The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A simple solution to make journalism better in Trump’s America

President-elect Donald Trump, with his wife, Melania Trump, talks to reporters. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

Political journalists swung and missed on the 2016 presidential election.

No one disputes that basic point. Although there were a few outliers, the bulk of the coverage suggested that Hillary Clinton would beat Donald Trump in the race for the White House, with the only question being how large her margin would be and whether she would help Democrats retake control of the Senate.

In the wake of the election — and all the way through the holidays — diagnoses were offered for what went so wrong for journalists. The most common — and smartest — reason offered up goes like this: Journalists are clumped, primarily, in the big East Coast cities of Washington and New York. As such, they rarely interact with “regular” people who don't live on the coasts, didn't go to Ivy League schools, don't obsessively check Twitter, etc. That sheltered existence means that someone like Trump, who was reviled in many of the areas in which journalists live, is impossible to understand, and/or it was inconceivable that he could win.

That, like all stereotypes, is overly broad. Not ALL journalists live on the East Coast or went to an Ivy League school. But many did.

So how do we solve that problem? We're not going to fire everyone who covered the 2016 election. (Sorry, Twitter!) Nor is everyone who lives in Washington or New York going to pull up stakes and move to the heartland to have a better feel for how the average person thinks and feels about politics and everything else.

One idea is to commit to sending reporters into the field much more often to better understand the public. (My guess is that this is the approach most mainstream media organizations adopt.) Not a bad idea, but one that is deeply flawed, to my mind. After all, there's a BIG difference between spending a few days in a place and moving there. You wouldn't — or shouldn't — say you understand Orlando after a five-day trip to Disney World, right?

Which brings me to my not-all-that radical idea for news organizations to better understand Trump's America: News organizations should commit to opening at least five bureaus in midsize and smallish cities somewhere in the middle of America in 2017. I don't have any set list of what those cities should be, but just for kicks, here are five:

* Omaha (population 444,000)

* Knoxville, Tenn. (population 185,000)

* Dallas (population 1.2 million)

* Missoula, Mont. (population 71,000)

* Columbus, Ohio (population 787,000)

Trump carried all five states. The states represent significant geographic diversity. They range from tiny (Missoula) to pretty darned big (Dallas).

In the modern age of reporting, the relative costs for an effort like this are low. You need to hire one person in each of these places. They can work from home. You pay for their salary, their WiFi, their cellphone and their gas for reporting trips. Given what is expended on, say, covering a presidential campaign, we are talking about peanuts.

And unlike a reporter who swoops into a city or a state for a story for which, at most, they will spend three days on the ground, establishing bureaus in these cities would, over time, make these reporters part of the community in ways that would lend them truly valuable perspective and insight into how Americans live, work and think.

News organizations have dabbled with this sort of thing in the past. TV networks often embed a journalist in Iowa or New Hampshire; the embed lives in the state for months, documenting the various candidates who come through. But that's different from what I am proposing. Those embeds view themselves as temporary residents. They know that when the Iowa caucuses or New Hampshire primary ends, they are done living in the state.

What if, instead, we hired people from those states or people already practicing journalism in those states? People who consider that city or community their home. You're telling me there aren't good reporters living in Omaha who wouldn't be thrilled to work for, say, The Washington Post?

For all the coverage of the shrinkage of the news business over the past decade, one of the losses that is often overlooked is the closing of bureaus around the country. Part of the reason we collectively didn't see Trump coming is not because we didn't have enough people, but because we didn't have people in the right places.

Technology allows a reporter to work from anywhere, at a low cost. The times demand different coverage. Why not this? And why not now?