Gen Z in the Heartland
Air Date: May 4, 2020
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I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. My guest today is Nico Gendron, who studied intimately the next generation, Gen Z’s media and political activity. Currently audience engagement producer for the Wall Street Journal, Nico has spent the last year working with rural Missouri high school students on a civic and media literacy project, a fellowship formed in collaboration with Instagram and the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, Nico guided student’s production of local stories about their communities, information deserts that lack both student and professional newspapers. On Harvard’s Nieman Lab Nico has explored how to make better services to resonate with Gen Z viewers and listeners. “If news organizations can’t commit to hiring young people to tell their own stories,” she writes, “they at the very least should produce content in a way that appeals to them.” Further asking, “How can we reach an audience if that audience doesn’t see themselves, their hometowns, their families, even the brand of jeans they wear portrayed in the media?” Welcome, Nico. Pleasure to have you here.
GENDRON: Thanks for having me.
HEFFNER: When I read about your project in Neiman, I was just fascinated because it’s exactly what we need young journalists to be doing right now, going into those news deserts and teaching young people about the meaning and value of journalism and civic engagement. So let’s just start from the beginning. How did you ultimately pick this high school, and how many, just the bare bone facts here, how many months did you spend with them?
GENDRON: Yeah, so I went to Missouri for nine months. I was there for a full school year. I ended up working with five rural high schools, 15 students across the board, and all of them except one had a student newspaper. And also none of them were, had local access to local papers so it was kind of an uphill battle in the beginning. When I showed up at, I’d previously been working at the New York Times and I had been told by Missou to not tell them, tell the principals that I worked at the New York Times, to just say that I was interested in doing a content creation project and having these students tell stories about their hometown. And so we started at that point and then actually had a good laugh at the end when they were like, you just were not saying journalism the whole time. And I think I was only supposed to stay eight months. I stayed nine. It was, it was a really great project.
HEFFNER: What was the unifying story that these students were telling under your stewardship of what I amount to be something of the more rigorous ABCs of journalism along the way, but if there was a unifying narrative that these young people holistically were concerned about, for instance, the quality of water or air in their communities?
GENDRON: I think they felt a lot of pressure in the sense that, you know, regional media, they don’t have a local newspaper, regional media isn’t covering their hometown, so it was kind of this like, I have one shot to tell a story about where I’m from that accurately portrays where I’m from and what my life is like. So that was a really big part of the pitch process is figuring out, you know, there are, you know, themes across the board of being from a rural community, but along with that, there’s also rural communities aren’t all the same. So each of these students felt a lot of passion about kind of making their rural communities stand out and not kind of just being lumped in as, you know, Midwesterners growing up in rural places with, you know, one store and mainly farms. So we came you know, across some really interesting stories about the local storm water tax being used not for that but to build turf soccer fields that actually landlocked the local high school so that it couldn’t expand. We learned about, you know, kind of like the day the music died, that there was no places for people to get together and play music or to get instruments besides churches and churches were closing as people were leaving. So just issues that, you know, previously being from a coastal place, I never considered, you know, these more nuanced rural stories that we really got at.
HEFFNER: You were doing public affairs journalism with these students for the most part, right, it wasn’t, you know, who’s your favorite celebrity or how, how, you know, the kinds of things that an Instagram fellowship might consider if you think logically like, well, what, what is Instagram funding here? They want to make up for a lot of crap on Instagram, no, not to be a snarky about it. They were doing something good, but they were, you were enabling these young people to tell stories about public policy that really affect their lives.
GENDRON: We talked a lot about, in the end, about how information is, and if you grow up in a place where you don’t have a lot of media coverage, but that also translates to not having a lot of media access that you kind of don’t know what you’re missing. And a lot of these students that are now, you know, in the upcoming election going to be first-time voters, they weren’t really sure where to look and what, you know, what to trust when it came to just typing in, you know, a candidate’s name and Google. And you know the great thing about teenagers is that they want to prove their parents wrong. So even though, you know, typically like when I was growing up, most people’s political views were just based on their parents or grandparents or whoever their guardians were. But these teenagers, you know, being digital natives, that wasn’t the case. And they were really, yes, really interested in kind of activism issues, you know, like climate change, voter suppression, and just, you know, even local economy, like, you know, money, money being funneled back into their community because not everyone wants to leave where they’re from.
HEFFNER: Right. Well that was also in the political sphere. That was a major plank of this administration and the campaign to elect Donald Trump for the forgotten man and, and the allegiance to rural communities, and so on the economic issues or cultural issues that are central to the lives of these young voters, what can you report back after completing the nine months with them?
