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Virginia Nonprofit Forges New Model for Community Journalism

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A group of Rappahannock County, Virginia, citizens decided their community needed a different kind of journalism. Instead of starting a new publication, they forged a partnership with the Rappahannock News. After five years on the job, the Foothills Forum looks at where they’ve been and where they’re going.

Five years after launching Foothills Forum, a small-scale venture in nonprofit journalism serving rural Rappahannock County, Virginia, I can look back and ask: What the heck were we thinking? 

Well, we felt we were responding to the wishes of a remote oasis of 7,400 residents tucked up against the morning side of Shenandoah National Park. No stoplights, no superhighways, no big box stores. Privacy rules. 

A Foothills Forum gathering following a three-part series on rural health issues in Rappahannock County elicited laughs.(L-R) Judy Reidinger of the all-volunteer Sperryville Fire and Rescue Squad; Foothills Forum’s vice Chair Beverly E. Jones; Foothills’ principal reporter Randy Rieland; and Dennis Barry, chairman of the nonprofit Rapp at Home. (Photo provided)

But my colleagues and I heard ample demand for a deeper understanding of the underlying issues in a place that’s home to both “been-here’s” – many of them seventh- and eighth-generation farm families, and more recent “come-here’s” – most with ties to greater Washington, D.C., 65 miles east.

From both you hear: We love life here, followed by an earful about what’s not known about an uncertain future. And the only game in town in this local news desert, the weekly Rappahannock News, admitted it lacked the wherewithal to meet that demand. Newsroom staff now: One full-time editor.

So, after a year of listening – interviews and focus groups with more than 100 citizens – we promised to commission high-quality explanatory journalism in conjunction with the weekly. We believed the community would support an independent, nonpartisan nonprofit by opening their wallets, even if they were skeptical about what they’d be getting. Foothills also pledged to live up to the “forum” part of the name by bringing folks together in our fire halls and churches to discuss the issues as reported and what could be done about them. 

Rather than assume we knew what the issues to be covered should be, we asked first. We mailed a baseline survey, developed with the Center for Survey Research at the University of Virginia, to the county’s more than 3,000 households and mailboxes. An astonishing 42 percent responded by ranking a set of issues and answering questions on quality of life and services.  

And we were off, to research and report on the topmost issues in our old (and getting older) county – lack of broadband and cell service, concerns about land use and agriculture’s future, access to health care and transportation, an economy where apples once were king, how to make love-it or hate-it tourism sticky. A four-page agreement with the paper’s owners protects the newsroom’s integrity, and we provide resources for reporting, research, information graphics, photography and design. Each series attempts to show examples of how other communities successfully deal with the thorny issues. 

We tripped early in this hike of ours. We lost (and quickly regained) our nonprofit tax status. We weathered criticism from a small but loud cadre of skeptics lampooning the nonprofit as “Foothills Follies” run by “arrivistes” who “fell off the turnip truck.”  Our requests for some interviews went unanswered. New issues have arisen since the 2015 survey amid long-simmering tensions; we’re absorbing lessons from a divisive debate this past fall that led to rejection of a state grant for a bike trail. 

But the newspaper reporting we jointly produce began to win awards (Best in Show two years running at the Virginia Press Association), get results (our Board of Supervisors formed a broadband committee), and earn trust as readers saw themselves and their concerns reflected in readable, nuanced, coverage.  

Foothills Forum 2016 college intern Julia Fair, right, interviews environmentalist Phil Irwin, founder of the Rappahannock League for Environmental Protection. (Photo provided)

As community support has grown, ranging from individual donations to grants from local foundations, we’ve been able to add other resources for the weekly – summer interns, a summer fellowship. We make seed grants for other news startups. Our most recent project, the Rappahannock Snapshot, is a special section revisiting and updating readers and viewers on progress, or stagnation, on previously reported issues. Our next project adds video. The work is archived online at www.rappnews.com

The Foothills model has recently drawn more discerning attention. Columbia Journalism Review featured our approach in Virginia’s Piedmont in November 2017. We’ve presented to the International Society of Weekly News Editors and the Virginia Press Association. We’ve heard from news nonprofits in Maine, North Carolina, Kentucky and of course, Virginia, who want to learn and share together. The Fauquier Times in our adjoining county asked us for our start-up playbook and has created its own partnership with the new Piedmont Journalism Foundation.  

