In Journalism We Trust

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Original Air Date: 
June 15, 2024

Americans used to believe that news anchors were basically reporting the truth. But in recent years, trust in journalism has largely evaporated. And that’s not an accident as the news media have been weaponized. So what can journalists do to regain the public trust?

Steve Paulson conducting an interview with Ezra Klein from the New York Times

New York Times podcaster Ezra Klein has strong views about what he does as a journalist. “I’m not objective,” he says. “I don’t believe anybody’s objective. What I am is transparent.” He takes Steve Paulson behind the scenes of his popular podcast.

Deb Blum

Science journalist Deborah Blum thinks both reporters and news consumers have a responsibility to try to understand the truth. That includes being willing to pay attention to the uncomfortable, complicated news that we might not want to hear.

Photo of Rob Gurwitt standing in front of a Vermont landscape

What do you consider the “news”? Journalist Robert Gurwitt thinks it’s everything from school board meetings to nature photos to local bear sightings. He writes the daily newsletter Daybreak, which serves the Upper Valley in Vermont and New Hampshire.


Show Details 📻
June 03, 2024
Journalist and podcaster
Full Transcript 📄

- It's "To The Best Of Our Knowledge". I'm Anne Strainchamps. When I was growing up, everybody in America watched the evening news. This was the 1960s. The most popular news anchor of the day was Walter Cronkite.

- This is the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. Good evening.

- Sometimes called the most trusted man in America,

- Cronkite Vietnam Report, take four.

- In 1968, Walter Cronkite went on a reporting trip to Vietnam. Lunar New Year's, the Vietcong, and North Vietnamese regular forces struck across the entire length of South Vietnam.

- When he came back, he declared out loud on the nightly news that America's war was going nowhere.

- A stalemate.

- And the story is that in the White House, President Lyndon Johnson turned to his aides and said, "If I've lost Cronkite,"

- The only rational way out,

- I've lost middle America.

- Will be to negotiate not as victors, but as an honorable people. That was more than 50 years ago. Today, trust in the media is at an all time low.

- You are lying about the law. Wait a minute. What am I lying about.

- You're lying. You're lying.

- Nearly 70% of Americans say they have little or no trust in the news.

- You are, or actually-

- No. I want you to consider-

- Twisting what I said.

- No. No.

- So what happened? It's not like we don't care about the news anymore.

- Oh it's not true. How dare you?

- In some ways, we're more glued to it than ever.

- I have a right to speak.

- Settle down, settle down. Calm down.

- So why don't we trust it?

- There has been a multi-decade campaign to undermine trust in the media that goes back way before Donald Trump.

- This is journalist Ezra Klein.

- Look at what Rush Limbaugh was doing, look at what the whole conservative ecosystem is doing forever, and I think that's meaningful. At the same time, there is a very big gap between who is in the media and who is in the country. The media is overwhelmingly national media coming from a couple outlets based in New York. I think when we talk about like the media with a capital M, we are talking about very highly educated college graduates who work in big cities. There is gonna be a cultural gap between them and many people in the country.

- Are you talking about what we call mainstream media as opposed to conservative media?

- Yes, I believe you are talking about what we call mainstream media. I don't think you're asking, why don't Liberals trust Fox News?

- Right.

- I think you're asking, why don't more people trust NPR?

- Yeah, or The New York Times.

- Or The New York Times. Right. Yeah.

- Which is where Ezra Klein works. A former columnist of The Washington Post and Co-founder of Vox Media, he now hosts one of the most successful podcasts in the country.

- The thing I promised my audience that I will do my best, and I believe more in transparency than in what has at times, been called objectivity. I'm not objective. I don't really believe anybody's objective. What I am is transparent. You know why I'm saying what I'm saying, you know how I got there, you know what I'm listening to. And so you can kind of figure out where you diverge or where you converge with me. I don't think that the things you can do, the kind of trust problem in American life is something the media can solve.

- So where does that leave journalists themselves? The news environment today is exhausting for those who work in it and certainly for those who consume it. Steve caught up with Ezra Klein recently to get his take.

- And that's the way it is.

- So I wanna start with an observation that I've had, and I've talked with a lot of people about sort of how unrelentingly grim the news often is. Sometimes I will open up The New York Times in the morning and after half an hour it's like, oh man, even news junkies that I know have this reaction at times, some people talk about needing to go on a news fast. Does this kind of criticism about journalism, about the media resonate at all with you?

