After the ‘Fiscal Cliff,’ an Opening for the ‘Journalism of Hope’

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However the”fiscal cliff” drama in Washington plays out, one thing is clear: Post-cliff America will need a serious reboot. Polarized Democrats and Republicans have competing blueprints about how to pull off this off — economically, educationally, when it comes to health, infrastructure, you name it. But any way you slice it, big changes are coming, nationally and locally.

Despite the continuing and sometimes nasty battle of sound biters, are the two sides really that far apart? John Kasich, the Republican governor of Ohio, wrote in a Nov. 1 op-ed in the Cleveland Plain Dealer,  “An essential part of the American dream is hope that tomorrow will be better.”And in his victory speech on election night, President Barack Obama said Americans decided to “put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.”

This talk of “hope” was on my mind when I read Rick Robinson’s recent Street Fight column about newly installed USA Today publisher (and Street Fight investor and adviser) Larry Kramer.  After all, from the beginning the newspaper’s founder, Al Neuharth, described his publication as “the journalism of hope.” Reading about the newspaper’s efforts to integrate local editors into the national newsroom, it occurred to me that the combination of USA Today’s national reach and resources and Gannett’s 81 local papers put the company in an ideal position to cover the coming changes, both local and national, as a signature, thematic story of the decade.

Here’s how it might work: The main hub – USA Today – could focus on the rebuilding of the country from Washington. Meanwhile, the spokes – the 81 Gannett papers — could chronicle the impact of federal decisions from the other end of the telescope, locally and hyperlocally.

USA Today likes numbers, and stories about the rebuilding the United States (Neuharth hated the country to be called “America”) would be loaded with numbers. The federal government, through its spending, is responsible for close to 25% of the nation’s more than $15 trillion GDP. That spending has a huge impact in numerous granular ways on every Gannett paper’s circulation area. When that spending is cut back – as it will be in the inevitable deficit-debt agreement to be reached in Washington – there will be another kind of huge impact on every Gannett community. Gannett local papers, taking their cue from USA Today’s national and regional stories, can parse the numbers for their readers by showing what happens to community services and the people receiving and delivering them when the spigot of federal spending is twisted a sharp turn.

There will be painful stories, for sure, but I’m confident there will be inspirational ones too – and they can be told through the unmediated voices of the community that Kramer says he wants to bring into the news.

Many and possibly all the local papers would need more technology to collect, filter, and structure the data to produce visualizations of the impacts right at the neighborhood level. And big brother USA Today surely has the resources to provide that help.

The reverberations from big cuts in federal spending as well as the likely new stimulus spending will continue for years to come throughout America, from Washington to the states, cities, suburbs, and rural communities – and in every one of the 50,690 census tracts. This will be a long-running story that USA Today and the Gannett local papers could own. It could be good business too – giving the papers the content they need to monetize their digital platforms.

That’s the journalism of hope for the 21st century, and it could be the blueprint for a new USA Today that would stay fresh for years to come.

Tom Grubisich authors The New News column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of LocalAmerica, which is partnering with InstantAtlas to develop sites built around the notion of how communities rate in livability. Local America is featured on Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Pivot Point site.

Image courtesy of Flickr user loop_oh