Mac native on mission to save journalism
Though he has a distinguished list of accomplishments — he helped lead the Coingate investigation and once interviewed President Obama in the Oval Office — Tankersley found it daunting to address a hall filled with family and friends.
Those he grew up with displayed no such reservations. They were eager to hear him speak and ply him with questions afterward.
He brought with him stories about McMinnville and Linfield, as well as national stories that hit close to home. He said, “I’m ecstatic to be at Linfield, which meant a ton to me growing up.”
In fact, Tankersley attended preschool at Linfield. He bonded with the Linfield basketball team in eighth grade. And he twice attended proms on the arms of future Linfield students, wearing a tuxedo he borrowed from a Linfield professor.
He said he developed his love of information and stories at home, which served to shape his experience as a journalist. A storyteller at heart, he said he takes the privilege of telling people’s stories very seriously.
Tankersley credits his mother, a school librarian, with nurturing his early love of storytelling. She read to him and his brother religiously, and showed them how people come to process information.
“Storytelling is possibly the most important way we can convey information, because it gives people someone or something to relate to,” he said.
After taking an introductory journalism class at Mac High, Tankersley said, he believed he had all the skills he needed to work at a real newspaper.
He walked into the McMinnville News-Register, and owner Jeb Bladine decided to take a chance on him. At the age of 15, he began writing obituaries, wedding announcements, even a column.
He went on to Stanford University, where he edited the Stanford Daily. After graduation, he spent three years at The Oregonian in Portland.
The Oregonian is where he first learned to tell rich stories with a human dimension, he said, and that was instrumental in filtering the way he views journalism.
Tankersley, whose dad maintains a law practice and serves on the local utility commission, went on to write for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, then the Toledo Blade in Ohio. In 2007, he and a colleague won the Livingston Award for Young Journalists, which honors exceptional practitioners under the age of 35.
Then he and his wife, then pregnant with their son, Max, moved to Washington, D.C. By turn, he worked for The Chicago Tribune’s Washington Bureau, the National Journal and the Washington Post.
As an economic policy reporter, Tankersley is especially passionate about the middle class. He said he tries to explore its complexities, its challenges and its decline over the course of recent years.
In order to communicate intricate ideas to readers, he has to explore all aspects of the subject, he said.
“When economists want to study something big, they start with something small,” Tankersley said. And he said he takes the same tack in his work.
He illustrated the importance of his work with an economic example of the middle class in McMinnville 30 years ago, when the city boasted only about 10,000 residents and had yet to land its first McDonald’s franchise. It was hardly a likely hub for the now booming Yamhill Valley wine country.
Since then, its population has tripled, and it has clearly become wealthier overall, he said. It has experienced an influx of people with resources, drawn by the wine industry.
“But here’s the thing about it,” he said. “The middle class of Yamhill county is not doing any better today than it was in 1980.”
That is because fundamental truths haven’t changed, including an education level lower than that of the state and country, Tankersley said. He said countless middle-income jobs have disappeared in McMinnville, as they have in other cities and towns around the country, and the middle class is suffering as a result.
“You can’t survive as an economy without a middle class,” he said.
Tankersley is currently working on an eight-part series about the value of the middle class in America.
He is planning to draw parallels between Major League baseball and the U.S. economy. A complicated topic involving hard data and numbers needs something familiar like baseball to be more understandable to readers, he said.
It’s different and creative avenues of storytelling like this that drive Tankersley’s latest project at The Washington Post — assembling a team of reporters and editors to produce a new online channel for telling complex, data-driven stories in a form a broad audience can relate to.
Through this as-yet-unnamed digital initiative, which he is leading, readers will learn about policy and economics through storytelling. Starting with insights from data, such as why the middle class has declined, writers will wrap the concepts in stories about people, sports or anything that captures the imagination.
“The power of storytelling is important in the way we understand complex things,” he said. “Thanks to the Internet, we’ve never had more access to information in human history than we do now,” which can make it hard to discern what’s important.
With the shifting business models from print to online, he said, many journalists have lost sight of the core storytelling function in the rush to go digital. Instead, he is striving for more serious journalism on the Internet.
“People who understand complex issues make better decisions,” he said, “and we owe it to readers to help them understand complicated things.”
Tankersley said the public service mission of journalism is not to profit, but rather to engage citizens in making better decisions in a democracy, especially those in the middle class. And he said, “We are failing that mission if we don’t reach a broad audience and engage them where they live with stories that speak to them, about people like them.”
In turn, he hope this changes the way the economy works for people.
Tankersley said he’s seen the positive effects his stories can have. In light of the government shutdown, he noted, a senator responded to an article Tankersley wrote, asking how he could better relate to his constituents.
“That is my grand hope of what we can achieve from this little tiny corner at this little financial desk at a large paper in D.C.,” he said — “to revitalize journalism, storytelling and the economy all together.”
And for him, that hope began in McMinnville, with the experiences he had here, and his “fundamental belief that reaching people like all of us should be the number one goal of journalists today.”