- The way I think about it lately, and this has been on my mind a lot, is that I think distribution is broken. So pick The New York Times. We produce such a vast amount of reportage and commentary and narrative and audio and video and opinion and magazine stories and arts coverage a day that even as somebody who literally works there, a professional capability to navigate that website and the backend of the website, I'm never seeing even a third of the things I would like to see. For a period of time, the idea was, well, you go on social media and if you follow the right people, they're gonna show you the things you should be seeing. That's totally broken. Social media is broken. But people read news organizations for different emotional reasons. Sometimes I open up my New York Times app and I'm doing it because I want to be informed about the world. And if that means that I am slammed by terrible news out of Gaza, out of Ukraine, out of somewhere that just had a terrible earthquake, that's what I'm signing up for. Some days though, it's Sunday morning and I don't want that. What I want is to read interesting things about art. What I wanna read is like, what are the restaurants that are good right now in New York? And I don't think we've effectively solved for that problem. The paper solved for that problem really well.

- Because you can pick whatever section you wanna look at.

- It's pretty trivial to like pull out the A section and go to arts.

- Or you can, you know, on your phone, you can click the different sections of the page.

- But see, I don't think it works on the phone because you're still fist hitting that homepage.

- Right.

- So this to me is an actual issue. We need to figure out how to do distribution in a way that aligns with a very different emotional reasons or instrumental reasons. Somebody is coming to us.

- So what would that look like? What kind of different distribution model would there be?

- I think this is gonna be a design challenge, first and foremost. I think it's gonna be a personalization of the news challenge, but not a personalization of the news challenge in the way we've thought about it before. Something on my mind a lot right now is, I'm playing a round with AI. Something that is kind of fascinating about AI to me is that after many years in which the internet was built around algorithms that decided what you wanted, AI is fundamentally an algorithm that you tell it what to be. And so, more than I want news to personalize through some algorithm's decision about what I've clicked on before and what I might like in the future. I wanna be able to say to the algorithm, here's a mood I'm in. I wanna read something smart, I wanna read something long, I wanna read something interesting that's gonna make the world look wondrous to me?

- My God, I would love that.

- That is completely within the grasp of current AI technology.

- Hmm.

- Completely. You set the right kind of AI system loose on what you are doing. And particularly if you then add in some tagging on the backend, we could do that.

- But do you need then the various news organizations like the New York Times to buy into this? You know, they're suing Open AI right now because-

- Yeah, but they're suing Open AI for reasons of copyright infringement. Nobody's under any illusions that we're not all gonna be using AI. And so I just think this is gonna be the next era of distribution. I think we have become disillusioned by and have somewhat, I don't wanna say given up on, 'cause obviously people still use them, but the era where we thought the social media or platform algorithms were going to give us what we wanted, we don't have that illusion anymore. There's gonna be a real opportunity for places that are able to create algorithms that you tell them who you are today and what the algorithm is today, and the algorithm finds you what you want based on that. I'm very interested to see who cracks this problem first.

- Hmm, interesting. So what about you as a columnist, as a podcaster, do you feel any responsibility to just not add to the grim news out there?

- Well, I think that within my own work, I try to balance it out. I think that if you go and follow my podcast, what you'll see is in any given month we do a certain set of very difficult stories, right? We've done a huge amount of coverage of what is happening between Israel and in Gaza. We also have novelists on, we have philosophers, we have musicians, we have shows that are about beauty, we have shows that are about animal intelligence.

- Do you think about the ratio,

- I do. All the time?

- Yeah.

- And that to me, is part of the politics of the show. I think that it is important to keep clear in your own mind that the reason we're doing all this is not disconnected from the things that make life worth living. Politics is not what makes life worth living. Politics is one way we make life better for people. That's why I care about politics.

- So let me ask you more specifically. I know you just did, for instance, a three part series on AI. Now that's not as grim as Israel-Gaza, but still, it's serious stuff out there. So do you feel like, okay, it's time to have a novelist on, it's time to have some wonder in the podcast?

- I do. Although I think AI is a funny example there because to me, AI fills me with a real mix of emotions. But one of them is wonder. I love the feeling that the world is big. I love the feeling that the world is interesting. And you can do serious topics in ways that don't feel, to use the word used grim. Not everything that is serious or important is grim. It shouldn't be. If we're turning everything into a story of horror, that's on us. It's not on the world.

- Yeah.

- So I think there's also a question of how we cover things. But I find it to be a great gift of my career that I have the space to range as widely as I do. A lot of journalists don't get that.

- Yeah. What do you see as your niche in the current media landscape, especially given the platforms you have? I'm thinking in particular about the podcast. I mean, you do, there are not that many people who do serious interviews that are an hour long, for instance. So what do you do that you think basically other people are not doing?

- I don't think of it like that. One thing I would say is that, in the world of podcasting, there are a lot of people who do serious interviews that are an hour long or two hours long or three hours long. I mean, it is a golden age of interviewing and then some. I have the great gift of having had my show breakthrough in that regard. But I'm always very conscious that there is a million competitors for that.

- But a lot of them are not. I mean, they tend not to have as big a platform as you do.

