I am extremely happy to announce that Susan J. Demas will now be a regular contributor on Eclectablog. Susan has a long resumé in Michigan journalism and political commentary. She owns Inside Michigan Politics and was once a journalist for MIRS News Service. She’s currently a syndicated political columnist, appearing in The Huffington Post, Salon, Dome Magazine, Deadline Detroit and Taegan Goddard’s Political Wire. Her columns have also run in The Detroit News, Battle Creek Enquirer, Lansing State Journal, Impact, PennLive, Real Clear Politics, MLive, and its eight papers. In fact, Susan’s CV is so long, it’s probably just best to go to the “About” page on her website, SusanJDemas.com!
I recognize that having Susan on Eclectablog will be somewhat controversial for some folks in the progressive world. She and I have butted heads more than once (e.g. HERE and HERE) and she’s butted heads with plenty of others, as well. However, most of the time I have found her political commentary to be astute and well-informed and you can’t put yourself out there in this business without pissing off people from time to time, even people with whom you generally agree with on most issues. And I remain convinced that we can tolerate a bit of dissension within the progressive sphere. We are neither monolithic or intransigent and we can learn from each other, even in the rare times when we disagree.
I asked Susan some questions to help Eclectablog readers get to know her a bit better and that interview is below.
Please join me in giving Susan a warm welcome to Team Eclectablog.
You’re a journalist who has been active in the cusp period between print media’s dominance and the rise of internet-based media. In your opinion, what has been the chief reason for print media’s undeniable decline? Did blogging kill the print media star?
I don’t think so. There’s no doubt that print has taken a huge financial hit in the last couple of decades. A lot of people smarter than me have explored why. But the bottom line is that no one has come up with a broad, viable solution yet. I tend to think that newspapers made a fatal error when most started posting stories for free online. There was an arrogance that the web wasn’t a big deal, so they could afford to do so. And no one foresaw an era when Craigslist and Facebook would cannibalize their ad revenue.
I think blogging has undoubtedly changed the media game. I’m focused on politics, but you can see it in entertainment, lifestyle, sports, etc. Bloggers often write about issues the mainstream media have ignored. There’s no doubt that blogs and online media have driven a lot of the political dialogue in recent years, especially on the left. And a lot of bloggers now work for major media outlets. Some, like Ezra Klein and Nate Silver, now own their own media companies.
Given that much of your career has been spent in the print media arena, what brings you to come on board with a blog like Eclectablog, particularly one that you’ve had skirmishes with in the past?
When I got my first job as a reporter with the Cedar Rapids Gazette just after 9/11, I rarely checked the website for my stories. It was always a thrill to see them in print. I still have boxes full of clips in my basement. Now much of my work is published in online publications like Salon, Dome Magazine and Political Wire. I’ve also found that people like reading my work on my own website. In 2013, I bought the ultimate old-school publication, Inside Michigan Politics, a subscription-based newsletter that’s been published on that familiar blue paper since 1987. Almost all the growth is in our electronic version and our web traffic is way up (here’s my obligatory pitch to subscribe today). In journalism, it’s evolve or die. And if you’re willing to embrace change (and admit some mistakes), there are a lot of opportunities.
That’s the story of how I got here to Eclectablog. I’ve picked a couple of fights with this and other blogs over the years, especially Michigan Liberal (and hey, as far as that one goes, I’m in good company). Sometimes it was frustration because as a beat reporter, I felt that bloggers got the nuts and bolts of a story wrong. Sometimes I was just being a dick. But I’ve also given credit to Eclectablog and other sites in dozens of pieces I’ve written. And I’ve really appreciated being able to talk with Chris and Anne Savage over the years about some things we’ve disagreed about. I have to give my Democratic political consultant husband, Joe DiSano, some credit, too. He called me out a couple of times over the years for being unfair about bloggers and reminded me that we all really want the same thing. Everyone at Eclectablog is fighting the good fight. Every contributor here wants to make Michigan and our country a better, kinder and fairer place. That’s all I’ve always wanted, too. I think we’re at a unique and disturbing moment in our history with the election of Donald Trump. I still think we are better than this as a country. We need a strong resistance and I feel I can make a small difference in being part of Eclectablog.
