From outside the bubble, it’s a big country

[This post has been updated to include comment from the Fellowship]

AP Photo/Dave Kolpack, File When a newspaper in a small Iowa community won a Pulitzer Prize a few weeks ago, it earned a justifiable amount of applause, and some attention from big-city media that, frankly, bordered on the condescending. Of course, great journalism can be done more than a day’s drive from the nearest ocean. And lots of other smart things can happen away from the coasts too.

Brent Olson, of Clinton, Minn., reminded me of that today with his essay — reprinted below — about what happened when he applied for a fellowship on food and farming.

Now Olson, whom I profiled in this space in 2013, knows a lot about both. He’s been a farmer. He’s been a farm reporter. And he was actively engaged in the challenge of local food in a rural town.

Maybe that’s not enough to be awarded the fellowship, but experience nonetheless that few people in a big city have.

“You know, we all live in a bubble, that can’t be helped,” he said in an email today. “But knowing you live in a bubble should be kind of a prerequisite for a journalist.”

Here’s his essay:

We live in a big country. I don’t think everyone realizes that.

I always have, but it’s my sisters’ fault.

I have two older sisters; when they left college one moved to Boston and one moved to Europe. My parents love their daughters so…travel.

Of course, my parents had previously done some traveling. Eleanor Roosevelt cooked hot dogs for my mom at Hyde Park and my dad had driven across Germany with a bunch of SS prisoners in the back of his truck.

Those are both much longer stories, by the way.

I suppose that’s where my itch to see things I haven’t seen before came from. And, despite the sad fact that earning a living has been such a huge interruption in my life, I’ve been to about twenty countries and twice that many states.

One of the many, many things I’ve learned in my travels is that where you come from frames where you go. Your background is the lens through which you see the world. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as you realize it. In fact, the different perspectives brought on by different backgrounds are incredibly useful.

What brought on this little rant? There’s a program at Berkeley called the Food and Farming Fellowship. Once a year, the leaders choose ten journalists, bring them to Berkeley for a few days, and throw a little money at them. In return, they’re asked to produce a piece of journalism revolving around – you guessed it – food and farming. I sent an application, knowing I didn’t quite fit what they were looking for. I’m too old and not really qualified, but some people buy lottery tickets, I do this.

Last week I got an email letting me know I didn’t make the cut. It also listed the ten people who did, and, out of pure curiosity, I looked them up.

They were all stunningly qualified – young, accomplished, from prestigious universities, and writing for big-time publications. I did notice something interesting – almost all of them lived within a hundred miles of a coast.

With my curiosity fully engaged, I searched for the attendees from the previous four years and the same pattern emerged – a lot of folks from Oakland and San Francisco, Washington and New York. In five years of awarded fellowships, one journalist was from Colorado and another worked for public radio in Chicago, but they were the exception.

Don’t get me wrong. If someone writes for the Washington Post, odds are he or she is a good journalist. After all, the Post did win a Pulitzer Prize this year. Of course, so did the Storm Lake Clarion, so it seems there are some people in Iowa doing solid work as well.

Did I mention this is called a Food and Farming Fellowship? And yet, it seems the entire Midwest community of journalists does not exist, and I believe that’s a mistake. I know so many journalists doing remarkable work in places like Iowa, South Dakota and Nebraska, many people with profound insights on food and, yes, farming, drawn from years of experience. Writers who can navigate the New York subway system AND maneuver a combine.

I realize I’m sounding a little indignant here. It’s just that…these are my people. There’s not much glory in writing about hogs or cover crops. Nobody yearns for the room service at the Day’s Inn in Mobridge. Still, they’re on the road, covering too many miles, filling up the back seat with fast food containers, driving down back roads where cellphone service is unreliable and mailboxes are nameless, looking to tell a story that makes a difference.

Oh, well. It’s not my money, not my program. I’m confident the people in charge aren’t really too concerned about my misgivings, judging by my unanswered email message to them.

I think what I’ll do instead is print copies of this column and mail them to all the people who were selected for this year’s Fellowship. Not with the intention of making them feel bad, because they shouldn’t – remember, stunningly qualified. No, I just want to remind them that if they’re going to write about “Food and Farming,” they should recognize the enormity of this country and their need to cover all of it.

Some people know that. Some people don’t.

The Fellowship’s Michael Pollan responds:

The criticism is well taken and very much on our minds. The fact is that the majority of applicants to the fellowship come from the Bay Area and New York. There are a couple of reasons for that. First, many early career journalists move from all over the country to places like New York and San Francisco, where they can meet editors, get graduate degrees in journalism, work at media publications and build a community of fellow journalists. As local newspapers shrink and consolidate and shutter altogether, there are fewer opportunities to report and get paid a living wage outside major urban centers. We also save several spots each year for recent graduates of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, many of whom are still residing in the Bay Area.

But a turn in a coastal city doesn’t mean fellows stay in those places forever. In fact the high cost of living makes that increasingly difficult. Most are not from these places and will not stay living in them for long. Once they’ve established themselves a bit and made connections with editors, we see fellows moving all over the country. For example, 2015 fellow Sara Brooke Curtis recently moved from San Francisco to Brattleboro, Vermont; 2014 fellow Sierra Crane-Murdoch, decamped from the Bay Area for Hood River, Oregon; 2015 fellow Eva Hershaw moved back to Austin, Texas after spending a year in Brasilia; 2015 fellow Erik Neumann recently moved from Oakland to Salt Lake City to be a health reporter for KUER, Utah’s NPR affiliate; 2015 fellow Nick Neely now lives in Hailey, Idaho; Malavika Vyawahare, a 2015 fellow, moved from New York City, where she’d recently completed a master’s degree in journalism, back to India where she is now a science and environment reporter at Hindustan Times. Fellows move so much they’re hard to keep track of.

This year we have a fellow from Oklahoma City, and others from Cleveland, Mississippi and New Orleans. Last year we had fellows from Detroit and Philadelphia. The fact is we don’t get many applications from the corn belt, though we’d welcome them. Anyone with suggestions for how to more effectively spread the word about the fellowship to early career journalists in these underrepresented geographies and demographics, please email us at foodfellows@journalism.berkeley.edu. We do consider geography when choosing fellows, but at the end of the day the most important thing is the strength of the story they pitch us.

Thanks very much for your interest in the Fellowship, and please encourage people in your part of the country to apply.
Michael Pollan