- That's probably fair. I don't think of the show as having a niche or a beat in the way that other things I've done have. When I ran Wonkblog at The Washington Post, that was about trying to do the very best policy coverage anybody anywhere was doing. The interview show, I do "The Ezra Klein Show," there's an authenticity to it. The reason it is called what it is called, the reason it has my name and the title is because a connective tissue of it, is what I am actually thinking about and interested in. And I try to make that as true to where my mind really is as I possibly can. And it took me a long time to trust that. For a very long time, I felt that I should be covering what everybody in the news was covering. And that there was a kind of necessity of working with what people expected to see on the show. It's interesting you say that 'cause I'm struck for instance by how often you talk about being a father of young kids.

- It's a thing I'm going through right now.

- Of course.

- It's on my mind.

- Yeah. And that the way that you bring that into your show,

- I believe podcasts to be distinctive as a medium in how much they prize authenticity. And that's particularly true for an interview show. I mean, you run an interview show. It's easy to think about the interview show as about the guest. But the truth is, the only person there, every episode on the show is the host. So if people are coming back, they're not just coming back for the booking, they're coming back because of the host. So they like you or they don't. But whatever they like about you is gonna be real to you. And I've tried to be open to that. The other thing to me is that I was running news organizations in the age of highly algorithmic media. And I think social media and algorithmic media made a lot of us all more the same. You might expect that as we would become so competitive with each other online, we would become more distinct. But as we were all on Twitter together, as we were all on Facebook together, as we all could see our chart beat analytics, as we could see what was popping on social media, what we covered became more homogenous. So the show, one of the personal missions I had for it was for it to be more idiosyncratic, was for it to be more personal.

- I'm guessing you do look at the numbers of podcast downloads for different episodes. The ones that really popped, you think, okay, I should do more of that.

- If the audience had punished me for this, I wouldn't have kept doing it.

- Hmm.

- But the audience responded to me doing this, so I've kept doing it.

- Yeah. So I'm gonna focus a little bit more on the topics and the guests that you do. If you think about your favorite podcast episodes, let's say the top 10% of the interviews that you do, what makes those exceptional interviews whether it's the guest or the particular interaction that you have with the guest?

- Something happens in the room that did not happen before we came into the room.

- Surprise.

- Surprise, something catalytic. An actual connection. An actual conversation. There's a big difference, as I'm sure you feel when you do this work between an interview and a conversation.

- Right.

- There's a difference between drawing somebody out on what you knew they walked into the room with and going somewhere new together. So the best shows for me have that quality. Then there are different kinds of shows that I really prize. So what I love about some of the novelists I've had on like Marilynne Robinson or Richard Powers, or George Saunders novelists routinely and poets, Jane Hirschfield is another, there will often be a beauty to listening to them speak. There's a certain kind of show that I prize, I cherish being able to be part of it because you are part of something beautiful.

- And those particular novelists you mentioned, they have a gift for that?

- But then there are other shows that are about understanding the world in a deeper way. When I have Jesse Jenkins on to talk about decarbonization, when I talk to Jerome Defsis about why it is so difficult to build in new areas, you walk away with a textured understanding of the way the world is working. There are other shows that are about a kind of disagreement that I prize that is a, a way of disagreeing without, as a cliche, go as being disagreeable but that I learn something from the collision of ideas. So I like shows where something happens in the room, but I would be bored if it were always the same thing happening in the room.

- When you say in the room, do you ever do interviews in person or,

- Yeah, we try to do, I try to do as many as I can in person. But they don't all happen in person.

- Right. Does that make a difference to you, whether it's remote or in person?

- It does make a difference, but it doesn't always make the difference that you would expect. Some of the best ones are remote.

- Yeah. Have there been interviews that make you really uncomfortable?

- I can't think of anything that I have done for my show that has made me hugely uncomfortable. No. There are interviews where I can feel in the moment that it's a little boring or it's not going well, we're not connecting.

- That's not what I'm talking. I'm talking about someone who either you really disagree with or who's just saying some stuff that, wow, that is out there and I just, it almost makes my skin crawl.

- I've had people on who I really disagree with. I haven't had anybody on who I didn't think it was valuable to try to understand what they were saying. And I work hard both in the way I approach interviews like that and in the way I try to frame them for the audience to try to try create space in which those ideas can be heard. I think the closest thing to what you're talking about perhaps are interviews I did during kind of that first run of episodes I did around Gaza.

- Yeah, 'cause you had some people, I mean, some of the, particularly the defenders of Hamas, I don't know if defenders is quite the right word, but sort of trying to take things from their perspective.

- Yeah, I found those interviews on both the Israeli and the sort of more apologists for Hamas' sides I found those tough because I'm not where either of those polities are. And there was so much grief in those interviews, so much pain. But I understood, and I think most of the audience did too, I understood where both of those people were coming from. I think it would be hard to have an interview where I couldn't empathically find myself in the other person. And when I see interviewees who I think are not honest or whom I feel that way about, I wouldn't have a neo-Nazi on just because I think empathizing with people is an interesting thing to do. I'm trying to understand tendencies in the world,

- Right.

