Journalist Celeste Headlee is counting on a Kickstarter campaign to launch a new public radio program called “Middle Ground”. The weekly hour-long news show and podcast will focus on stories from Middle America, an area of the country Headlee believes is often overlooked in mainstream news.
Headlee and the show’s producers originally launched the Kickstarter campaign at the end of September, but the government shutdown prompted the team to put the fundraising campaign on hold. The Kickstarter campaign is being relaunched today with a goal to raise $59,000, which will cover the first three months of operating costs. You can check it out here.
Celeste Headlee / photo: Marco Antonio
Headlee was formerly a co-host of NPR’s “The Takeaway”. She most recently has been a guest host at NPR and a reporter for the BBC and Al Jazeera America.
I recently interviewed Headlee about “Middle Ground” and the move towards crowdfunding journalism:
How did the idea for Middle Ground come about?
CH: I worked for several years as a reporter and host first in Arizona and then in Detroit, Michigan. I noticed three things. First, it was harder to get stories onto national air. If one of my pitches was successful, it was generally because it fit a narrow perception of the area, i.e., stories about Native Americans in Arizona or about the car industry in Detroit or the decay of Detroit. People loved to get stories about poverty in Detroit, bad schools, corrupt politicians, etc. Otherwise, the only local news that made national air was about serious crime or serious weather and voters during a presidential election year.
Secondly, I noticed that I had an unending supply of great stories. Once I became a correspondent for NPR, people began to comment on “where I found all those great stories.” I found them in my backyard because there weren’t any other national reporters there. The middle of the country is rife with surprising, compelling stories just waiting for an appreciative audience.
Third, what people on the coasts understand about the middle of America is far from the truth. Detroit was perhaps the best object lesson. The fairy tale about Detroit is that it’s dying, ruined, empty and poor. While there are elements of truth in all those things, they don’t even begin to tell the whole story and in fact are so far removed from the totality of the narrative that those things approach distortions. Every time something happens in Detroit, the networks parachute someone in for a day or two, or they assign someone to cover it from Chicago. That’s just bad journalism.
I wanted to stop complaining about the coverage of Middle America and start doing something to change it.
How will it work? What types of stories will be covered? Who will be doing the reporting?
CH: Middle Ground is essentially a show that covers the news, politics and culture of Middle America. We want to focus on stories that aren’t heard elsewhere, but we will cover breaking news when it occurs as well. We will make use of the thousands of great reporters who are experts on their city or region. When we have to cover St. Louis, we will call a contributor in St. Louis or go there ourselves. That’s what a large chunk of the budget will go to: paying contributors all over the country. These are reporters that have a hard time getting national airtime but have important information to relay and stories to tell.
Where will people be able to find the program? Will it only be available online?
CH: Initially, it will be available both online and as a podcast. But the purpose of the Kickstarter campaign is to make this the first national public radio show to be launched via crowdfunding. We have strong interest from several stations that would like to be the home station for Middle Ground, and interest from national distributors as well. This show will start as a podcast and, hopefully, be eventually available on public radio stations all over the country.
Do you think it is lack of interest or budgetary reasons that many national news programs choose not to cover stories in the middle of the United States?
CH: Part of it is practicality. The headquarters are in NYC, DC and LA. Most of the reporters are there. It’s much more difficult to get approval to fly out to Nebraska and cover a story there than it is to drive a few miles down the road. There’s also the argument about population density, that most of America’s population is concentrated on the coasts. What’s more, our banking centers and entertainment industries are headquartered in those places, so some of the most powerful people in the country are served by news from the coasts. Lastly, there is a prejudice about news from Middle America, that it’s automatically less newsworthy if it comes from Utah. Making the case for covering an election in New Mexico is much harder than an election in Virginia.
Can you give an example of a recent story national news has missed in this part of the country?
CH: I think the best example of poor reporting is the coverage of Detroit. Although that was covered by national outlets, the coverage was poor at best and most of the reporters were covering it from outside Michigan. Every newspaper article was accompanied by a stock photo of some dilapidated building, usually the train station. It was abhorrent.
There’s also the issue of the rising number of hate groups in the US. A lot of attention was paid to Westboro Baptist Church (out of Kansas), but not to the trends behind groups like this. Since 2000, the number of hate groups has gone up by 50% and the number of armed militias has gone up 813% since Obama was elected in 2008.
There’s a great story about the battle over bus discrimination in Ohio, plus the drought of 2012.
I was recently reading about Lara Setrakian who started the news website Syria Deeply that focuses on news and events surrounding the crisis in that country. Now I’m hearing about your project Middle Ground focusing on stories in this part of the United States. Do you think story specific platforms are part of a shift in how journalists cover the news?
CH: Yes, and I also think it’s a reaction to the homogenization of our news sources. How is it possible, when CNN, MSNBC and Fox have to fill 24-hours every day, that they all end up covering the same four stories over and over, filling time with pundits and talking heads? I think many people are frustrated over the endless blather and are hungry for news about the world around us. CNN spent hours covering Miley Cyrus’ appearance on SNL as if it were a news story. If there are alternate news sources cropping up, that’s a perfect explanation of why we need them.
You are working on getting funding for this program through a Kickstarter campaign. Quality journalism is expensive to produce. Is crowdfunding journalism a sustainable business model for producing news?
CH: Short answer? No. Our Kickstarter campaign is meant to cover startup costs only. But if we reach our goal, those funds will also pay to get this show a distributor and a home station where it can be based and produced. The goal amount isn’t going to pay any salaries. Right now, Middle Ground is a labor of love and a public service. But all indications are that it can grow into something bigger.
If you are able to meet your funding goal what happens next?
CH: If we meet our goal, we immediately start producing podcasts with great stories and news from Middle America. We also reach out to our partners at public radio stations in Middle America and start the process of getting a distributor. Meeting that goal is just a first step and I hope that someday our backers will be listening to Middle Ground on their local public radio station and say, “You know, I helped start that show.”