On a personal note, I grew up on a Holstein dairy farm in northeast Missouri, and the Virginia Piedmont’s rolling hills and hollows have reintroduced me in the past 13 years to country life after a big-city career. Rappahannock County’s friendly people, numerous vineyards, small batch breweries and farm-to-table restaurants add savor and flavor to my life in retirement. But being part of Foothills Forum has assured me there’s a strong connection between community and journalism.  

We can’t wait to see what the next five years bring. 

Larry “Bud” Meyer is chair and co-founder of Foothills Forum. You may reach him at info@foothills-forum.org. 

This article was originally published by Daily Yonder.

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When a Region Tells Its Own Stories, That’s ‘New Territory’

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“Get out of Missouri,” was the professional advice Tina Casagrand received as a young journalist fresh out of college. Instead, she hunkered down in a small city and started a print magazine for people who love the Lower Midwest just as much as she does.

Places matter to Tina Casagrand. So do journalism and culture. So do anthropology and science. So do readers, writers, books and magazines. And the Ozark mountains and the river basins of central Missouri. And other parts of the lower Midwest, too — places like Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas.  

Casagrand is the founder and publisher of The New Territory, a reader-supported print magazine she created in 2015. In that role, she brings literary, anthropological, and ecological voices to a region that has challenges but ample optimism.  

Tina Casagrand
Tina Casagrand

Casagrand launched the magazine about two years after graduating from the University of Missouri. With the talents of a small team of volunteers, the magazine puts its mission into practice, “to connect the land, people and possibilities of the Lower Midwest.”  (The magazine has no digital version, but it does publish a blog, which occasionally includes a free sample article.) 

Like many people living a creative, purpose–driven life, Casagrand didn’t start out knowing she wanted to be what she is now, although there were some early hints. She was raised by her great-grandparents in Dixon, Missouri, a town of about 1,500 southeast of the Lake of the Ozarks. She’d always loved to read, particularly magazines. In high school Casagrand didn’t realize that “magazine publisher” was a career path, but she worked on student publications and did other activities that suggested she might have a future involving the written word. She developed a strong interest in world culture and international travel. That led her to major in both journalism and anthropology. She minored in art, and then added another minor, biology.  

Casagrand started freelancing in college, focusing on environmental writing. She was hungry to experience new cultures and places, to tell stories she discovered along the way. She “hit a high point early” in her freelance writing career when a story she wrote was published on the National Geographic website. It dealt with the epidemic of emerald ash borers killing trees and what could be done about it. 

“That was cool and awesome, but along with the byline was the realization that I didn’t want to be doing that kind of work for very long,” Casagrand says. The problem was that so much context needed to be provided for a national story that there wasn’t much room for depth.  

“I was in 1,200-word count hell,” she recalls. That’s when she came to terms with the fact that the outlet for what she wanted to do didn’t exist.   

Instead of giving up, Casagrand saw an opportunity to both serve readers and improve the “writer ecosystem.” She wanted journalists to have a publication where they could pitch long, thoughtfully crafted stories with love for place at the forefront. She developed a prospectus for The New Territory and ran it past her peers in the Society for Environmental Journalists. They gave her encouragement and suggestions. Then she was ready to put out a “bat signal” that there was a location for in-depth narrative that would treat stories with care.  

Casagrand now publishes The New Territory from her office in Jefferson City, Missouri’s capital. The editors, designers and others work remotely, scattered around the country. The magazine is distributed almost entirely through subscription and contains no advertising but does include a sponsorship section. This allows the bills to be paid, and the contributors, too. But the staff is all volunteer, including herself. 

The New Territory just released its seventh issue, titled “Sanctuaries.” It includes stories about a Primitive Baptist Church in Arkansas that has seen years of declining membership; a farm family in the Ozarks that has expanded its activities to make ends meet; Native Americans and non-natives coming together to save a Kansas wetlands from highway construction; a photo essay on how Oklahomans are finding new ways to protect public lands as state park budgets erode; plus art, poetry and fiction.  

Having lots of hands helping on the magazine allowed Casagrand to step away from daily editing duties. As publisher, she can focus on finding continued financial support. She sees convincing people to pay for quality journalism as a challenge that needs a solution. An added challenge is her location in the middle of Missouri, which is foreign ground to financial supporters that mostly cluster in the big cities. That’s why much of her effort is going into what she describes as “strengthening the friendships and partnerships we’ve made so far and telling more potential subscribers about the magazine.”   

Casagrand is determined to stick to her focus creating an “autobiography of the lower Midwest,” even if not everyone is on board yet. She had numerous mentors in the journalism world who encouraged her to apply for opportunities around the country. One individual she barely knew told her that she’d never really be successful as a freelancer until she got out of Missouri. 