- That I feel are important and that I, to some degree respect. That can be tough, right. I mean, I'm quite pro-choice myself. I've had very pro-life people on the show. But that's a tendency I respect. And so discomfort is not typically the word I would use for it.

- Are there many interviews that never air that you just dump them?

- No.

- Oh, you pretty much just air everything that you do?

- It has happened that I will redo interviews.

- Okay.

- But it is not typical.

- Okay. You have an interesting position, I would say, as a columnist. People kind of know what your politics are, where you're coming from. You are a pundit in some ways. You're also a journalist. Is there a clear line between those two roles for you? I think if you are a pundit who is not a journalist, you are a bad pundit. I think opinion has to be earned. And I think of myself before I'm a writer of opinion, I'm a reporter. You have to get to that opinion somehow. I try to hold a reasonable bar for myself on when I've earned an opinion. And I think that most of my work is quite heavily reported. Either the work itself is reported or there's a lot of reporting behind the work. It's quite heavily researched. I'm not that interested in just like raw opinion, which I think is oversupplied on the modern digital environment.

- That's interesting. It suggests that maybe there are some issues that you've really reported on a lot. AI, Gaza-Israel, maybe you're a little more comfortable saying, this is where I stand on these things.

- I've written only one piece on Gaza and Israel.

- Oh, really?

- And that was a piece sort of about generational politics about that in the IS. I don't feel comfortable enough to write about that.

- Why?

- I don't think I am expert enough on it. I don't think that my voice is valuable. On other things I do, I write a huge amount about permitting reform in the United States. I write about politics all the time. You know, the column compared to the podcast, the column is where I tell you what I think, again, hopefully based off of reporting, based off of the work to make that thought valuable, but it is a place where I try to persuade you of something.

- That's interesting. So you have a very different mission with the column and the podcast.

- The podcast is much more exploratory

- Okay. Interesting.

- So on Israel and Gaza, I mean, I've talked about what I think in different shows and, but that is not my primary relationship to that issue.

- That's New York Times podcaster and columnist, Ezra Klein talking with Steve Paulson at an event at the La Follette School for Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. So how do you rebuild public trust in journalism? Well, maybe journalists need to talk more about the code of ethics involved. Maybe we need to do a better job of teaching people how to tell the difference between fake news and real journalism.

- Stolen election.

- You have been lying.

- All stories have many voices, many angles, many versions of truth. Pulitzer Prize winning science journalist, Deborah Blum.

- As a good journalist, you go through them and you gather that information, and then you try to figure out where the weight of the evidence lies. I wish almost, that we could teach every citizen to be a journalist in that way, to never accept an echo chamber, to never accept that I'm gonna cherry pick my sources of information. I'm only gonna pick the ones that make me feel comfortable and tell me what I want to hear, because what I'm actually interested in is the truth. And if I'm interested in the truth, then what I want is this diversity of sources and information. If someone is telling me what I want to hear, then I'm not getting the whole story. My brother-in-law in Texas is a lawyer. He once said to me, the one thing you don't want when you pick a lawyer and you're in trouble is the lawyer that tells you what you wanna hear. It's the same thing with the news.

- Setting higher standards for journalists and for news consumers, next. I'm Ann Strainchamps. And this is "To The Best Of Our Knowledge" from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. Science journalist, Deborah Blum, thinks that in a trusted conversation between a journalist and a listener or a reader, both sides have a responsibility, which includes being willing to pay attention to the uncomfortable, complicated news that we might not wanna hear. Blum is the director of The Night Science Journalism Program at MIT and publisher of Undark Magazine. Shannon Henry Kleiber, herself, a former Washington Post staff writer and columnist, talked with her.

- Deborah, I wanna start off by asking something personal, which is not always what we, journalists are used to, even in the age of social media, why did you become a journalist?

- Oh, that's a great question. It wasn't that it was some magical calling. I originally intended to be a chemist, and I started at Florida State University as a chemistry major, where I discovered fairly quickly that while I loved chemistry, I was a physical risk to myself and everyone else in the laboratory.

- The bunsen burners.

- The bunsen burners. I set my hair on fire. That was an exciting moment. It wasn't that on fire, right? I had a brain and a bunsen burner. And I generated a toxic cloud. They actually had to evacuate the entire laboratory. And I put a pause and I just thought, you know, I'm not gonna survive this. And so at loose ends, I thought, well, I like to write. I'll go into journalism. I like to write and I wanna get paid. That was sort of my very pragmatic beginning. But once I went into journalism, then I just loved it. And I loved it because of two things. I love knowing how things work. Journalism is the most outward looking profession. You're always looking outside and trying to figure out how things work, how they work, why they work, why they don't work. It's the most fascinating thing in the world. And the other part of that is that I really hate for people to say no to me That's a character trait. I have never been able accept the word no. So in journalism, so often people will be, "I don't wanna tell you that, I don't wanna talk to you." And you get the amazing puzzle of trying to figure out how to get around that no. You tell me I can't have that, I'm gonna figure out how to get it.