GENDRON: I mean, the reason that when I, you know, received the RJI Fellowship and they, you know, said to me, you’re really interested in young people, like you want to spend a lot of your time with high school students, not in these rural communities, you’re not interested in their parents or their older siblings. And I think part of that had to do with the fact that when, you know, the 2016 election happened and a lot of media companies were doing the mea culpa of being like, how did we miss these people? You know, and now sending reporters out to report on like rust belt and, you know, rural communities, is that they weren’t taking into account, you know, future voters and young people who couldn’t vote but probably and do feel really differently. So that was really fascinating for me is I kind of, I mean I did, I kind of had an assumption in my head, I thought, you know, their parents are Republicans, they’re, you know, ardent Trump supporters and they are going to be too. And that wasn’t the case. I actually had one student who was also in Future Farmers for America, which is, I mean, especially in these communities is a really, really popular program to be a part of. It gives students incredible opportunities. And they made fun of her, her fellow classmates for being like the lone liberal because she was really passionate about women’s reproductive rights, and just other issues that didn’t align with her fellow classmates. And I thought it was really fascinating that she would kind of go head to head with them about it. Especially cause her parents were Trump supporters.
HEFFNER: So you found an open mindedness and a generational difference in the way that a certain electoral block is perceived and, and maybe how their children, this next generation are collapsing that single definition or are as many generations are following their parents very different, if not even opposite of their parents. What was the takeaway from sort of the end game of how they could continue to deal with the important local issues that were transpiring there? It sounds like you really did cultivate in them a toolkit that could be applied so that when you are now at the Wall Street Journal back in New York, they still have the bandwidth and capacity to document you know, publicly, concerns in a journalistic format, and convey them to their, you know, fellow family and friends and peers.
GENDRON: I think a big part of that was media literacy. I mean, I think a big part of doing this project with them and helping them produce their own stories about their communities and about, you know, civic issues was really, you know, saying like you have to do research and you have to know that what you’re researching, whether it’s for the story or who you’re going to vote for in 2020 when you can vote is, you know, what’s fact, what’s fiction? If you trust something, why do you trust it? And I think that was something that just within these communities and also just with their parents and grandparents, also just not being, you know, digital natives, the way these people are, Millennial and Gen Z that they now had under their belt. And I think that’s, you know, informing how they, you know, document their lives on social media.
HEFFNER: Were there any investigations that they undertook that they were continuing to track? And could you give us any examples when you departed that, you know, they sort of give us confidence that these young people are going to be the watchdogs of their communities in the absence of community and local newspapers because like you said, most of the high-schoolers didn’t have access to local newspapers. So were there any particular stories that the students were keeping tabs on and hope to continue to follow after you departed?
GENDRON: Yeah, one of the students, because I had juniors and seniors, so some are now in college and some are now pursuing journalism degrees, which I love hearing from them and kind of what they’re learning, also just like in a bigger arena with tenured professors. But one of the students I had, she was profiling this monument basically in their town that had all these regional and also local kind of politics surrounding, it was part of an old railroad. It was a bridge and it had become just like a local landmark, but also a Missouri landmark and they, their local government want to just strip it. And also there wasn’t enough local funding for people fighting for it. So that was something that she’s, she’s still really invested in, especially because, you know, she had not just her junior year but her senior year to really be involved.
HEFFNER: And what did you gather, I alluded to before of the economic situation, the question of the impact of tariffs on a farming community or rural communities and the impact of the economic transformation. There, like you said, there is the stereotype of how urban America or rural America may function and then there’s the reality and in that reality, what confounded you the most? And, and, and how did you ultimately kind of reconcile it with the, with the existence of how policies were helping or hurting people? But I really mean economic policies too.
GENDRON: Yeah, absolutely. I think minimum wage was something we talked a lot about that you should be able to, you know, not have to go to Kansas City or St. Louis. You should be able to make like a livable wage and also just have job opportunities locally. But when it came to farming, I definitely, I mean I didn’t grow up around farms and one of my students, the way her teacher described it was that her family was like the farming family dynasty locally, and actually the story she reported on was like her family’s farm and basically just the ins and outs of what it’s like to be a farmer from wake up to going to bed. And a big thing that we talked about because I think for her tariffs and things like that were kind of out of her scope. But having the money to be able to keep up with technology, you know, farming technology has gotten so much more advanced but also so much more expensive. And if you don’t have a good season, you can’t necessarily afford it. And then it kind of hurts your production in the years prior. And that was something I hadn’t thought about. And you know, just also the nuance of that, of things like the John Deere manuals being kind of coveted and people sharing them around because John Deere didn’t want you to be able to fix your, your equipment. They wanted you to pay for another one. And, and things that I just, you know, that really, really spoke to me because it was very real and very tangible, where were tariffs weren’t, you know, necessarily.
