Blog Post

Five questions with Ted Genoways

Ted Genoways will speak at the Anvil Rural Journalism Conference on April 8 in Lincoln. We took a moment to get to know each other a little better. Register to attend the conference (in person or online) here. And here’s our five questions for Ted.

Fly Over Media: What’s your particular area of focus these days?

Ted Genoways: I freelance full-time, which means that I have several positions at once. I’m a contributing writer at Mother Jones, a contributing editor at The New Republic, and editor-at-large at Pacific Standard. I’ve also gotten occasional work writing for Bloomberg Businessweek, California Sunday Magazine, Harper’s, Men’s Journal, Outside, and various parts of the New York Times—the magazine, the book review, the op-ed page. Because I’m mostly working for magazines in New York and California, I’m very often cast in the role of explaining the middle of the country to readers on the coasts. So I’ve spent a great deal of the last five years writing about meatpacking, immigration, the Keystone XL pipeline, water quality and conservation, and family farmers, almost always with a focus on Nebraska or surrounding states. (Whenever possible, I also write about the tequila industry, because after working on those other topics all day, I usually need a drink.)

FOM: What’s your personal background? How did you come into your field of work and study?

TG: The first branches of my family tree arrived in Nebraska in 1851—even before it was organized into a territory—but my parents, both Nebraska natives, moved away after college. So I was raised mostly in Pittsburgh with frequent visits back to Nebraska. In 1986, my dad took the job as director of Morrill Hall at UNL, so I went through high school and college here. It was a really lucky break for me. I had great English teachers at Lincoln East and a journalism teacher, Jim Schaffer, who was way better than any high school kid deserves. Jim had recently completed his doctoral dissertation on Roger Angell, the longtime New Yorker writer, and Jim encouraged us to start a magazine of our own. Improbably, in my senior year, the Columbia School of Journalism named our magazine the best high school publication in country. We went to New York and totally geeked out: crowding into Angell’s offices at The New Yorker, meeting the editorial staff at the late-great SPY, tiptoeing through the halls of the Columbia Journalism School. I was hooked.

FOM: Is there a difference in your approach writing for a rural audience and writing about a rural community?

TG: I’m almost never writing primarily for a rural audience, but I’m frequently writing about them—and that means, I think, an even higher degree of responsibility to get their stories right. My editors have no idea what a center pivot is or that there are countless hybrid varieties of corn or how a farmers’ co-op works. And, honestly, because I grew up as a city kid, these are often things that I’ve heard about all of my life but never really dealt with in a hands-on way. So I feel that the burden is really on me to get every detail right. The last thing I want to do is presume to speak for this part of the country and then get key elements of those stories wrong. Practically, that means asking a ton of questions, recording all of my interviews, consulting with experts, reading history and current research, and generally trying to approach these subjects without any assumptions. Beyond that, I just try to make sure that everyone who appears in my writing is treated as a person not a prop. Even the people I think are wrong or misguided deserve a fair hearing.

FOM: What impact do you think coverage on rural communities has on a national audience? What’s the best result?

TG: Honestly? There’s not enough impact. For many years, I think that coverage of rural communities went largely ignored. But since the surprise of the Trump election, that’s obviously changing fast. The challenge for national media is going to be resisting the urge to fill that gap by handing out parachutes to their usual reporters. In a recent column for the New York Times, Ross Douthat suggested that the middle of the country might be more liberal if there were great institutions of higher education and public broadcasting outlets out here. The ignorance of that kind of statement is staggering—as if we’ve never heard of college or NPR and that’s all that farmers would need to be converted to liberalism. The trick is shedding prejudices and avoiding the urge to simplify; those are short-cuts, and they almost always lead to the wrong destination. For national media to get the middle of the country right, they’re going to need reporters who live here, immersed in the place and attuned to day-to-day concerns.

FOM: What do you see as the most urgent and under-reported rural issues?

TG: There are many. I think the most under-reported story has to do with the broad-reaching effects of depopulation and then the surprising diversification of rural towns, often as the result of ag industry moving in. The loss of basic services (hospitals, schools, development dollars) when combined with vanishing economic opportunities, especially on multi-generational farms, is producing historic levels of anger, depression and drug addiction. And when you get that kind of pent-up rage aimed at outsiders (immigrants, refugees, urban migrants seeking work), it’s bound to produce volatile situations. I’ve seen that play out in places most people never consider—Albert Lea, Minnesota; Fremont, Nebraska; Garden City, Kansas—but those places are poised to be flash points. In my opinion, delving into that phenomenon in all of its complex permutations is the primary work of today’s rural reporter.

Hear more from Ted at The Anvil on April 8 and register here. Check out some of his work at the following links.

Close to the Bone (New York Times Magazine)
Irrigation Nation (Pacific Standard)
Corn Wars (The New Republic)
Fear in a Handful of Dust (The New Republic)
Hog Wild (OnEarth)