- I love it. The curiosity and the digging, and I get it. I wanted to be either detective or archeologist or a reporter when I was growing up. And I guess the tenacity too. You have to be tenacious. You have to not give up.

- Right? Yeah.

- Is that what brought you into journalism? I know I'm not supposed to, but the curiosity basically.

- Yeah, the curiosity. And I think as I grew as a journalist also kind of being honored to tell people's stories, especially if they're not well known. I agree with that. And because I'm also a narrative journalist, I feel like narrative writers get to rescue unknown people and tell the stories.

- So we've established our wonderful, idealistic feelings about journalism, which I truly believe in and I do love being a journalist, but it seems so broken right now too. How do you look at journalism in its brokenness right now? What do you see that is not working?

- I came up in newspapers, and for a long time as newspapers started to change in founder, my old newspaper friends would say, "Journalism is broken. It's falling apart. We're at the end of journalism." And I would say in my classic glass half full way, because I tend to be a positive person, "Oh no, it's not changing, it's just evolving." In the last couple of years, that's been a harder argument to make in that, yes, I think that journalism is definitely evolving, but evolving to what? What is a journalist? There are so many people who claim to be journalists. You know, I'm writing on my personal blog or podcast, or I'm crusading for X and therefore I'm a journalist. That's not necessarily true. So when I look at what journalism is in its classic form, when we do it right, and I don't think I'm going to sit here and say, yes, we always do it perfectly because we aren't, right. It's a human enterprise. But journalism at its core is clear, independent inquiry conducted with integrity on no one's side. The World Press Institute will call this, journalism without fear and without favor. We're only on the side of the multifaceted truth. And if we don't have that, if we don't have that clear, independent inquiry, if we don't have in democracy, that kind of watchdog journalism, then many things fail. And so when I think about why I want to keep journalism, that's why, right.

- As a science journalist, you must also be very frustrated by the misinformation. What are some of the examples you're seeing of misinformation maybe in climate change or in epidemics. How has that changed, not just the way we see it, but does it sometimes undo some of the scientific work that has been accomplished?

- Yeah, that's a really good point. The fact is, and I've had this argument with other journalists, some things are just facts. People are forever saying, we live in a post fact age, which I don't believe. So in science journalism, we see people torquing facts all the time and weaponizing the way they change them. We certainly saw that, and I referenced it in the COVID-19 pandemic, when people would make up all kinds of information about mRNA vaccines.

- Yeah.

- In which they would say, well, you know, if you get an mRNA vaccine, it'll alter your DNA. Why would it? Because all the mRNA vaccine does is use a little bit of messenger RNA to replicate a part of a protein in the virus. And that partial protein is what the vaccine sends to the immune system so the immune system can recognize the virus and then defend against it. So all you have is this little fragment of a protein. That's all it is. There's ribonucleic acid going into your body. But people, because I think in general, we do a sucky job at the K12 level of really educating people in science, people use that to make people really afraid that they were gonna end up being some kind of hybrid monster if they took a vaccine like that. That's a little bit complicated.

- Yeah.

- It's frustrating, but it's also infuriating.

- I'm thinking about all this scientific information that we have out there, not just from journalists, but also from patient support groups and from doctors, whether they're websites or hospitals, just how we take all that information and make big decisions for our families, for ourselves based on what we read. I wonder how you would suggest we really assess and evaluate these sources that don't have the journalism translation part attached to it.

- That's a good question. It's funny, last night my husband was reading me, there was some doctor saying, sugar causes Alzheimer's. I'm like, "Really?" Have you shown me the 20 studies that show a mechanism by what somehow sugar would cause Alzheimer's? So let me back up and say, I used to say to people, just apply your common sense filter to this. But again, going back to the way we educate people in science, I think a lot of people come outta high school without enough solid science behind them to have that common sense filter and to understand how science works. So in general, as a science journalist or as a regular citizen, when you see people making these declarations, these scientific declarations, what you want to say is, one, what was the study? How many people were in the study? How many studies are you citing? How many times has that study been repeated and confirmed? What was the mechanism? How does it actually work?

- How can we become more trusted sources?

