Subverting Midwestern narratives in 'Midland: Reports from Flyover Country'

Joel Oliphint
"Midland: Reports from Flyover Country"

Soon after the 2016 presidential election, Nebraska-based journalist Ted Genoways put forth a challenge on social media. He wanted his writer friends in the Midwest to keep reporting on and in their communities while keeping in mind the narrative about so-called Flyover Country that was unfolding in the national media.

Denison University English professors Michael Croley and Jack Shuler took the call to heart, organizing an event they dubbed the Between Coasts Forum in January of 2017, where 50 mostly Midwestern writers gathered to talk about the mainstream, overly simplistic and sometimes downright false “Trump Country” narrative.

Over the course of five Between Coasts forums, Croley and Shuler met dozens of talented Midwestern journalists, many of whom hadn’t gained the audience they deserved. The two profs are aiming to do their part to fix that problem through a just-released book, Midland: Reports from Flyover Country, which collects stories from more than 20 writers, including Columbus-based journalist Mya Frazier and former WOSU News reporter Esther Honig. The book is divided into three sections: Campaign Trails, Constituent Concerns, and Solutions.

Croley said he and Shuler had a handful of previously published pieces in mind for Midland from the start, but they also assigned some stories, such as “Bodies on the Line: Protest, Politics, and Power on an Appalachian Railroad” by Sydney Boles, a Kentucky-based reporter for a community radio station. “Sydney’s piece [includes] things that you don’t know unless you live there,” Croley said, adding that a New York Times reporter couldn’t write the same piece by dropping in briefly, writing a story, then returning to NYC — a tactic often referred to as “parachute journalism.”

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While Croley noted that parachute journalism can be done well, and is sometimes necessary, Midland is an argument in favor of looking first to writers who are already fully embedded in their communities between the coasts. Genoways, for instance, contributed a story about a group of small-town environmentalists in Nebraska that tried to stop a Costco chicken plant and ended up fighting alongside anti-Muslim xenophobes.

“Ted Genoways is deeply rooted in Nebraska, so he wants to get that story right, not just from a journalism perspective, but also because that’s where he has chosen to raise his family,” Croley said. “It sounds like common sense, but the hope is that some publications that have bigger megaphones will see the depth and nuance of this reporting, and maybe ... hire these people. Don’t just use our writers as sources; hire them as writers.”

Doing so, Croley argues, would help avoid some of the tired cliches and lazy narratives often perpetuated about the middle of the country, particularly rural America. How many times, Croley noted, have stories called out small-town citizens for voting against their own economic interest while failing to note the same tendency of some voters on Manhattan’s Upper East Side? “People have values that mean more to them than economics,” he said.

In the book’s Foreword, journalist Connie Shultz writes, “You can find someone to say something stupid on any corner in America, and Ohio becomes the promised land for that nonsense every four years.” With the November election a little more than a month away, the timing of Midland’s release is no coincidence. The hope, Croley said, is to cut through the noise generated by political parties, cable news and social media feeds (including the President’s megaphone-like Twitter account). In reading the stories contained in Midland, it’s impossible to come away thinking of Midwesterners as a monolith.

In the future, Croley and Shuler plan to host more Between Coasts forums and hopefully publish more anthologies with voices of underrepresented writers touching on issues such as immigration, income inequality and climate change. Along the way, they’re asking a tough, underlying question: As the media becomes increasingly consolidated, publications shutter and journalists lose their jobs, what outlets are going to publish these crucial stories?

Through Between Coasts, Croley and Shuler are looking for ways to foster journalism where it’s dying, in hopes of one day creating a new model for small-town journalism while also actively looking for ways to foster relationships between reporters in the middle of the country and legacy media outlets on the coasts. “We’re just two English professors,” Croley said, “but we think about this a lot.”