The Media Didn't Forget The Rust Belt — You Did

Photo: Courtesy of Anne Trubek.
Anne Trubek and her colleagues hard at work at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland this summer.
Anne Trubek is the founder and director of Belt Publishing. She lives in Cleveland, Ohio. The views expressed here are her own.

When I founded Belt Publishing in 2013, I lived in Ohio, the famously mighty swing state with the power to decide elections (“as goes Ohio, so goes the nation”), which at that time was blue. But electoral politics was not the motivating factor behind my decision to launch an online magazine and small press dedicated to the post-industrial Midwest. I did so simply because, amazingly, no one else had. There were so few publications or presses telling the stories of this diverse, suffering, recovering, fascinating region. I wanted to fill that gap.

So for the past three years, Belt has published in-depth features about NAFTA and manufacturing, stories encouraging refugees to resettle here, about race and redlining, population loss, the white working class — all those hot-button election issues that everybody suddenly can’t stop talking about. We have also published hundreds of first-person essays about living in the Rust Belt, a region marked by foreclosures and vacancy and unemployment, including “Rust Belt Heroin Chic,” published in our Pittsburgh Anthology; “The Kidnapped Children of Detroit,” from our Detroit Anthology; and “A Girl’s Youngstown,” from our Youngstown Anthology. We have been here all along.

And yet even we did not predict Trump’s win.
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There were so few publications or presses telling the stories of this diverse, suffering, recovering, fascinating region. I wanted to fill that gap.

On the morning of Wednesday, November 9, the biggest surprise on the electoral map was the red blotch covering the area Belt covers: Ohio went red. Michigan went red. Pennsylvania went red. So did Wisconsin and Indiana. Zoom in and you see red in counties that have long been blue. We were as surprised as everyone else.

By Wednesday afternoon, amongst the many quick takes journalists were busily cranking out in those early hours after the election came this one: The media is too centralized on the coasts; the media ignored the Midwest; the media does not sufficiently cover the post-industrial Midwest, which went and shocked us all by pulling the lever for Trump.

Much of this narrative is true, of course, and it underlies the reasons Belt exists. There is almost no regional or local media left; newspapers have been decimated here as they have been elsewhere, and the offices of national publications are elsewhere, meaning that very few people who live here know anyone who is part of “the media.”
Photo: Evan Vucci/AP Images.
Few people living in Cleveland, Detroit, and Pittsburgh can make a living as either a staff journalist or freelancer. Too many national publications fly writers from New York and San Francisco into the Rust Belt to report and write articles about life here, based on their five hours on the ground, instead of hiring writers who live here and know the region and its people better.

Also, too many national stories about the Rust Belt fail to reference or link to important reporting that has already been done by local and regional outlets, Belt included. This has the effect of propping up the richer national media at the expense of struggling regional publications. Between 2013 and 2016, online journalism has become ever more centralized, concentrated in fewer and fewer outlets and in fewer and fewer locations, so the disparity is even greater than when I founded Belt. Many of the new outlets that sprang up over the past decade were not able to last: The most notable recent example is The Toast, which folded in 2016.

While this narrative of the coastal media mea culpa is to a certain extent true and deserved—mainly, I find it inaccurate, passive, and self-serving.

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But — while this narrative of the coastal media mea culpa is, to a certain extent, true and deserved — mainly I find it inaccurate, passive, and self-serving. To scurry about chest-beating, trying to make amends for misunderstanding the white working class of western Pennsylvania, strikes me as self-aggrandizing. And it is that sense of self-importance I think coastal media should focus upon and examine more closely, not their coverage of the Rust Belt.

First, the national media did cover the Rust Belt during the election. Trip Gabriel at The New York Times, to name just one journalist, wrote dozens of insightful articles. There was no shortage of stories about Trump supporters out there. Perhaps the problem was not a lack of such stories but a lack of interest among readers — not the coastal media but the audience.

As I know, since I hold the key to Belt’s analytics, the stories we publish about unemployed steel workers are not read as much as the stories we publish on a fun new glitzy development in Detroit. Good news is more popular than bad. If you click on clickbait, then you likely skip that story about economic struggle. That does not mean those stories are not out there.

If you click on clickbait, then you likely skip that story about economic struggle. That does not mean those stories are not out there.

Second, the people who may have skipped those profiles of laid-off factory workers in The Washington Post or Belt magazine were likely freeloading. Only about one tenth of one percent of Belt’s readers — who tend to be people who live in the region, "ex-pats" or people who used to live here but no longer do (depopulation means there are a lot of such folks!), and urbanists — become members, our version of a voluntary paywall.

The New York Times
and The Washington Post have both reported record numbers of subscribers since the election ended. But local publications need those subscribers, too. You cannot have robust, comprehensive journalism if you are not willing to pay for it. I am, of course, not saying anything new here: Still, chances are this article will be retweeted by far more people than those who will read it entirely, not to mention those who will take out their wallets. This is not a plea to give; it’s simply descriptive of current patterns of online consumption.

You cannot have robust, comprehensive journalism if you are not willing to pay for it.

Third, to imply that if only the “coastal media,” or readers of liberal media, had paid more attention to the Rust Belt they might have persuaded Trump voters to vote for Hillary is the height of arrogance. Especially when, for the most part, articles are written assuming Trump supporters are “they” and not “you.” The intended audience of articles that will “show you what it is like to live in Appalachia” are, by definition, not people who live in Appalachia. Thus the readers of such articles are virtual tourists spending a few minutes gawking at the other half. There is a colonial tinge to such journalism that would make many self-respecting people recoil. No one should be surprised that Trump supporters often state that they dislike “the media.”

Fourth, we should deflate even the narrative that the coastal media screwed up. Trump received fewer votes than Romney did in 2012. The difference between Hillary and Trump votes in the Rust Belt is only about as many people as fit into a football stadium. To suddenly decide to laser-focus on the region in order to better understand a few thousand people is to continue to misread the region.
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We are small, and struggle to find a viable business model...But we exist, telling the stories of people who live here, hoping for the economic recovery that you folks on the coasts have had over the past eight years.

Despite all of the above, I welcome the newfound attention being paid to this part of the country — as long as attention, and not lip service, is what is being offered. Read, and listen, to the voices in the Rust Belt, just as you should read and listen to people all over the world whose experience is other than yours. The irony is that people with the most education and worldly experience are often the most provincial, bragging, instead of being embarrassed, that “they have never been west of the Mississippi” or that they “always get Iowa and Ohio confused.”

So what’s the takeaway here? Why not work toward a “local writing” movement akin to the local foods one? Make it a priority to give money, or clicks, to writers who live in the region they are writing about. This is as much a plea to big media as it is to its readers.

Maybe we could have a “local media Saturday” akin to “small business Saturday,” and encourage people to subscribe or donate. Editors should hire writers living in the Midwest to write stories about their region, instead of flying in journalists from elsewhere. Meanwhile, readers could do the flying in, taking a trip to Detroit or southern Indiana, spending time getting to know the region and its vibrant, dynamic communities, contributing to the local economy as they do.

Belt remains the only independent media company dedicated to the Rust Belt. We are small, and struggle to find a viable business model, as do so may others. But we exist, telling the stories of people who live here, hoping for the economic recovery that you folks on the coasts have had over the past eight years. We would love you to get to know us.
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