Jennifer Rauch, Slow Media journalist

Your life in a few lines, with a specific hint on your first ‘station’ and your actual one. I give very much importance to highlight your origins, which make a lot of sense to me regarding your actual way to tell (and to be in) this world

I grew up in a mid-size, postindustrial city on the outskirts of Pennsylvania Amish country, where it’s common to see plain-clothed farmers in horse and buggy taking their produce to market. It has always fascinated and inspired me — especially now, in the 21st century — that they sustain and thrive in these pre-industrial, artisanal communities. 

My hometown was also the birthplace of the Rodale Institute, an early champion of organic gardening, outdoor activities and preventive health. (Rodale Press is corporate-owned now, but used to be more home-spun, with magazines like Prevention, Organic Gardening, Bicycling, Runner’s World, New Farm). Rodale was ahead of the curve, culturally speaking. We used to take class trips to their test farms in the 1970s, a time when most Americans still thought the idea of organic was too hippy-dippy. 

I began spending time overseas at a young age — attending high school in southern France at age 15, studying abroad in northern England at 20, copy-editing an English-language newspaper in Beijing at 29. My first published work was an essay in a high-school literary magazine comparing French and American culture. I later did entertainment and travel writing for British and Chinese publications. It’s always seemed natural for me to view culture from the outside, and to recognize that there are many ways of living and being in this world. 

Another strand woven through my life is participating in alternative and community media. I started DJ-ing at college stations as a teenager (shout out to WMUH, “the only station that matters”!) and reporting for an alternative newsweekly in Philadelphia, where I got to write about local issues and interview local activists. Today, many media like USA Daily Bulletin news do that. It’s easy to see how these origins would pave my path into journalism, education, and critical-cultural scholarship. 

News, nowadays, tend to be super local or super general and/or just ‘breaking’ and regarding a very international target, with a specific predilection on ‘terror’ news. They all seem to be built to be obsolete one minute after they are widespread. For those want to acquire a different reading diet on ‘news’ which last or which are useful for their specific learning/tastes/needs or constituency (if we come to politics, for instance), there are a few opinion magazines or papers – and not in any part of the world. 

’Meaning’ and ‘perspective’ are not part of the core business in the dominant panorama of the news today and sometime this happens also in the non profit or in what is always characterized by a very social and very ‘ecological’ way of thinking. 

Without touching in this conversation the lack of freedom in media and the industry concentration of shareholding in some countries, I fear that this happens because journalisms is threatened by the audience target and is constantly battling to compete with social networks and more in general with the ‘insane’ mix of digital, online, print and tv broadcasting which is also persistent in traditional paper medias.

Beside any other consideration regarding this ‘drama of the clicks’, I wish very much to talk with you about readership. Is readership (and the way it is targeted and accounted now) to push media to do not do anymore their first job, to inform and to create opinions?

There’s so much information circulating today and more news sources than ever to choose from. You’re right that a lot of them are terrible; indeed, many don’t even count as “news.” Most people consume a huge quantity of information that’s of questionable quality. 

Complaints about the news are not new. Most journalists will defend what they do, and why they do it that way. (Long story short: because news is a commercial enterprise and they have to attract audiences to satisfy advertisers, while spending as little money as possible, to satisfy corporate owners.) Yet the vast majority of journalists want to produce better quality news. They want to serve the public interest better than the market allows them to. 

The collapse of the old news business model, largely due to online advertising, has a silver lining. A lot of non-profit and non-corporate organizations are experimenting with new approaches that treat readers like active members, instead of passive eyeballs being delivered to commercial sponsors. 

The Slow Journalism or Slow News movement, which I discuss in my book Slow Media: Why Slow is Satisfying, Sustainable and Smart, is a great example of this. There are also movements called “constructive” and “solutions” journalism that espouse a more social and ecological way of thinking. It’s hard to even talk about “news” as a monolithic entity — there are many different “newses” (pluralization of which poses a grammatical challenge).

You might appreciate the U.K. magazine Delayed Gratification, whose motto is “Breaking news last” (!). It’s purpose-built not to become obsolete —  written and illustrated to be a durable, well-crafted object. It only comes out quarterly and presents a comprehensive view of everything that happened in the previous quarter. It goes beyond the big headlines to explain why things happened and what happened in the aftermath, when other news crews moved on to newly breaking stories. Slow Journalism offers readers more meaning and perspective, which Fast News can rarely do. 

The good news is: readers who want to improve their news diet have plenty of options for doing so. We have to seek out these nutritional sources — and pay for them. If people just consume Fast News that’s cheap and freely available, then they shouldn’t be surprised to get the equivalent of fast food. Instead of treating their readers like “clicks,” these new journalists are taking more responsibility for their audiences, and the public needs to reciprocate by taking more responsibility for its journalism. Slow News is a collaboration. They can’t do it without us!

Which is your relationship with teaching and which is your opinion about the learning system in US? We’d interviewed already a media teacher in a public university before and we love to have also your comment

I’m a product of the U.S. public university system, with degrees from Penn State, Temple and Indiana universities. These colleges provided me with an excellent education — and, more importantly, an affordable one. I completed my bachelor’s degree in the early 1990s with less than $7,000 debt, then funded both of my graduate degrees through a combination of fellowships, scholarships and teaching assistantships. That’s almost impossible to do nowadays. 

