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Between Coasts Forum elevates journalism’s underreported stories in the heartland

Medill and Denison co-hosted a Chicago workshop aimed at fostering new coverage strategies

Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and Denison University recently hosted an innovative workshop for a select group of local and national journalists to strategize how to champion underreported stories and get them before a larger audience.

The Between Coasts Forum gathered reporters, writers, producers, photographers and editors from the two coasts and everywhere in between to discuss new coverage strategies and counter the narrative that the media are missing the story in the heartland.

“Between Coasts was not your typical news media workshop,” said Peter Slevin, associate professor at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, one of this year’s co-hosts. “By design, it was small, eclectic and full of people with energy and ideas. It was inspiring to see reporters, editors and filmmakers from Ohio and Montana, Colorado and New York, West Virginia and Illinois, trading smart thoughts about the most demanding moment for journalism in modern American history. 

“The challenges facing local news, especially, are huge, but there is so much valuable work being done,” Slevin added. “We want to connect those great stories with the audiences near and far that most need to see them.”

The forum emerged following the 2016 presidential election, when the national media was agonizing over what they had missed in the middle of the country, including support for Donald Trump’s impending victory. Journalist and author Ted Genoways made a public call on Facebook, tagging writers from those states that it seemed had been overlooked and whose stories weren’t being heard.

Jack Shuler and Mike Croley, two professors from Denison University in Granville, Ohio — one originally from Kentucky and one from South Carolina – also were frustrated about the stories that the national media had missed. They stepped in, and Denison created and held the first Between Coasts Forum in January 2017 and a second forum in September.

“The success of the conference is reflected in the enthusiasm of our participants — first-rate writers and editors — who are committed to telling the stories that tell the truth,” said Croley, assistant professor of English at Denison.

“Their commitment to journalism is inspiring and not only gives us hope for the future, but is helping us find solutions for how to get stories to the people that matter: citizens.” 

Shuler observed, “We hope to continue this work of finding ways to tell stories from often overlooked or underreported places, especially the Rust Belt and rural America. Between Coasts is becoming an important network for sharing contacts and ideas about how to do this work better.”

Medill joined with Denison to co-host the third forum this month in Chicago, and they invited nearly 80 journalists to attend on May 4-5 in Medill’s downtown newsroom.

Slevin and Shuler, associate professor of English and chair, narrative journalism at Denison, worked closely putting together the workshop this year, along with Stacy Hetherington Simpson, Medill’s special events manager, and Tim Franklin, professor and senior associate dean at Medill. Alex Kotlowitz, author, writer-in-residence and senior lecturer in journalism at Medill, served as a consultant on the forum.

“The conference was a response to the dire cutbacks at newspapers in mid-sized and small cities and the fact that journalists so missed the angst and anger between the coasts, which culminated in the election of Trump,” explained Kotlowitz. “For two days, participants celebrated the best of local journalism and prodded journalists to think about how they can reconnect and re-engage with the middle of the country. It was an exhilarating couple of days.

“Meribah Knight, a Medill graduate, talked about her extraordinary podcast, ‘The Promise,’about the economic and racial divide in Nashville,” Kotlowitz added. “Henri Cauvin, the city editor of The New York Times, talked about the paper’s joint project with reporters from New Orleans’ Times-Picayune, a searing exploration of the environmental crisis along the Louisiana coast. David Von Drehle, a columnist for The Washington Post, talked about his decision to move to Kansas City.

“It’s Medill’s hope to continue to co-sponsor this annual conference,” Kotlowitz noted, “and to hold it every other year in Chicago.”

Cauvin and another forum participant, Robert Samuels, now as staff writer at The Washington Post, are both former editors of the The Daily Northwestern.

Holly Honderich, an MSJ student at Medill, attended the forum and came away impressed, noting, “It was an extremely interesting weekend. I found the conference incredibly inspiring.

“As a student at Medill, it’s easy to be distracted by assignments and schoolwork and the looming stress of graduation, so being able to speak with journalists doing great work all across the country provided some much-needed motivation,” she added. “To be honest — it’s difficult to think of these reporters as peers, as I really feel I have a lot to learn, but I still felt so lucky to be a part of the weekend in any capacity.”

Slevin outlined a number of highlights of the conference, including that: 

  • Journalists from Nashville Public Media and the Marietta, Ohio, Times were in the room with reporters from the Washington Post, the Intercept, ABC News, Pacific Standard and Chicago’s TRiiBE.
  • It was a mix of conversations about skills and stories, from the opioid crisis to farm policy and the 2018 midterm elections. 
  • One panel focused on problem-solving for investigative reporters — with Katie Townsend, litigation director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Alison Flowers of the Invisible Institute and Brooklyn-based writer Mosi Secret. Nashville Public Radio’s Knight spoke about covering inequality alongside Chicago reporter Adeshina Emmanuel. 
  • Another panel — moderated by Slevin and focused on “How do we cover the middle?” — included Cauvin, Von Drehle, Duaa Eldeib of ProPublica Illinois and Esther Honig of Harvest Public Media in Colorado. 
  • Guest speakers included writer and historian Elizabeth Catte from East Tennessee, talking about her work, “What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia,” and Jesse Dukes, an audio producer for WBEZ Chicago’s Curious City who also reports on stories for the project, speaking about “The Midterm Elections—The Stories That Will Need To Be Told.”

“We’re trying to do a couple things,” Slevin observed. “One is to support reporters and producers – freelance and fulltime – who don’t have the backing of big news operations. Another is to find ways to get underappreciated stories and issues in front of larger audiences. A third, and this is the issue that is newest, is to get those stories to small and mid-sized outlets, whether print or broadcast, around the country.”

In his welcome letter to participants of this year’s gathering, Croley emphasized the original intent of the forum and widespread concerns over “the seeming lack of reporters and reportage in the middle of the country. The idea was to be a corrective and to raise our hands and say we have been here all along while you ignored us, our stories and our pitches.”