When a Walmart closes, it doesn’t just leave ruin porn and retail wreckage behind. It also leaves people scrambling—for jobs, for groceries, for aid, and for human companionship. The Guardian ran a phenomenal piece by Ed Pilkington called “What Happened When Walmart Left” that examines the aftermath of the Kimball, W.Va., Walmart Supercenter’s closing in 2016.
It’s a great piece for a lot of reasons but mostly because Pilkington uses the closure of one massive retail center to highlight the chronic problems of a town left behind by 21st century industries. And it’s also the first real in-depth piece I’ve read on the aftermath of last year’s Walmart closures that doesn’t focus on quarterly profits, the retailer’s e-commerce drama or the perennial “They’re terrible to workers” pieces.
Over 150 Walmarts closed in the U.S. last year, mostly in places that are the exact opposite of the eco-friendly, creative-class urban oases that get covered whenever anyone wants to look at how retail shapes American life. We’re already seeing a rethinking of the whole creative-class-new-urbanist thing. It turns out it’s very good at creating exactly the kinds of conditions where towns are vulnerable to the vicissitudes of retail implosions. Now let’s see more coverage of what these retail losses mean for the people who were the customers and employees.
So what? Framing the 2016 closure of Walmart’s stores in terms of businesses making or losing money is one story, but it’s not the whole story. It was, in fact, at least 154 U.S.-based stories, one for every location closed. In terms of workers affected, it was 10,000 stories.
Some media outlets did tried to tell these stories. Bloomberg News pointed out that for towns where Walmart had already pushed grocery stores out of business, the loss of big-box retailer meant no groceries in often-isolated places. They were following the lead of The State, which covered the impact one store’s closing would have on senior citizens in Winnsboro, S.C., and AL.com, which reported on a similar story for Fairfield, Ala., residents.
When Quartz published the map of closing stores, it wasn’t hard to see where the closings were concentrated: the Bible Belt. That led to a bit of national-level coverage: The Washington Post followed up the January 2016 announcement with a February 2016 story, asking, “What Happens to a Tiny Town When Walmart Disappears?” (Short answer: Everyone left in town willing to go on the record is miserable.)
But then… the closing down of vital grocery and pharmacy services in small towns across the Bible Belt failed to grab a bigger national audience. The Atlantic, which has an entire vertical devoted to reporting on communities and what affects them, ran stories about Walmart’s corporate strategy and what counties could do to recover their tax bases but not one examining how people adapt when the sole retail outpost in their small town vanishes. And when I googled for Walmart closures on several national-tier papers to see if they were looking at how small communities were coping with Wall Street-level decisions, I got nothing.
It’s no wonder people feel a disconnect with the media. Nobody was paying sustained attention to their stories.
Who cares? Media professionals and media consumers should. In the months after the 2016 presidential election, there were countless soul-searching articles about where and how the media screwed up. There were useful in examining gaps in coverage while also permitting media professionals to talk endlessly about how they do their jobs. (So…win-win if you’re in the media—not so much for the audience.)
Anyway, there was a brief spate of resolving to do better. There are a handful of reporters who have forged ahead with the “But what do the Trump voters think?” beat, and everyone has discovered what Sam Quinones was working on for years (i.e., there’s an opiates-abuse epidemic in the United States, and there are frighteningly few resources to combat it or help families affected by it).
But stories like the holes left behind when Walmart closes down count, too. They’re the real, on-the-ground reporting that shows people that reporters are paying attention, looking for explanations, and understand that one story leads to more.
In the excellent Guardian piece alone, there are hooks for following up on any of these topics: where and how people find community gathering spots in this day and age; what happens to food banks and charities when a corporate donor disappears right as need rises; and how few opportunities to simply take a walk there are in the southeastern U.S., where most states have less than 5 percent federal land and many residents live far from public recreational facilities.
All of these are urgent, local stories. All of them need to be told. Nobody is going to stop telling the story “Wealthy company repositions its assets so it can remain wealthy.” But there are many opportunities to start telling stories about what those corporate decisions mean on a community level. There is no reason why corporate media shouldn’t start looking at these opportunities as a way to build audience.