As you may know, the Economic Hardship Reporting Project (EHRP) is an effort to broaden and deepen coverage of struggling communities.
The project produced something like 60 pieces in the last year. Eight of the 60 stories EHRP produced in a single year were published in The New York Times. There have also been three published in The New Yorker. (Somewhat like the Hechinger Report, EHRP uses a distributed model, being neither the primary publishing outlet nor the sole content creator.)
One of its best-known pieces, in Jezebel, was Melissa Chadburn’s Resilience Is Futile: How Well-Meaning Nonprofits Perpetuate Poverty.
One of the somewhat hidden aspects of the project is that it not only seeks to cover economic hardship but also to find and support writers and photographers who are economically marginalized.
Though it’s not immediately apparent from the website, roughly a third of the grantees are or have experienced economic hardship, according to EHRP’s Alissa Quart. Quart is the co-editor of EHRP, a journalist, and the author of three non-fiction books, Branded, Hothouse Kids and Republic of Outsiders, as well as the poetry book Monetized.
“We have writers who were not able to afford their rent or were living on food stamps whose work had dried up, who are now writing again and supporting themselves in the process,” she said in a recent interview (Q&A with Alissa Quart of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project).
“We seek out, and mentor, journalists who are themselves from marginalized backgrounds, helping them push their stories about their communities and their families into the mainstream media.”
The project takes submissions online, and recruits candidates via word of mouth and through co-founder Ehrenreich. They’re also trying to find new voices from inside organizations they work with, like associations of restaurant or domestic workers. (Classroom aides, school clerks and crossing guards, please?)
Sometimes it’s the money that makes the reporting possible. (The goal is to pay one dollar per word.) Other times, according to Quart, it’s helping reporters understand the codes and behaviors of journalism, which is notoriously hard to crack from the outside.
Often, firsthand experience with economic hardship deepens and improves the reporting, according to Quart, citing the Jezebel piece about resilience as an example. “It had a personal energy and anger that you’re not seeing normally in these kinds of pieces,” said Quart.
In a phone interview last week, Quart (to whom I’m related by marriage) said that the EHRP and other efforts like it were arising because traditional media outlets were no longer assigning or paying for “immersive” journalism on these topics.
Education is a frequent topic. Published in Pacific Standard, 2015’s Class Struggles features immigrant families’ experiences finding the best school for their children. “Choice can be a burden, even a danger, when children and parents don’t know how to judge their options. That can be especially true for immigrants, many of whom have a hard time navigating the rules or finding the people to help them.”
Their work has also encouraged nonprofits to rethink the way they talk about resilience, raised awareness of churches-in-schools in Florida, and the project helped fund WNYC’s “There Goes the Neighborhood.” Senior editor Bliss Broyard is going to be writing about inequality in the NYC schools.
The biggest challenge to the effort, according to Quart, is “a deep, usually unacknowledged, prejudice against the poor.” She says that a close second is defeatism. Another obstacle, according to Quart, is that “sometimes publications don’t really know how to think about how to publish with us.” What EHRP is doing isn’t advocacy journalism, but it does permit writers to describe their perspectives. Sometimes, key paragraphs get cut out. Other times, what Quart calls an “ambient critique” of the poor creeps in.
And yet, Quart very much believes that the effort is paying off: “We believe we’ve helped shift the public and media conversation away from blaming the poor and the economically struggling … There’s been a marked improvement: A lot of reporting on inequality is now about systemic failures, like precarious employment, unfair hours, low pay for shift workers, a lack of access to affordable daycare. We also see more pieces on the exploitation of the poor through wage theft, payday loans and the criminalization of poverty.”