My wife is a journalist and has worked for a fairly well-sized paper for nearly two decades now. Listening to her make late night calls to the copy desk has given me some understanding of both how difficult it is to write a headline and how destructive it can be when the headline is bad. It is generally not the journalist that writes the headline, but they are often the ones that deal with the fallout.
I give that prelude because I'm about to point out a recurring problem when journalists report on Strong Towns: they insert an entire language that we don't use. Here's an example from last week in Grand Forks:
GF DDA speaker says cities should build denser, be efficient with space
The Grand Forks Downtown Development Association is going to release the video of my presentation at some point. When they do, you'll be able to listen to nearly ninety minutes of me talking where I never use the words "density" or "efficient". NEVER. And not only that, I never even allude to these as being part of the answer. Not even close.
Other words that are not part of the vocabulary that I use to talk about Strong Towns: sprawl, smart growth and sustainable, although those words are also commonly used in news reports to describe what we are doing here.
Understand that my choice to not use these words in not simply a stylistic preference or some trick to say the same thing in a different way. I don't subscribe to the belief that density is the solution. I also don't believe that efficiency is a high priority. I don't think "sprawl" is an adequate term to describe America's auto-based development experiment, I'm not a believer in many parts of what is called Smart Growth and I think the word "sustainable" is just plain worthless since I've never heard anyone using it to describe an outcome that would actually be "sustainable" (if that doesn't make sense to you, just understand that driverless, electric cars powered by solar panels and Koch brother tears will not make your commute any more likely to be repeatable a generation from now).
So why the headline? Why do we experience this over and over? What is going on?
Journalists use the common language to describe what they are hearing. This needs to signal something important to Strong Towns advocates: we have a lot of work to do to overcome the dominant narrative about cities. The language used in that narrative has been framed through a political prism to the benefit of those who operate in that space. We don't play in that arena, but we can't pretend we can overcome their well-funded narrative simply because our ideas are better. We have to work really hard.
This doesn't mean shouting louder. What it really means is listening a lot, using that time spent listening to try and identify common ground and then using language that is assertive, but not politically-charged. There is nothing weak -- and everything descriptive -- about the terms Growth Ponzi Scheme, Suburban Experiment, Stroad, Infrastructure Cult or Illusion of Wealth, yet they are not going to set off many tribal reactions. That's an advantage we have right now. We all need to work to keep that.
I also think we have reached the point where we need to have more of a direct education campaign with journalists. Back when I was running large engineering projects with a lot of complicated and nuanced decisions involved, I would ignore company policy (which was: never talk to the press) and put together bullet points that outlined what was going on. While it is fine to make your case, the more neutral and factual these documents are, the more credibility you will have. More often than not, this helped the message I needed to get out break through.
As more and more of you step up to advocate for a Strong Towns approach in your communities, these are the kind of things we need to put together. I've got a long list of items to hit hard starting next week when this seven week continuous stretch of travel is concluded. I think some media talking points -- an introduction to Strong Towns for journalists -- needs to be added to the list.