- We can start by being as careful as we can to absolutely get this right. And so we run a fact checking program. When I went to MIT in 2016, I started a magazine Undark, which is a magazine that kind of explores the tensions between science and society. That's where it sits as a kind of mission. And we decided from the beginning that we would fact check that magazine to the nth. And so we set up a team of fact checkers. If you do a 6,000 word story for Undark, there's likely gonna be 8,000 facts that are gonna be checked in that story. And when you look at the fact checkers, manuscripts, they're just a sea of colors as people question everything. They have saved our tails so many times. Yeah. If you wanna be trusted, be trustworthy and get it right. The other thing I think is, again, the transparency about how we operate. I think a lot of people don't understand journalism. When I say objectivity is methodology, it's how we do the investigation of the story. Most people don't understand that. I think we need to talk more about how we do what we do.

- How can we get those ideas out more?

- That is a really good and daunting question I think. Some news sites I know will lay out some of their operating methods. Let's be transparent. Here's who we take money from, right.

- Funding is important to understand where the money's coming from.

- That's exactly right. This is a big change from when I started as a journalist, when the journalist was the invisible person who wrote the story. Until now, sometimes we're actually part of the story. But I think we should take advantage of that. And one of the things I really love about the internet age is our ability to have that conversation. And I think in the way that I see journalism evolving, I see it as being more of that. Not just, I'm here on this higher plane gracing you with information, but we are talking about this information.

- When I talk to student journalists now, I can be very enthusiastic. I love being a journalist. I love so many parts of it. And then there's also a part of me that is really worried for them. I'm worried, are they gonna get a job? Are they going to lose their idealism? Are they gonna make a a living wage? How do you manage those thoughts when you're talking to student journalists now? And what do you advise them to do?

- Yeah, that's a very fair point. No one ever went into journalism expecting to get rich. I try to be really realistic when I talk to people about what's out there. A lot of journalism these days is freelance because one of the other models that we see going is that publications rely more on freelance and less on staff. That makes it trickier economically because once you are freelance, who pays your health insurance? Freelanced income is very erratic. Don't just assume that this is gonna be a stable, reliable way of living. People do, but it's chancey. Sometimes people need to combine their income streams. Plenty of freelancers I know do some public relations work, they get a day job and write on the side, they eventually say, "I want a really solid paycheck. I've been reporting on NASA. I'm gonna go work for NASA." That happens. And I'm like, "Go for it," right. You actually have to make a living. And so what I tell people who wanna go into journalism is, first of all, nothing makes you more prepared to have an interesting life than being a journalist. It's the most outward looking profession. The whole world is this amazing terrain that you get to explore and you will take all the skills you learn in journalism school and from being a journalism, and they will help you navigate life in the most fascinating ways. So if you end up not staying in journalism, that's okay. Go out and take those skills and make the world a better place. And I think we have to accept that more, that that's going to be part of the package going on, that people are gonna find these other really interesting paths using the skills that they got.

- Thank you, Deborah

- It was absolutely my pleasure to talk about something that I think is so important.

- That was Shannon Henry Kleiber talking with Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Deborah Blum, the director of MIT's Night Science Journalism Program, and the author of six books, including "The Poison Squad." It is hard to make a living as a journalist, but the rewards when they come can be pretty sweet.

- I was out mountain biking with a friend of mine. And we were out really sort of in the middle of nowhere. And down this path comes the sky on a mountain bike. And he stops and we start talking. and toward the end of the conversation, he turns to me and he goes, well, so what do you do? And I say, well, I publish this newsletter called Daybreak. And he goes, and he jerky flex. And says, "You know, I read you every day."

- Yes.

- That was like, that made my whole day. It was so great.

- Just think, how many people are waking up in the morning reading you while they're still in bed?

- It's true. I've been told it happens, yeah.

- Practicing hyper-local journalism, on and off the trail in Vermont and New Hampshire, next on "To The Best Of Our Knowledge," from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. One of the first things you do when you move somewhere new is look for a good local news source. That's what Steve and I did when we started spending summers in Vermont during the pandemic. Somebody told us about an email newsletter called Daybreak, published by a guy named Rob Gurwit who lived nearby. So we signed up and pretty soon we were reading it every day. usually first thing in the morning. We started wondering, who is this guy, Rob? And why does he do this? So we invited him over for a cup of coffee.

- Why do I do this? Yeah. Such a great question. My wife said, "If you had been offered a job that had you waking up at 4:30 every morning and working basically all day, getting paid what you were paid from it, would you have taken it? And of course the answer is, no. There's not a chance. I would not take that job. So why did I design it for myself? I spent my career as a journalist. A lot of it was freelance, but it was all working for other people. Around 2013, it was clear that my own personal journalism model was falling apart. Editors that I was working for were leaving, the magazines themselves were struggling financially. And I had two kids about to go to college. What am I gonna do?

- What he did was scrape together a few thousand dollars to start this experiment in hyperlocal journalism. Daybreak is a daily list of hard news, events, local nature photos, hiking, trail recommendations, poetry and random quirky stuff, curated for a roughly 20 square mile area on the border between Vermont and New Hampshire. It's called Daybreak because that's when Rob hits publish.

