Co-authors of a national bestseller, “Our Towns: A 100,000-mile Journey into the Heart of America,” James and Deborah Fallows visited De Smet to meet with the staff and volunteers of the Kingsbury Journal to hear the stories of how two communities dealt with the loss of their local newspapers, cooperated and formed a new community-wide newspaper utilizing volunteers.
The Fallows had been in Sioux Falls for a while; they were keynote speakers at the RuralX conference put on by Dakota Resources. The event was held June 16 and conducted virtual conferences at various venues around South Dakota including De Smet, where it was held at the Event Center.
The RuralX event focused on rural communities, challenges they face and overcome and networking. While the Fallows were there, they wanted to see two communities in eastern South Dakota. The first was Watertown and Lake Area Technical College and De Smet and the Kingsbury Journal. Both towns had stories the Fallows wished to learn more about.
“We were up in Watertown seeing their Lake Area Technical College, which is really introducing and pioneering a lot of important techniques in technical training and getting people ready for high-wage jobs,” said James Fallow. “We spent a couple of days up there working on that.”
“De Smet - we wanted to see it in general, but also precisely to understand the new journalism model that is being developed there. Learning about what you're doing and looking at the Kingsbury paper is important to us, so we wanted to see the place, learn about the newspaper and whether there are lessons that could be applied elsewhere.”
“We think that what you all are doing in De Smet, your newspaper colleagues specifically, in trying to reinvent a model of local journalism, really has importance for the country as a whole,” said James. “So, Deb and I will be watching what you do, and I think that we are going to encourage other people around the country to watch and support what you are doing because it is one of several important potential models for how the crucial institution of local journalism can continue to thrive.”
While James and Deborah Fallows were in China, they spent most of their time in the countryside and began observing the differences of living there as compared with the big cities like Beijing and Shanghai.
“When we came back to the U.S., we wanted to apply a similar kind of coverage in the U.S. of what were the operating realities in parts of America that weren't normally in the news,” said James. “We wanted to get a sense of ways in which towns were inventing new futures for themselves or dealing with problems, like for example, problems on local journalism. So that was the idea.”
In 2014, the Fallows took their propeller plane and started visiting towns across the United States, looking and documenting how these towns were leading today’s America renewal. They were looking for “big little ideas.” An idea that may seem little in the town where it was conceived, but an idea that may have a big impact if shared throughout the rest of the United States.
The ideas culminated into the book called “Our Towns,” and it soon became a national bestseller. Work began with HBO in turning the bestseller into a documentary. Steven Ascher and Jeanne Jordan were the filmmakers who were tasked with creating the documentary.
“They did such an elegant and eloquent job of capturing the same theme in a different medium,” said James.
The transition from collecting their topics and stories took some getting used to. When writing the book, the Fallows would enter a place with just their pen and notebooks, and it was easy for people to share their stories. When you show up with even a small film crew, that can be intimidating. James considers himself fortunate that the book was made into a documentary.
The observations the Fallows made around America continued to blossom into other areas. The Fallows started Our Towns Civic Foundation.
“We have started a new little foundation to continue the kind of journalistic work I've been talking about,” said James. “Our goal is to build that into a platform for doing more and more connections of people around the country who are coping with similar challenges and figuring out answers to them.”
You can learn more about the foundation at: ourtownsfoundation.org.
The authors, James and Deborah Fallows, were both raised in small towns. James grew up in Redlands, Calif., where his dad was a physician, and Deborah was raised in Vermilion, Ohio. The couple celebrated their 50th Anniversary just a day after visiting De Smet. They met while attending Harvard.
“I had the good fortune of finding the right person when we were both 18 years old, and I think we each have a sense of humor about the other, and a sense of adventure, and a sense of toleration for the other. I feel fortunate to have found the right person and to have stuck together through a lot of adventures,” said James.
At Harvard, James became involved with the daily paper on campus called “The Harvard Crimson.” He was editor of the paper from 1970-1972. He studied American History and literature while there.
James has spent most of his life as a reporter for the “Atlantic.” He has written and been involved with many publications through the years.
He was a speech writer for President Jimmy Carter for Carter’s first two years of presidency. He was also the youngest person to have held that position.
Over the years he has written eleven books. James enjoys flying his airplane and running. He does many practice and training flights. Spending time with friends engaged in different sports is something James values, too.
Challenges that James has faced were in the field of journalism. He describes an external and internal challenge.
“The external challenge in the journalism business always having to reinvent its financial basis for existence, its technological basis for existence, because business models come and go, and news organizations are always having to find some new way to keep going,” said James.
“The Atlantic” magazine that was founded in 1857 has had to adapt many times according to James, especially when dealing with a very fluid world.
“The internal challenge is recognizing that what you do as a reporter is you go out and you listen, and you observe, and you try to present the most accurate and honest view of reality you can, and you always fall short of that because, by definition, you don't know everything about what you're writing,” said James. “So, I think the internal challenge is continuing to do your honest best to present a fair version of what you have seen.”
When somebody has read something that you have written, or listened to or seen something that you have done and thanks you for covering that story because it helped that person understand the world, country or community, that is always heartening.
“The internal reward is feeling as if, each day, you're doing your best to help people understand their world,” said James. “For all the things that are wrong with journalism, I don't know of any other way that I could feel as if I've done more to help people understand their world.”
Deborah attended Harvard and the University of Texas and holds a Ph.D. in theoretical linguistics. Her jobs list her as a writer, linguist and mother. She has written three books and raised two boys and now has five grandchildren. According to James she has held several roles throughout their fifty years of marriage.
Deborah has been a university linguistics professor and admission dean and worked in internet technology as well. She enjoys swimming and spending time with her lady friends says James. At the time of the interview with her husband, Deborah was busy interviewing some refugees in Sioux Falls and gathering their stories.