HuffPost’s Hillary Frey on Why Listening to America Matters
To say Hillary Frey knows a thing or two about journalism would be a vast understatement. She was Editor in Chief at Yahoo News and now is at HuffPost as the Executive Editor. We spoke with her during the planning phase for the next iteration of their Listen to America tour.
The first Listen to America was a cross-country trip where HuffPost journalists interviewed everyday Americans where they live and heard extraordinary stories and common themes. They morphed the audio into this beautiful interactive experience, and rely on many of those individuals to this day in their reporting.
This time around, Listen to America is a six-city town hall series across the West, featuring conversations with local communities and media partners about the issues affecting them during this election cycle. Now, let's hear from the woman leading the charge.
Listen to America—it's an ambitious title. What is the value of listening to a diverse set of American voices right now?
As journalists, we have to know what's affecting people's lives the most, and that requires hearing from them directly and personally. We're always looking for areas of commonality and connection that let us tell a story across different people, especially those who may not know they were sharing some of the same struggles.
One project we're working on this year is about affordable housing. It's a direct result of our first Listen to America tour when we saw housing costs were affecting everyone. One place it really came to life was in Oxford, Mississippi, a beautiful little tourist town. The reality they shared with us is that many of their longtime citizens were being priced out. The very people who were working in tourism and hospitality couldn't afford to live in Oxford anymore.
We wouldn't have known that if we hadn't gone out to listen. Affordable housing is an issue that's affecting everybody, and we heard it over and over again. Last year, we spent four hours in each place we stopped to conduct interviews and ended up listening to over 1,700 people in 25 different places.
What cities are you going to this time, and why?
We're going San Diego, CA, Sacramento, CA, Reno, NV, Boise, ID, Boulder, CO, and Phoenix, AZ. In every place, we have a topic to focus on. In Boulder, we're talking about affordable housing. In San Diego, we're looking at immigration. In Reno, we're discussing women running for office and women in politics. This time around we're hosting large town halls partnered with local media outlets in each location instead of the listening interviews. We'll be live streaming each one on Facebook and on HuffPost.com.
We knew we wanted to go west because we had a finite amount of resources and time and could only pick one region. Covering more than one is just too costly and time-consuming to do this year, so we'll be traveling in an RV, all together, on this tour. We're going to a number of places we didn't get to last time. We did make it to Arizona, but not California, Nevada, Colorado, or Idaho. When we were picking places, we determined the city in each state where we could have a good conversation, find a local media outlet, and then work with them on picking the topic.
There are very particular things in Idaho around Medicaid expansion that make it an interesting place to talk health care. In Nevada, a huge percentage of the state legislature is women; if races go the way they expect this year, it could be even more. That's a great place to go talk about women in politics, especially in such a big year of women running for office.
Last time you did the tour, what surprised you?
What surprised me the most was how open people were and how immediately they would share their life story, if you would listen. The first day, when we were in St. Louis, I wondered, "Is anybody gonna come to this thing? What are we doing?"
All of a sudden, we had way more people waiting than capacity on the bus. We were only set up to take one person at a time. We put out tents and stationed producers with microphones, and we definitely needed those two other stations.
The unexpected turnout wasn't just people who heard about it from HuffPost. A lot of people just walking by were curious. "What are you doing? Can I tell my story?" I live in New York City, and everybody there has tunnel vision: their headphones are in and they're closed off to strangers. Once we put ourselves out there to listen to people, it was amazing how open they were to sharing with us.
Tell me about one of the people you met.
For nearly everyone who went on the tour at HuffPost, there was a completely moving experience with somebody they met on the tour. Many of us are still in touch with them.
In Oxford, we met Jake Thrasher, a student at Ole Miss and all-around amazing person. He was a biochem major, and also the political cartoonist for the Ole Miss paper. He cartooned about the Confederate statues in the state and produced caricatures of the governor in light of that issue. Needless to say, he had some enemies.
Despite being persecuted for his politics, he has an amazing perspective and attitude. Now he's at Yale, and we all follow him on Instagram and stay in touch. Every once in a while, he comes to visit us. I think he even came to our Halloween party last year.
We made some friends out there.
If the Listen to America tour stopped in your life, what would you talk about?
Schools. Education. I'm a public school parent here in New York, so I have a lot of strong feelings about school integration and public school funding. That's something I've paid a lot of attention to in my own school, which is very diverse. But, with gentrification, the makeup of a school changes. I'm passionate about making sure that there's equal opportunity for kids who don't have as much as my daughter does.