Disrupting the Great Lakes Narrative

When I was in Arizona last February, reporting on the new interurban light rail line then under construction in Phoenix, I was struck by the sense of confidence and optimism that radiated from the officials I interviewed, the bartender or hotel keep I chatted with and, especially, the newspapers I read.

I'm wondering how we regain and deploy that anything-is-possible spirit across Great Lakes culture today.

One particular above-the-fold front page story in the Arizona Star, about a major charitable donation to fund biotech research, caught my attention at the time because it illustrated the tendency of people to see and explain the favorable side of the events that I was picking up on during my travels in that dry, hot, and seemingly temporary place.

"Arizona's biosciences will receive a $100 million donation today that officials predict will spur medical and scientific breakthroughs, create higher-paying jobs, attract new companies and position the state as a high-tech leader," Reporter Eric Swedlund wrote in his Feb. 26, 2006 report.

"This can be a kickstart to change the entire dynamic of the state," one source said. "This is knowledge-based economy at its finest."

Contrast that with the Midwest attitude and awareness. The media barely even blinked today when Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich's announced that his state would invest $70 million to fund the scientific advancement of supercomputing at the local Argonne National Laboratory, the U.S. Department of Energy's high tech research center.

According to the governor's press release, the investment would enable "Illinois scientists to apply breakthroughs in supercomputing and pursue advances in nanotechnology, climate change, protein modeling and more, solidifying the fastest growing research program in Argonne’s history." It's a strategic move in the era of knowledge and creativity.

So what did the front page of the Chicago Sun-Times' online edition lead with? News of a snow storm. The statewide section? News of a boy mulled by a pit bull and a bus crash in Indiana. Surely the business section would inform readers of this pioneering push into the digital age, right? Wrong. More news about the mortgage crisis, bankruptcies, and slowing growth in the service sector.

This is crazy, right. Certainly the Chicago Tribune would carry news of a public project that, as the governor put it, would "help scientists propel American leadership in technology and engineering for decades to come." Especially as the nation's young people fall behind in math and science skills and the greater Great Lakes region navigates this incredibly disruptive economic evolution from the Industrial Era to the Digital Age, no?.

Wrong again. The front page story at chicagotribune.com is more news about snow, a metra train running over a pedestrian and, in the business section, the shutdown of a potato chip plant.

In fact, search Yahoo News and it seems not one newspaper or television station in the state or region picked up the story.

OK. OK. We get it, you say. The media blew it. And $70 million is pocket change in the incredibly expensive world of supercomputing anyways. So what's your point?

The point is that the traditional news bureaus across the greater Great Lakes region seem to be so busy yelling about the demise of the old economy that, too often, they miss the important opportunities to help explain the rise of the new economy. The industry is fixated on loss.

That's a shame and, ultimately, a huge public disservice. Because the way forward in the 21st century requires innovation, entrepreneurialism, talent, and risk. It also demands vision, optimism, and hope. And until the region's mainstream information brokers start telling that story, as they appear to be doing out in the booming west, they'll remain a mechanism of the dying system rather than the voice of a brighter future.