- You don't have to get up at 4:30. I mean, I do it because I know that people do actually turn over in bed and it's the first thing they read.

- Yep. That's us.

- I send it out usually a few minutes after 6:00. By 7:00, about 20% of the subscribers have opened it. By 9:00, 50%. At some point, I added a support button in there, much like public radio. And somewhat to my surprise, people started responding. And I was fairly modest and remained fairly modest in what I asked for, but made it possible for people to give more, and they do. So over time, I think it's not quite a full living yet, but it's close enough that it would be a blow to give it up now.

- It would be a blow for readers too, because what sets Daybreak apart, what makes it so valuable to subscribers is the way it communicates this deep sense of place, though, even Rob can't say exactly how that works.

- I've been here long enough to feel like this place that I live has infiltrated my sensibilities. But to actually try to tease that out at a conscious level, it would be hard for me to do.

- But also you have the weather, you have the latest,

- Yes, always the weather.

- Local school board stuff.

- Right.

- And then there are certain recurrent stories. I always like your updates on Mink the Black Bear.

- Right. Mink, Mink was interesting. She's actually been around, or she sadly died, but she'd been here for a long time. She came to everybody's attention in 2018. She and one of her litters of cubs had become problematic in Hanover in particular, where people were setting out food for them and leaving trash out or whatever. And so Mink was basically teaching her cubs that where humans were was a really good place to find food. And at some point they broke into a house. And at that point, New Hampshire Fish and Game got involved and,

- They were gonna put her down.

- They were gonna put her down. The Governor intervened,

- The Governor intervened on behalf of a bear?

- On behalf of the bear. There was this outcry, we're gonna have to kill mink and her cubs, right. So you can imagine the outcry. And so Governor Sununu said, "No, that's not gonna happen." So they trapped mink and her cubs and took them up to just shy of the Canadian border and put a tracking collar on Mink and let her go. Sometime, if you're curious, just Google Mink the bear and travels, because the state Fish and Game Department put a map together of this unbelievable trip that Mink took from the Canadian border back to Hanover.

- Wow.

- Over the course of a year.

- So finding her way back down here.

- Finding her way back to, multiple crossings of the highway, of the river. She was all over the place. But there was no question where she was headed. And all of a sudden word went out and it's like Mink's back.

- So I have to tell you, as a reader, I just love these periodic reports about sightings of Mink or of her cubs, or the sad news that Mink died. I don't know, it's kind of this recurring story that's somehow part of the fabric of my unconscious by now.

- Right. And I think something like the Mink story just resonates at a level well beyond most news stories. And so, most people are going to be interested in it. And it is a little bit like the weather. The weather's there, especially around here. Anybody in a northern state, one of the first things you do is check the weather.

- But it's even more than that. It's like if you're gonna report on the weather, you have to write about it in a fun way.

- You do. To me a weather report that just says, cloudy and rainy is boring. That I would not care much about. I think the weather's really interesting because it's brought to you by these things going on up in the atmosphere that actually produce what it is that you're seeing on the ground, that becomes the story.

- So more like that front that's been lingering on our southwest border for the last, you know, is finally making a move. And meanwhile there's a cold front from Canada that's pushing against it.

- That's exactly,

- We turn it into drama.

- Yeah. This week, there's this front that has just started up north and it kind of wandered south, and then it wandered north again, and then it headed south and now it's back. And you can almost anthropomorphize the weather because it behaves in these odd ways.

- The weather's like Mink. We didn't finish the Mink story. What happened to Mink?

- Yeah, so Mink was found dead. Initially they had thought that she might have been hit by a car, but an autopsy showed that she seems to have just died of natural causes. The big concern after that became her cubs, she had these three young male cubs. They fairly quickly trapped one of them, I should say, that we are extremely lucky to have over in Lyme, New Hampshire, essentially a bear sanctuary run by a guy named Ben Killam. He knows black bears probably better than all, but a handful of people on the planet. And he's become the place where orphaned bear cubs go. He raises them and then when they're of age releases them back into the wild. And so, the first cub was taken to Ben Killam. The second cub was hit by a bus and killed. And then, there was really an all out search for the third bear cub who was finally trapped with a combination of, I think it was maple glazed donuts and something else. This was definitely a Vermont, New Hampshire bear, right. That cub's over at Ben Killam now too. And apparently the first bear cub who went over there was really having trouble fitting in with the other cubs there. And as soon as his brother showed up, they recognized each other. They played together, and they're sort of like a pretty happy pair, which is great.

- So sweet. Wow.

- So it seems to me that a lot of the magic of Daybreak is your tone. I mean, I read a morning post in five minutes. It might take me longer if I click on the links, but it's very short and pithy. What are you trying to do there?

