Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
A team of journalists has embarked on a four-month road trip to more than 20 cities to find out.
Ludovic Balland remembers his stop in Detroit. The city, which is combatting a dwindling population and a strong divide along racial and socioeconomic lines, initially seemed like a “ghost city.” But that impression changed after just two interviews with residents.
“There's such a great network of people trying to reactivate the city—young people on farms and selling organic vegetables on the streets,” says Balland, a Swiss designer turned journalist. “They're organizing their lives in a city that needs to be rebuilt, and are participating in a very active way.”
“I met those people,” he adds, “and I tell you, Detroit is a place I could live tomorrow.”
Balland is on a 18,000-mile, cross-country road trip with two other reporters—Anna Levy and Dasha Lisitsina—and they’re trying to capture a complete portrait of America through intimate photos and in-depth interviews. The four-month-long project, called Day After Reading, aims to document how average Americans consume news—especially during such a charged election season.
“It has a journalistic layer: We ask very concretely what kind of stories people are following, what are their impressions about the U.S. election through the media, and how they expect to consume the news in the future,” he says. “On the other hand, it's also a portrait of every city’s [community].”
Balland is speaking from a motel on the outskirts of Memphis, Tennessee. It’s the team’s first stop in the American South, after visiting cities including New York City, Philadelphia, and Detroit throughout September. They just hit up St. Louis, Missouri, where the second presidential debate was held. And now, they’ll go further South, into to Dallas and Austin, before heading west. All in all, the team will visit nearly 30 cities by December, following a winding path that dodges the East Coast’s brutal winter.
On each leg of the trip, Balland and his team sit down with a handful of residents in what he calls their “natural habitats”—their homes, their offices, their urban farms. “It’s almost a kind of romantic, old-fashioned approach,” he says with a laugh. The team has interviewed a wide range people from different cultural backgrounds, socioeconomic statuses, and generations. By the end of the project, Balland plans to compile all the photos and interviews into a book.
Balland has a set of questions he asks everyone: What is their earliest memory of reading the news? Their critiques on how the news media covers the election? Their thoughts on how people will consume news in the future? But he says that, for the most part, the subjects’ personal stories carry the conversations—many of which have been posted on DAR’s website.
One of Balland’s favorite interviews was with Jayne Chu, a social justice advocate in New York’s Chinatown. She told him her earliest memory of the news was of the massacre in Tiananmen Square in 1989. “I went to a school that was mostly American, and I was the only Chinese girl for at least a couple of grades around me,” she recalled in the interview. “And one of the teachers came to me; the first thing she said to me was, ‘I’m so sorry.’”
Chu also shared her thoughts with Balland on how the Chinese press has differed from American news outlets in covering the upcoming presidential election. “[In America], people will follow a news channel because they feel like they have a relationship with the personality, with the person who presents the news...” she told the team. “There’s less of an interpretation or presentation [in China], and there’s also less of a relationship because the reporter is not a political correspondent; he’s just a reporter.”
Max Temkin, the founder of the popular card game “Cards Against Humanity,” also made an appearance in Balland’s project, during the group’s stop in Chicago. Asked about his own media consumption (and whether he was going to make a card game about this year’s election), Temkin called all campaigns fictional. “Hillary wants to talk about the facts that support her and not talk about the facts that don’t support her,” he said during the interview. Trump, on the other hand, lies a lot. “On average every 13 minutes every day,” Temkin estimated.
In Detroit, Balland and his team met writer and performer Satori Shakoor, who founded a local nonprofit called The Secret Society of Twisted Storytellers. The group hosts frequent shows during which residents tell their own stories on stage. Starting the group was Shakoor’s way of helping people in her city connect with one another.
“Let’s create a society where people can hear other people and applaud their journeys rather than castigate them,” she told Balland, recalling a time when a transgender woman shared a story about being harassed and pulled out of her car. “There were some African-American men in the audience who were a little homophobic. I got a call [from an audience member who said], ‘I don’t think I’ve ever been that close to a transgender person, and I related. Because I get pulled out of my car and harassed for no reason.’ “
When asked about her thoughts on the election from the point of view of a storyteller, Shakoor answered: “He who can tell the best story owns the world.”