HEFFNER: No, that’s, that’s good to know. What was viewed from the young people’s perspective as the impediment to achieving something like a minimum wage, I mean, how, how did they describe what maybe the obstacle was to achieving the kind of economy that was going to provide those wages in those local communities?
GENDRON: I think like a lot of, you know, a lot of communities, especially like Trump based his platform on still basis his platform on is the idea that, you know, factory jobs, jobs that had their parents and grandparents had don’t exist anymore. And so now the whole, they’re kind of fed to think like, okay, I get a scholarship and I go to college. And then I take a job that basically removes me from where I’m from and maybe I can come back later and be like a benefactor. But instead, you know, what they were realizing is like, it’s really hard to get a full scholarship even when you have in-state tuition and then you end up picking a profession because you have really bad student debt. So that was another discussion that we had a lot. And also watching some of the students I had that were seniors go through the college process…
HEFFNER: But the Knight Foundation just came out with a report on why 100 million American people don’t vote. And a chunk of them historically for many election cycles has been the young cohort, 18 to 30 year olds. So what is your sense from this experience and really becoming an expert analyst of Millennial trends, but, but more than Millennial trends, Gen Z trends, what’s your read of how you can get that share of a hundred million youth non-voters and bring them out in November?
GENDRON: That’s a great question. A big kind of realization, especially in rural places you know, is that students just don’t, young people don’t understand how to vote in the sense of how to sign up to vote and then you know exactly like how to then go to their polling station. It’s, it sounds really kind of rudimentary, but it’s not something that, you know, if their parents aren’t voting, it’s kind of, you know, it’s kind of more of like an urban, you know, privileged conversation but not always in the more rural areas. So that was something too that one student said to me, I wanted, you know, I wanted to vote, I was eligible to vote, but I didn’t even know how to get signed up. And even some of my friends were signed up and confused about, you know, their polling stations, where to go and when they could go and, or then it hits the end of the day and they’re like, but I have a job after school that I’m going to go to instead. So I think it’s making it easier for students to sign up to vote. And then kind of keeping on them and keeping the momentum and saying, okay, like, you know,
HEFFNER: I don’t know if I believe that if these young people can be taught how to drive, you know, and often younger people these days drive at 14, 15, 16 maybe riding that Deere, that John Deere too. I mean there isn’t really what you’re saying. I mean maybe it is, but I, and is it different from Millennials what you’re describing or is what you’re describing specific to rural communities or do you think that’s really the, the broadest obstacle to young people voting?
GENDRON: I think access is a really huge issue with rural voters. I can’t, I mean I think it would be interesting if they did a breakdown of like rural versus urban, Gen Z and Millennials. But I think, you know, in some families like just getting access to a car so that you can vote. It’s like a serious, a serious impediment. And I think also just not having conversation about it. And I think that’s just, I do think, I do think it’s, I mean, I do think it’s a really a really big issue and I think you, you kind of just have to see it too.
HEFFNER: So you think it’s more practical than psychological. You don’t think it’s a campaign of dissuasion and voter suppression and depression that may lead even families, parents who disagree with some of the views of their young people to diminish the value of their vote. You don’t think it’s coming from within the household, but it’s coming within the structure of voting that is largely this obstacle. And, I’m just pressing you on this because I’m curious if there is a psychological dimension to this too, because we talk about the youth vote. 2018 was the first election. I mean, as someone who covered Millennials pretty extensively, as you have now covered Gen Z, I mean, I can tell you that 2018 made a real difference because it was the first midterm cycle where 18 to 30 year olds came out. I mean, came out at all, really. And so there was something psychologically activated, whether it was because of Trump or everything that had transpired since Trump was elected. And I’m just wondering to what extent the voter suppression or voter denial is at all a psychological construct as much as it is like you’re saying, a practical construct.
GENDRON: I mean I’m sure that none of the conversations I had, at least when I was in mid Missouri, were about voter suppression. I mean, I think that if you’re in a family that has, you know, the time and the resources to talk openly about politics, those would be probably parents and grandparents who would make it their duty to make sure that their child or grandchild voted. But I think it is a practicality issue at least in some of these rural areas just when it comes to access and education. I think in urban and coastal cities, that’s not the case at all.