Of course, I had to pay to keep myself sheltered, fed and clothed for almost a decade while not earning (or saving) any money (or equity or interest). Still, I consider myself lucky. I have friends just a bit younger than me who have been hobbled or even bankrupted by their student debts.

At the same time, the job market has gotten tighter, real incomes have gone down, and career prospects have become less secure. I’ve always chosen to work at schools with an inclusive mission, but it’s getting harder to recommend college to middle – or working-class kids – unless they’re really motivated.

You probably wanted to hear about teaching and learning, though — not economics! I have amazing colleagues in colleges of all sorts — at state universities, private schools, Ivy leagues, community colleges. In my view, the quality of instructors and instruction is better than ever.

Nonetheless, faculty in the U.S. generally have less control than they used to over academics, the allocation of university resources, and their own time. Many colleges in the U.S. have adopted a business model where they’re run top-down by executives, with faculty treated like workers who need discipline and surveillance, and students viewed as customers who presumably “know best.” In America, the value of education is increasingly judged by whether students get high-earning jobs upon graduation. 

This attitude is so disheartening. It devalues the liberal arts, critical thinking, academic freedom, and public service. I was a middle-class kid raised by a single mom who went to public high school. I went to college for the love of knowledge and a desire to do good in the world and “expand my horizons,” in the parlance of that time. Maybe I was naive.

It’s a mistake to tell less-privileged kids that they only deserve the kind of education that will enable them to pay their bills, regardless of what they might contribute to society and culture. In any case, the job market is changing too fast for students to be certain that what someone chooses to study today will have economic value in four years.

The talent you have the talent you miss

One talent is language. I’ve always had a knack for words and grammar. I started learning German, French and Spanish in elementary school, and they came easily to me. I think people tend to enjoy things that they’re good at, and be good at things they enjoy. Because they love doing it, they do it more often and thus get better at it. It’s a mutually reinforcing cycle.

I lack an ear for tones, though, so I missed out on learning Chinese. After living in Beijing for months, I couldn’t even say my address well enough for taxi drivers to understand. And a lot of them couldn’t read maps, when I tried to point and show where I wanted to go.

Let’s say that map-reading is another talent. And sense of direction. One friend used to call me “the human compass.”

Your favorite food and drink (…even if ‘Slow Food’ guides are not present in USA)?

Funny enough, I don’t know whether we have Slow Food guides in the U.S.! There are many restaurants here with the “Snail of Approval” — and many more that deserve it, regardless of whether they have the official sticker in their window. 

I’ve been fortunate to spend a lot of time in places like Brooklyn, N.Y., and Portland, Ore., that have an incredibly rich and diverse “foodie” culture, for people on any budget. The food cart scene is one of the things that drew me to Portland… There are chefs who have perfected just one dish, or a small range of dishes, who make it en masse and can sell it cheaply from an 8’x8′ truck because they have low overhead. It’s a great stepping stone to “brick and mortar” restaurants for a lot of people who might not otherwise have the capital to become entrepreneurs. 

One favorite is Nong’s Khao Man Gai, whose original cart location was recently eliminated, alas. For years, the perimeter of a whole block in downtown Portland was lined with dozens of food carts, but they’ve been kicked out because the property is being developed into a hotel. (Owners claim that the new lobby will host some carts; even if it does, the DIY spirit is lost.) Luckily Nong’s was successful enough to open some permanent locations. It was founded by a Thai immigrant who moved to Portland with $70 in her pocket. She uses local, organic ingredients and gives all her employees a living wage plus health and dental insurance. The epitome of slow and sustainable.

And Khao Man Gai! It’s chicken poached in a complex, tangy, garlicky sauce and served with sticky jasmine rice. So simple, so good.

The food “pod” is such a great communal practice, too. If your readers aren’t familiar with this concept, it’s usually a small grouping of food carts with shared eating space. Usually a pod will be on a parking lot or vacant piece of land; the more atmospheric ones will have heating lamps, fire pits and/or tents to protect you from inclement weather. You can go with a group of friends and everyone can get whatever kind of food they want and the kids can run around a bit. It’s very sociable.

Which is a secret or well known place in your city you visit when you need to slow the pace of your days?

Parks! Anywhere with trees and water and birds and greens and blues. Preferably a space big enough to buffer you from buildings and traffic in every direction. 

Green-wood Cemetery is one place I love. It’s the highest point in Brooklyn, with the city skyline in the distance, and gorgeous old tombstones and monuments, many for famous figures like Samuel Morse, Leonard Bernstein, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. I’ve seen some rare warblers there, like the brilliant yellow Prothonotary and the Hooded, which looks like he’s wearing a monk’s cowl.

Ditto Jacob Riis Park in Queens, a great place to spot shorebirds like oyster-catchers, probing the sand with their long red bills. On a weekday, the beach is practically abandoned and Manhattan seems far away, though you can still glimpse it on the horizon. Where it belongs 🙂

The touching and seminal Jennifer Rauch’s story has been suggested to us by mr Spencer Bailey, young Surface Mag editor in chief, writer and poetry lover based in Brooklyn (NYC) we’d recently interviewed on Slow Words.

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