Wins, Bravery, and a Loss
Stories about visionary leaders, effective institutions, the toll of struggles.
Here are several links and appreciations on topics that are not in the headline news of this instant but that I think deserve notice.
Down below I’ve included info on recent realities of my own life. And I’m putting that in a footnote because of Substack’s excellent new feature that pops up the footnote text if you hover over the footnote number.
1) Reviving the country, one college town at a time.
Last fall Deb Fallows and I wrote about Ball State University, in Muncie, Indiana, and the way it had committed itself to the long-term improvement of its home community. My story “When Gown Embraces Town” is here, and Deb’s, “The (Student) Paper of Record,” is here.
This week The Washington Monthly, where I had my first job in magazine journalism 50 years ago, published the next article in this “town and gown” series. It’s by me; it discusses Colby College, and its transformative role in Waterville, Maine; and it also covers what Gannon University has meant to Erie, Pennsylvania. You can see the Monthly’s version here and an annotated Our Towns version here.
I hope the example set by these two schools under their leaders David Greene, of Colby, and Keith Taylor, of Gannon, is widely noted, and applied. As I say in the piece:
Colleges can make news for a lot of the wrong reasons: How they’re ranked. Which applicants they admit, and why. How much they cost. What they teach students about the world, and what they encourage or permit them to say.
These are real issues. But there is another underemphasized way to talk about, report on, and assess colleges and their success… how seriously and skillfully colleges take the opportunity that many of them have to become centers of “place-based” economic and civic renewal in their home communities.
To put it another way: for every 100 newspaper stories about the latest nutty thing some professor or student has done or said, how about maybe one or two stories on what other colleges, academics, and students are doing in their communities? We’ve read plenty about the craziness, and not enough about the progress.
2) Community banking, in eastern Tennessee and beyond.
Last year Deb and I traveled to Marion County, Tennessee, near Chattanooga, learning about some of the varied communities along the Sequatchie River Valley there. We landed our little airplane at the Marion County airport (KAPT), within the Sequatchie valley on the Cumberland plateau.
These communities include Jasper, Kimball, and South Pittsburg. We heard about many projects underway in these towns—and the role of a small locally oriented bank, Tower Community Bank, in fostering downtown and regional development, and underwriting scholarships for local students.
We have come to think of community banks in the same category as locally owned news organizations, and local independent book stores, and locally owned stores and restaurants, and locally owned or nonprofit medical systems, and locally committed colleges and universities—all of which are brakes against the dehumanizing, Gradgrind-style forces of all-quarterly-profit, all-the-time.
We did a podcast for Tower Community Bank, with Brett Hollenbeck, which you can listen to here. He was asking what we had seen around the country, and we were asking him what was happening in his part of Tennessee. We enjoyed it and hope you will too.
3) The Congressional Select Committee you didn’t hear about, but should.
We all know about one Congressional Select Committee whose charter ran out when the 117th Congress (under Nancy Pelosi) ended and the 118th (Kevin McCarthy) began. That was the committee investigating the January 6th insurrection. New select committees are of course starting up, some of them with a predictable partisan bent. The one I will be watching most closely is on Strategic Competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party. (That’s its actual title.)
A select committee from the past 117th Congress that got less attention than the January 6 group, but that also did work of lasting importance and value, was the Select Committee on Economic Disparity and Fairness in Growth. Over the past decade, no concept has been more central to American political trends than that of a rigged economic game. This select committee, under the collaborative leadership of a Democratic Representative, Jim Himes of Connecticut, and a Republican, Brian Steil of Wisconsin, did serious and creative work in understanding these issues, and making their realities vivid and human.
As Stephanie Lai wrote in the New York Times here, and as Jacqueline Alemany wrote in the Washington Post here, the committee envisioned and commissioned a powerful 30-minute documentary on the realities of, well, economic disparity and fairness—even during a time of “strength” and “recovery” for the economy as a whole. The film is called Grit & Grace, it is narrated by Sarah Jessica Parker, and it’s a remarkable departure from what I have seen from any comparable legislative body. You can watch it here on YouTube and judge for yourself.
Among its notable traits is that it is not simply a “hardship” documentary, although it is unsparing about obstacles and injustice. It also features possibilities, options, agency by people deciding on their future. You can see the whole film, plus live interviews with several of its subjects, in an event at the National Archives, here. And a Marketplace story about the project is here.
The committee’s full and final report, for PDF download, is here. My respect and congratulations to members of the committee and their staff, and to all involved.
Younger journalistic colleagues noted, with support and appreciation.
—Last year I wrote about Raquel Coronell Uribe, originally from Bogota, Colombia, who was then midway through her term as the president (editor-in-chief) of the Harvard Crimson, the independent student newspaper. She was the first Hispanic person to hold that job. I had been in that same role as an undergraduate many decades earlier, and I enjoyed comparing with her what was fundamentally different and what remained the same.
She said that most of her young colleagues hoped for careers in journalism—rather than law, consulting, finance, and so on. I told her that the business needed them, and so did the world.
This week Raquel disclosed in an article in the Crimson that her plans were changing, because she was entering a course of chemo to deal with a relapse of the leukemia that she thought was in her past. As she wrote:
Just a few weeks ago, in December of 2022, I hit the five-year mark from the end of treatment. I was now considered “cured” — an odd term that meant that my chances for relapse were so statistically low I was now considered fully free of the disease that had haunted me for seven years.
I should have felt relief. Relief that the ground beneath me was, for the first time in years, settled and solid enough to hold me.
The relief, as she describes, has not endured. Everyone who knows her sends her the very best wishes for strength, recovery, and a happy and productive future.
—And like other people in our business and beyond, I share my shock at the news that Blake Hounshell, most recently of the New York Times and before that of Politico and Foreign Policy (where I first met him), has died at age 44, after a long struggle with depression.
Life is hard; the stresses of this business can make it harder. Our deepest sympathies and support to Blake Hounshell’s wife, children, and larger family. We are all in this together.
Since just before Christmas, Deb and I have had the too-rare joy of being in the same place with members of our family. That place is Montecito, California, where one of our sons lives, and which during this same period has experienced the most extreme rainfall in its history. For another time: what this means for the state, what it means for drought and climate-justice, what it has meant to individuals, what it has meant in this community on the 5th anniversary of the catastrophic 2018 mudslides that claimed many lives.
One thing it has meant for me is less daylong exposure to news on any topic, from the FAA NOTAM shutdown to the Hunter Biden “story.” And less time in range of any keyboard or screen. I’ll get to these other stories as soon as I can. Meanwhile we’ve had extra chances to be with our son, his wife, and their flock of four little children. Which is a trade-off we’ll take any day.
So glad to read, among other things, that you've had the chance lately to spend time plugged in and more time in the company of your son and grandkids.
I found your WM piece on Gannon and Colby informative and heartening. But—and I hate to begin this sentence with a “but”—many colleges—public colleges, in particular—have been suffering enrollment declines that jeopardize their health and that of their communities. I’d love to see you devote some attention to how such schools—e.g., the Youngstown State Universities of the world—are coping, and what the outlook is for them and the communities for which they are such a vital presence.