HEFFNER: So you think voting dynamics in terms of how we vote, how we register, how we stand in line or submit via USPS. You think the concerns are the dynamic within the voting system and not within the family construct within with or, you know, I’m really alluding to cynicism. There’s hyper partisanship, but there’s also hyper cynicism and that’s what drowns out the airwaves of so that you got a result in 2016 where as in has been the case with many success of presidential elections, young people often will say it is the lesser of two evils, at least when it comes to the presidential vote. I would imagine your work rooting these young people’s concerns in local affairs will really make a difference so that they’re conscious that, you know, how I vote for a municipal election really does matter in terms of how tax dollars are being spent or whether my water or air is clean. I get that. But I’m just wondering if the family dynamics of cynicism or hyper-cynicism or hyper-partisanship can play a role too in a downgrading and depressing turnout.
GENDRON: I’ve never, I mean, I’ve never thought about it and it wasn’t something that came up. I mean it, I wish I was there living there now because I think there would be also the students I had would be, you know, many of them would be first time voters. So the conversation would have been not kind of thinking forward to 2020. For the ones that could vote. I mean it really was like a matter, a matter of access and also their parents, I mean some of the students’ parents were definitely indifferent but also understood for the students that weren’t Trump supporters, that you know, it was, you know, it was a gift to be able to vote. So, but also, I mean they spend so much time at school; it’s not something that’s really built into the education.
HEFFNER: And I’m also asking you Nico to speculate all more broadly on this cohort of Gen Z, some of whom may be graduating college now. So your work now at the Journal is very focused on thinking about young consumers.
GENDRON: I think a big part of that is for, I mean, especially legacy media organizations to consistently reflect the issues and values of young people, especially with the upcoming election consistently in the news and having also them, you know, write and contribute to the news cycle. And that’s I think the big thing is once you’re out of school and you’re, and then you start working, sometimes the time that it takes to really educate yourself, you have less of it. So I think that’s you know, what my job at the Wall Street Journal is. And also just thinking, you know, about media
HEFFNER: And, and just in the seconds we have left, what, you allude to climate change. But what are really you think in this 2020 election year, the central issues on the minds of Gen Z?
GENDRON: I think, I definitely think climate change. I think student debt. I think being able to afford to live in places where there are job opportunities. You know, if you can, can you actually live on 50K a year at an entry-level job? I think those are really, I think when it comes to, you know, financial equity and also just, yeah, the future of the planet that they’re going to inhabit and their kids are going to inhabit. Those are, those are really big issues to them.
HEFFNER: And in the current political environment, do you think the media are capable of incorporating their interests and those issues to be a focal point, if not the focal point of election coverage?
GENDRON: I think you have to have a team dedicated to it? I think you have to make a concerted effort. I think asking, you know, people who have been in newsrooms for 30 to 40 years to suddenly switch the lens and just really focusing on Millennials and Gen Zs, it’s not going to happen. But you know, at legacy organizations when you have, you know, the bandwidth and also just the financial set up. That should be something that, you know, should be invested in.
HEFFNER: Yeah. I mean a, you question whether the head honchos the long-time executives can adjust their lens so that it isn’t just horserace. I mean, what we’ve seen so far in this 2020 primary campaign is very much from that old school way of doing it. I just wonder in Nico if those side beats, which they really are, even if they’re fully funded, can make a difference if you have the vast majority of the coverage just still being centered on the horse race. I mean you have sort of the horserace and then you have the substantive policy-based discussion. Is there any way to make that as exciting as the horse race?
GENDRON: I think it’s having voices. I mean, having what we call like a strong central character as your subjects of, you know, and that’s what we didn’t do I mean media didn’t do in 2016 like we have to do now. It’s like you have to go out, you have to be at, you know, at the polls. You, you have to take the time to reach out to people on social media who have interesting perspectives and say, hey, you know, how can I weave this into the, like you said, the horserace, the larger narrative. And it takes effort and you, you know, it can’t just be on a couple of reporters. It needs to be kind of an institutional thing.
HEFFNER: I wonder if doing initiatives and referenda is one way in this country to bring out policy discussions and make that the Shakespearian narrative of, you know, let’s think of the policy ramifications of decisions and not the individual strengths and deficits of candidates and their personalities and the intermingling of that. I don’t know if we have any hope, but you certainly give me hope, Nico, so thanks for coming on and talking about your really important work in Missouri.
GENDRON: Thank you.
HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.