“It was humiliating to be told this by an older person, but I couldn’t corroborate it. I didn’t think of myself as not being on track.” In what she calls a moment of clarity, Casagrand realized that versions of success are different, a viewpoint she conveyed to that person later the day.  

It’s expected that people who are invested in her success might be a bit confused by her choices. In their experience, they see the best opportunities in bigger places. But Casagrand says she would “rather be rooted in a place” instead of having a “fragile existence” in a place she didn’t particularly wish to be. 

Growing up she appreciated the natural beauty of the Missouri Ozarks but also took it for granted. When she went to college, she experienced different landscapes through travel and came to new ways to “process ideas about culture,” she says. 

“If you’d told me at start of college I’d live in and love Missouri after graduation, I would have laughed you out the door. But it is beautiful and unique, and there aren’t a lot of journalists writing about the environment in Missouri. There is so much to cover you could make it a whole career, as a beat, and not touch everything.” 

Still, it isn’t for everyone. 

“There is high attrition of talented people leaving here, and I was on track to be one of them.” But she knew she had important and personally meaningful work to do. She paraphrases Senegalese forestry engineer Baba Dioum about caring for places and protecting them to make a healthy community. “You have to love it, but you can only love it by understanding it, and you can only understand it if you learn about it.”  

She pictures readers of The New Territory as people who already love the Lower Midwest, care for it in their own way, and support regional journalism in myriad ways. “That’s who we sit down at our computers and make this magazine for,” Casagrand says. She and the team envision The New Territory being shared with people informally, and even formally in the classroom as teaching material guiding readers to understand the region better. “That why we imbue each issue with so much love.” 

As Casagrand puts it, it’s true love, not just boosterism. “People see that it’s not fluffy content. An intelligent reader knows when they’re being sold something, and that’s one of the fastest ways to erode trust.” 

Casagrand tells the life story of this state that is bounded by the Mississippi River on the east and partly bordered and bisected by the Missouri River. The rolling farmland of the north, the rugged and forested south, the flood plains of the southeast and the Great Plains to the west offer plenty to learn about and love.  

Even the boundary between rural and urban spaces speaks to Casagrand. She carries a tangible emblem that reminds her of each, in the form of body art. On her left bicep is a tattoo of a whippoorwill, and on the right bicep is a blue jay. She calls the whippoorwill the “soundtrack of evenings sitting on the porch” in Dixon. The bird is sensitive to environmental conditions, such as habitat loss. “Even now when I hear one there’s an emotional homecoming sensation because it represents rural life for me.” On the other side is the blue jay, the adaptable and assertive bird whose constant energy and voice are an emblem of the comparatively urban life she’s leading now in Jefferson City. “The tattoos represent the balance I’ve found between contemplative focus and assertive action. In my ‘ideal’ world, nothing’s at the expense of the other.” 

One of the things she’s realized is that being in an area some consider too remote to matter means Midwestern voices are left out of important national conversations. “What I wanted to do with The New Territory is have the freedom to talk to other Midwesterners about what’s important to us without having to filter our message for a national, largely urban and coastal audience and defend the mere right to be thought of as important.”  

Magazine feature content has already been scheduled for two future issues, relying on local and regional voices who know the stories and how to tell them. They’re still open to accepting literature, photography, reviews, interviews and personal essays for the “Here” section. 

One goal for 2019 is get into communities more, by designing events and workshops for the public to attend. The focus would be on writing and art, which could have the twin outcomes of increasing readership and building a larger freelance contributor pool. She’s also cooking up ideas about a traveling photography gallery that would be hung in different places in the region. Another project taking shape is a reading group series. 

These ideas are enmeshed with other things she does, such as working with the group Missouri River Relief and serving on the Missouri Invasive Plant Task Force. Recently, she started as community manager at Campus Coworking Space, a new community-driven office space for people who would otherwise work from home. 

“Most of this other work is centered around helping people find their place in the place that I know and care for,” she explained. 

In an effort to encourage young Missourians, Casagrand teaches a three-week stint each June for the Missouri Scholars Academy, a program for gifted students. She teaches a nature writing class and a class called “Print Isn’t Dead.” Casagrand herself participated in this program as a high schooler. “That’s when I started to chill out about Missouri, and see how awesome it was to be surrounded by other smart people in the state and to broaden my horizons.”  