Do you think print media is starting to find its way in the new media landscape in terms of investigative journalism and the kind of reporting that holds elected officials’ feet to the fire? Or do you think the decline will continue? Is there a funding model for news outlets that will sustain the sort of investigative journalism that’s needed to maintain a robust democracy? In other words, what do you see as the future of traditional media?
I think it’s still a rough road ahead. Most publications are obsessed with clicks, which means that investigative and policy pieces get short shrift. Local papers, in particular, have all but abandoned them. Local government is barely covered. I’m not sure that I see a good path forward for local media, which I think is a cornerstone of our democracy. This is what worries me the most. I do think some national publications are doing great investigative work and managing to navigate the finances. Take Mother Jones, which did a blockbuster piece on Trump’s ties to white nationalism (which was sadly ignored by much of cable news). They’ve been aggressively asking for donations on social media to fund this type of journalism. I think Buzzfeed is much-maligned, but has been a real innovator. Their traffic drivers are cat pics and listicles. But that’s funded great journalism, especially pieces on how domestic violence laws often victimize women. I don’t know if any of this is sustainable, but it’s comforting to know that some outlets are still committed to this type of journalism and paying for it.
Donald Trump has made the vilification of media and reporters a hallmark of his candidacy and, even now that he’s elected, is blaming the media for “inciting” violence at anti-Trump rallies. What impact do you think this will have on how reporters cover the presidency and the White House over the next four or, Goddess forbid, eight years that he’s in office?
I am terrified about Trump’s continued assault on the First Amendment. This is not normal. For anyone who says that Trump’s campaign was just performance art, I’d point out that he’s soon to be the most powerful man in the world. He’s never shown restraint before. It seems naïve to assume he will once he controls the levers of power. I wrote a column on why I didn’t cover Trump rallies, breaking my 16-year streak of doing so with major-party nominees. The violence and bigotry directed at reporters at these events has been unprecedented, like the man screaming, “Jew-S-A! Jew-S-A!” Trump has blacklisted journalists. He’s ridiculed reporters by name at rallies, prompting many outlets to provide their own security for these journalists.
At best, I expect Trump to be the least transparent president in modern history and continue being hostile to the media. At worst, I expect him to support crackdowns to the 1A, which he promised during his campaign, and to throw in with conservative billionaire Peter Thiel, who’s openly waging war on freedom of the press, like with his successful Gawker lawsuit. All of us who believe in the First Amendment need to give no quarter. We need to stand united against any attack.
Tell us one thing about yourself that most people don’t know.
I started out as an activist, not a journalist (as I have written many times, I majored in history and English, not journalism). On my first day of class as a freshman at the University of Iowa in 1994, my professors all read the “Classroom Materials Policy,” which was essentially a trigger warning for conservative students. The university regents came up with it after a student complained that an instructor assigned a movie with gay characters (gasp!). So anytime anything controversial (but primarily LGBT) was brought up in class, professors had to warn us. I joined a free speech coalition against this policy. And we eventually won.
That’s how I got my first taste of political organizing. Through the coalition, I met union activists, feminists, LGBT advocates, college Democrats and more. I spent time walking picket lines with striking workers in Des Moines and Decatur. I protested at KKK rallies. I volunteered at the women’s center on campus. Because I was a writer, leaders often tapped me to write guest columns and letters to the editor. That led to my college paper, The Daily Iowan, offering me a gig as a regular columnist. And I fell in love with it. After college, I was lucky enough to find work as a reporter. I’ve spent years on every beat –– business, health, crime, education and, of course, politics. But opinion writing has always been my passion. I’m lucky to be in my ninth year as a political columnist. That’s how I think I’m able to best make a difference in the world.