomfortable talking about: class.

“Parts of the country resent us so-called media elites not just for economic reasons, but because they feel we dominate the discourse, dominate who gets a share not only of the financial spoils but the national narrative,” said Quart, a former Nieman Fellow. “This is another way to try to break that down. We want to support people who actually live in these places reporting on their own states, about inequality, and then we want to bring them to traditional elite audiences.”

In all of the coverage of the aftermath of Trump’s election, “working class” is often synonymous with “white working class.” It’s a trap that Reed is trying very hard to avoid. “I was recently reading about how there are three million female cashiers in the U.S. — a lot of them non-white,” she said. “An awful lot of their jobs are threatened by automation. A lot of those women can’t make ends meet, and they’re caught in the two-or-three gigs economy. As for miners, a group we are reading about a lot since they are being used rightly or wrongly as shorthand for ‘Trump voters’ [most Trump voters were not working class] well…there are 80,000 of them by contrast. This really brings home, to me, how journalists who want to cover class should do it with a sense of scale.”

The Guardian’s coverage does include stories about miners and by rural white journalists like the fifth-generation Kansan Sarah Smarsh, who grew up poor on a farm. (“I find the ‘rural v urban’ narrative as misleading as ‘red v blue,’” she wrote for a piece in The Guardian in April.) It’s also covered black cannabis entrepreneurs and Vietnamese nail artists in the South. Some upcoming stories will focus on inequality between rural and urban Native American tribes.

Part of the database project includes outreach to black-owned Southern newspapers, and Quart is seeking more of these papers as copublishing partners. “These papers have also been struggling, and their fortunes have not been examined as much as a lot of the local, usually quite conservative papers in the Midwest,” Quart said. (While all of media is struggling, “the pressure on black-owned media has been even more acute,” The New York Times noted last year.)

“Our coverage of class should not and will not be solely about white workers,” Reed said. “It’s something I always have in the back of my mind.”

Discussion of inequality is “my bread and butter as a Guardian journalist,” Reed said. “The Guardian in the U.K., people I was working with in Australia — that’s all we do, basically, we write about inequality a lot! You can write about inequality as an American journalist — journalists in this country are really good at talking about the notion of privilege when it comes to race, when it comes to being disabled, and so on, but I don’t often see the word ‘class’ associated with the notion of privilege in articles. It’s something I’m interested in exploring, and it’s what Alissa is doing in her column.” (Recent columns covered the ways in which air rage is linked to visible class status and the differences between the cultural elite and the corporate elite.)

At Quart’s urging, Reed described her own economic background. “I’m immensely privileged in that I’m a white able-bodied woman working in journalism,” she began. “But I’m also very lucky to be a journalist. I’m from a very low-income background. I was so lucky to be studying in France, so I had a scholarship and zero student debt. But the flip side of it is that I have to pay for my mother’s apartment, because she has such a low income. I still have a little bit of a chip on my shoulder when it comes to class issues — which is probably why I work at The Guardian — but that simply means I identify personally, I guess, with a lot of the coverage we’re doing.”

One of the key things that the Rockefeller funding helps The Guardian do is pay these rural freelance writers, with some funding also coming from EHRP (which is itself funded by Open Society Foundations and JPB Foundation, among others). Writers are being paid by the word — “a very decent amount,” Quart said — and expenses are covered. “You have to walk the walk,” Reed said. “If you’re talking about hiring people who are struggling to make ends meet, as is sometimes the case, you need to pay them well.”

Reed is hoping to find ways to extend it — and that’s one reason why she hopes that editors across the country will be in touch about collaborations and co-publishing. “I don’t want this to be a fad,” she said. “I want this way of commissioning to be the way my desk is going to commission pieces most of the time.”

read also