qa alec macgillis amazon nomadland
“Regional inequality was making parts of the country incomprehensible to one another — one world wracked with painkillers, the other tainted by elite-college admission schemes,” Alec MacGillis writes in the opening chapter of his new book, “Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America.”
“Fulfillment” is as much about Amazon as it is a wider exploration of American despair; it tells a story of declining living standards, grueling work, surging rents and a pervading sense of hopelessness. MacGillis strays off the well-trodden paths of tech journalists, relaying Amazon’s impact on places like Dayton, Ohio; El Paso, Texas; and Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The book provides intimate portraits of lives upended by a company that prides itself on “customer obsession.” It also traces those experiences back to American power centers, exposing the source of Amazon’s considerable political influence.
Why did MacGillis decide to tell the story of Amazon through the lens of growing regional inequality? “This all goes back to having grown up in a small newspaper family,” MacGillis told Protocol. “Growing up, I had a strong sense of the importance of local news and also the gap between places like Pittsfield and cities like Boston and New York.”
After working for The Washington Post, MacGillis decided he needed to leave the D.C. bubble. He moved to Baltimore, where he works as a reporter for ProPublica. “Fulfillment” came in part from MacGillis’s desire to bring the stories happening outside elite bubbles back into them: “A big goal of my book is to get the average upper-middle class consumer to reckon more with what’s behind the one-click,” MacGillis said.
In our interview, MacGillis discussed worker unionization efforts, why Amazon allowed “Nomadland” to be filmed in its warehouses (“the film gives a much more benign portrayal”) and the role free trade agreements played in allowing a company like Amazon to exist.
You simply cannot overstate the role that the unraveling of local media has played in our country and in [creating] the problems that the book describes.
It’s gotten to the point now where the collapse of local journalism actually has an effect on events. It has an effect on elections, not just Trump’s election, but local elections that [now] lack vetting of candidates. It also contributes to the breeding of resentment among local communities where, instead of turning to your local paper [or] local TV station, you’re turning to Facebook.
But I think the tech media’s concentration in the San Francisco, New York, D.C. hubs is part and parcel of the general problem of media concentration. I suppose it’s probably even more acute because it’s almost exclusively in these places.
The concentration is terrible for the media in the country. So much is being missed as a result of that and it skews perspectives terribly. I think so often of traveling around the Midwest during the Great Recession and then coming back to D.C., where I was working for The Washington Post, and [feeling a] sense that everything in D.C. was totally hunky-dory, totally prosperous.
Are there any elements in your personal life that draw you to look beyond these bubbles? You’ve been in reporting jobs where it would be easy to just stay within the D.C. media circuit.
This all goes back to having grown up in a small newspaper family. My dad was the editor of the Berkshire Eagle, a great little paper in Western Massachusetts. So growing up, I had a strong sense of the importance of local news and also the gap between places like Pittsfield and cities like Boston and New York.
I came up through journalism through all sorts of small papers, made my way off the beaten path and learned how important it was to be out there and how stories were being missed if you weren’t there.
One big reason why I moved back to Baltimore after being at The Post is that I felt like it was hurting my journalism to be in the rich, complacent city. I wanted to be back in a more real place, even if it was just 40 miles away. That’s proven to be the case, it’s helped me enormously to be out of Washington.
Do you think most people in the U.S. are aware of the working conditions in Amazon warehouses? Would more awareness change the behavior of Amazon customers in any way?
I don’t think many Americans are aware of just how grueling and strenuous these jobs are. A big goal of my book is to get the average upper-middle class consumer to reckon more with what’s behind the one-click — all the strenuous exertions that that one-click sets off within the warehouses.