Game Changers Guest Post: Akron Beacon Journal

NOTE: We asked each of our 2009 Game Changers Awards finalists to write about their projects, what they’ve learned along the way and what’s next. This essay written by Doug Oplinger, Managing Editor of the Akron Beacon Journal.

The American Dream: Hanging by a Thread


In 2006, the four-time Pulitzer Prize winning Akron Beacon Journal was a media poster-child for the demise of America’s newspaper industry. The proud home of John S. Knight had been sold to a Canadian entrepreneur whose successes to date had been in weeklies and whose first difficult decision was to deal with the rapidly deteriorating bottom line. But as Mark Twain might say, news of the Beacon Journal’s death was greatly exaggerated. While struggling with a poor economy, eroding advertising revenue and further staff reductions, the newspaper stayed true to its commitment to its community as it addressed what may be the story of the century: The struggling middle class. The newspaper exposed a new reality that suggested that everything we were told about achieving the American Dream is no longer be true. But in addition to exposing the economic agony of the middle class, the newspaper and its Web site,, aggressively published solutions and challenges for individuals and encouraged community collaboration. Joining the newspaper were public radio and television, which created special Web sites, coordinated news reports, live streaming and a television program. The University of Akron, John S. Knight Convention Center, county and city offices, community foundation and others joined in providing a forum and financial fair. Major employers followed with financial fairs, and the community discussion continues.

The Beacon Journal’s project is a game changer: In spite of its own economic limitations, the newspaper and its Web site collaborated with many different organizations and media platforms to spawn a community-wide movement addressing the biggest crisis since the 1930s.


The story of 2008 was the story of the American middle class. It became the narrative of the presidential election, the bottom line of the mind-numbing financial crisis and the subject of catch phrases from Joe the Plumber to hockey moms to Main Street.

Every newspaper told this story. But few, if any, told it with the authority of the Akron Beacon Journal. That’s because the newspaper, through sharp foresight and hard digging, saw what was happening long before anyone else, and was able to report from a national and local perspective with a distinctly proactive approach in a year when much of the media was reacting to one catastrophe after another.

Computer-Assisted Reporter David Knox spent the first six months of 2007 on a Kiplinger Fellowship at the Ohio State University John Glenn School of Public Policy, studying 51 million U.S. Census records, analyzing “microdata” that allowed him to compare successive generations of Americans. His research broke new ground and resulted in a major set of stories and data in September 2007 showing that the promise of the middle class is slipping away, that the current generation of working Americans is the first in modern times that can’t expect their children will do better.

In the aftermath this reporting, the Beacon Journal convened a series of focus groups to explore how this dynamic is reflected in our community. What we found was a startling level of latent fear, as one after another member of our community revealed profound anxiety that they were one unexpected event away from falling out of the middle class.

This happened before “foreclosure crisis” had become a daily staple of the news, before gasoline, groceries and other line items in a standard household budget had reached record spikes, and before the implosion of the stock market.

We knew we were onto something important, something that hadn’t been reported in this way, and we mapped out an extensive series for 2008 that would tell this story in numbers and in real lives. Columnist David Giffels went out into the community, looking for people whose own stories ran somewhere in that realm of modern anxiety — not victims, but those like most of us, sensing that they were living on a fault line: a family that restructured itself to carry the financial burden of a daughter’s cancer; a young social worker delivering pizzas on the weekends, wondering if her $30,000-a-year career was worth the student debt she’ll be paying till age 60; a couple trying to hide a looming bankruptcy behind the façade of a house in the suburbs. The first line of the series set the tone for the year’s narrative: “This could be you.”

The day that first installment ran — March 16, 2008 — the Federal Reserve took the extraordinary measure of providing cash to Wall Street, as Bear Stearns was collapsing – the first major act of a financial drama that would change the international economy and dramatically elevate the newspaper’s reporting.

The series that already showed great promise took on a new urgency, as each successive monthly installment ran against a backdrop of historic economic news, from the price of a dozen eggs skyrocketing in the Easter season to the fundamentally transforming $800 billion government aid package to the financial industry. Our course down the metaphorical Main Street was clear and true.

As the year progressed, the series originally titled “The American Dream: Hanging by a Thread” took on a new component, “Reclaim the Dream,” which examined personal responsibility and solutions. Our food writer, health writer, home writer, consumer columnist and others presented a weeklong package of stories in June offering practical advice for household budgets. Betty Lin-Fisher, the Beacon Journal’s consumer columnist, recruited five families from our community, who volunteered to open up their personal financial lives and allow an adviser to explain what each of them is doing right and wrong, offering an ongoing series of object lessons for our readers. And she issued a challenge: Join us in pledging to save money and pay down debt. About 300 families in the community have done so.

In the fall, we turned our focus to community and public policy solutions. In September, we arranged for some of the people whose lives Giffels had profiled to meet face to face with state government leaders — Ohio’s governor, the head of Job and Family Services and the chair of the state House of Representatives insurance committee – to discuss how public policy could be changed to help the most people.

In October, the Beacon Journal spearheaded a community forum at an auditorium on the University of Akron campus, bringing voices from the community together with public policy leaders in a spirited dialogue. It was a collaborative effort involving several community organizations, attracted more than 400 people, was simulcast on public radio and television and streamed on the Internet. The drive for community-level solutions led to a subsequent, more focused session with Leadership Akron, a local group of community leaders. This dialog continues. Also after the forum, two of the community’s largest employers launched their own financial planning and savings programs for employees.

Watching the efforts from afar, the National Governors Association and America Saves Campaign identified Akron as a model for financial action as the nation fell into an economic crisis.

This was the best and rarest type of newspaper project: a carefully planned endeavor that addressed the most important news story of the year, adapting to every new turn, and bringing it home to our readers week after week by informing, helping and stimulating personal and community action.

We are especially proud to have accomplished this despite the impression that newspapers are losing their ability to be so ambitious, to prove that a paper long known for its scrappiness still has the ability to produce the highest quality of journalism: work that is surprising, compelling, relevant and deep.

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