- Yeah, I mean, partly I'm trying to keep things interesting, partly I'm trying to keep a tone of, I don't know rye humor in there. But you know, I've been thinking about this and this question of what constitutes news for the purposes of something like Daybreak. And partly the answer is the traditional one. Newspapers in general, see as their brief to cover institutions. It's the police, it's the courts, it's government, it's nonprofits, it's businesses, it's really important work. And democracy that's the kind of stuff that has to get coverage and that we need to know about. But it's not everything that's out there. And so what I realized, and I wanna be really careful about how I say this because I'm not in any way trying to put myself into the same realm as the people I'm about to talk about. But one of the great gifts that I think American urban newspapers gave to this country was columnists. People like Jimmy Breslin, Mike Royko.

- So people with very distinct voices,

- People with very distinct voices like, you know, a friend or somebody talking to you. There are people who loved taking exception like Herb Caen in San Francisco. I mean, there are people who loathed him and people who loved him, but everybody read him. And you could get the institutional stuff in the rest of the paper but when you opened up those columnists, you were really reading about the people who made a city work, who made it idiosyncratic and interesting. They often wrote about people who otherwise were invisible. And so they were, in essence, teaching you about the city that you live in. They were also, I think, redefining news and making it about the fabric of a place to say that these places have heartbeats and souls. And so, they gave people this stuff to talk about together. I think it's as old as humanity, right, this urge to go like, oh, hey, did you see, you know X.

- I wanna come back to this notion of what news is because it seems like you can talk about this in at least a couple of different ways. So at one level it's the state of the news industry journalism, and then there's another level of news, which is almost more philosophical, which is, what is the news in our life? What do we consider news?

- I started thinking about this because of the listservs. This region has this set of email listservs. People selling used tires, people asking, who's a good roofer?

- So that's news to you.

- That is news. There's civic discussion that goes on there. But partly it's also, oh, that's interesting. So and so needs a ride to Connecticut. Why are they going there? Or so and so is selling their house. I didn't know that. That is also news. As a person who lives in a place, that stuff really matters. You care about what the people around you, even if you don't know them, are doing. The other day, a neighbor said, we were just out and noticed that there was a bear walking from the yard on the other side across into our yard and beyond. And she said, just want to make sure that your bird feeders are out, et cetera. And that's news. I mean, I wanna know that there's a bear out there.

- Yes. You've just hit my little sore spot here. The whole time we've been in Vermont for these months, I've been desperate to see a bear. And so every time, all my neighbors, I always ask them, "Have you seen any bears recently?"

- They're very amazing.

- Yeah, I bet.

- No, that to me, and then I get the report, oh, last week I saw this. That is absolutely news to me.

- Absolutely. Bears, you don't see them very often. So if you do see one count yourself really lucky. The same deal with moose. We know they're around, but we almost never see them. Turkeys on the other hand, they're a dime and dozen now, you know.

- No, I love the turkeys. They're not a dime and dozen. Do you see a newsletter like what you do as kind of the future of journalism to some degree?

- I see it as a possible future. And one of the things that was in the back of my mind when I started Daybreak up, and it's still very much there, is trying to figure out whether this was a model that would work. And if it is a model that would work, how is it replicable? I haven't figured out how to make me do this in other places, but I know other people can do this in other places. You know, we live in this incredible era of information and writing and sound, and it's sort of all accessible online. So if you're a journalist, the possibility of being completely your own boss and finding and building and sustaining an audience now is more there than it ever has been before.

- Rob Gurwit left magazine journalism to found Daybreak, a weekday newsletter for people who live in and care about the Upper Valley, 20 square miles on the border between Vermont and New Hampshire. Wherever you get your news, I hope you have high standards and that you send some love to the journalists whose work you rely on. "To The Best Of Our Knowledge" is produced at a place that's been championing good journalism for more than 100 years, Wisconsin Public Radio. Our producers are Shannon Henry Kleiber, Charles Monroe-Kane, and Angelo Bautista. Our technical director and sound designer is Joe Hardtke with help from Sarah Hopefl. Additional music this week from Adapt, Aldis Ignite, Good Old Neon, Kirk Pearson, and BIT. The executive producer of "To The Best Of Our Knowledge" is Steve Paulson. And I wanna say a special thanks to our longtime digital producer, Mark Riechers, who leaves us this week to head to a new job in public television. If you found us anywhere online, it's because of Mark. In his years with us, he built us new tech tools and showed us how to use them, mapped our path at new media landscapes, gave us a digital code of ethics and killer graphics, and he fixed everything we broke on deadline and after hours. We owe Mark a lifetime supply of craft beer, but we hope he'll settle for our love and gratitude along with the occasional late night panic call. I'm Anne Strainchamps. As always, thanks for listening. Be well.

- PRX.

Last modified: 
June 19, 2024