Things do change. Casagrand’s great-grandfather passed away in 2016. But not before he caught sight of the bird tats. She’d tried hiding them because she guessed what his reaction would be, and it wouldn’t be good. But one hot Missouri day in the smoking area of the parking lot outside of the VA hospital where she waited with him, she couldn’t hide them under long sleeves any longer. “I took off my outer shirt and his mouth flew open, and he asked ‘Are those real?’” 

Casagrand is working to keep them real both on the literal habitat level and the deeper emotional level. As she explains simply, “It would be a huge loss to the ecosystem if either was gone.” 

Julianne Couch is a writer in Bellevue, Iowa. Her feature story on private property hunting as a form of rural economic development in Kansas will appear in The New Territory later this year.

This article was originally published by the Daily Yonder.

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What Oklahoma’s Opioid Settlement Means for Other States, Cities and Counties Suing Purdue Pharma

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In this April 2, 2018, file photo, pharmacist Steve Protzel poses for photos holding a bottle of OxyContin at Daniel's Pharmacy in San Francisco. The dug is manufactured by Purdue Pharma. Photo:Jeff Chiu/AP Photo, File

Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter recently announced that the state had reached a $270 million settlement with Purdue Pharma, the largest manufacturer of prescription opioids. The settlement resolves the state’s claims against Purdue over costs incurred in addressing the opioid crisis and allows Purdue to avoid a trial that was scheduled for May.

So the natural question arises: What does this development mean for the 1,700 or so cases brought largely by city and county governments against Purdue and a swath of other pharmaceutical-industry defendants?

My advice for other plaintiffs and opioid victims, based on my nearly three decades studying and practicing civil litigation: Don’t get your hopes up.

Judge Dan Polster is overseeing a case involving dozens of opioid lawsuits. AP Photo/Tony Dejak

Purdue’s potential bankruptcy

Most of the outstanding cases have been consolidated into so-called multidistrict litigation in Ohio. The court’s judge, Dan Polster, has pushed hard for a settlement.

So will these cases follow Oklahoma’s lead and reach a settlement?

Not so fast.

Rumors have swirled around Purdue’s possible plan to seek bankruptcy protection from creditors, including the plaintiffs in the opioid cases. That plan may make sense to Purdue given that the ongoing litigation could result in judgments in the tens of billions of dollars – presumably far in excess than the combined net worth of the family that owns the private company, the Sacklers.

But a bankruptcy filing would create havoc for any prospect of near-term settlement for the outstanding opioid cases. An automatic stay would be issued that would bring all pending U.S. litigation to a screeching halt – including the bellwether multidistrict trial, which is set for October.

A bankruptcy judge with no familiarity with the case would suddenly find herself responsible for resolving perhaps the largest mass litigation of its kind in history in terms of monetary size. That judge would have to approve any new settlement involving ongoing litigation in other jurisdictions and would likely require it to be global. That’s a herculean task – just ask Polster, who had hoped to settle the cases before him by now.

At the same time the alternative is also unthinkable in which all of the claims against Purdue would potentially relocate to the bankruptcy court where Purdue files. In other words, all 1,700 or so cases – including the multidistrict litigation and the state lawsuits – would be lumped together before the bankruptcy court to be resolved there.

That court could choose to send them back for trial to the courts where they originated but still would have ultimate authority to determine how much each creditor and plaintiff would end up with.

Oklahoma’s settlement

A bankruptcy filing by Purdue could also pose problems for the settlement with Oklahoma.

Although Oklahoma claims that its settlement is secured against a possible bankruptcy filing – and Purdue reportedly committed to delay any filing – it’s likely the other plaintiffs would challenge it. Why should Oklahoma get a large settlement while all the other states with pending litigation are forced to accept the scraps following Purdue’s bankruptcy?

After all, there is nothing unique about Oklahoma’s case except that it was the first to come to trial. I don’t think a bankruptcy judge would feel warm and fuzzy about affirming a disproportionate settlement that would benefit one state to the detriment of all the other plaintiffs.

If the plaintiffs are crafty, they’ll try to force Purdue into bankruptcy by filing what is known as an involuntary bankruptcy petition. All it takes is three creditors with claims against a potentially insolvent company – such as three of the hundreds of states, counties or cities that are suing Purdue – to ask a bankruptcy court to assume control of its assets.

And in this case, the Oklahoma settlement could be deemed an attempt – legally called a “preference” – to benefit one creditor at the expense of others. Thus Oklahoma would lose whatever security interest it may have, as well as any money it received, within 90 days of such a bankruptcy petition. Those assets would return to the estate for division among all unsecured creditors.

Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter recently settled his state’s opioid lawsuit against Purdue.
AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki

What’s in it for Purdue

So why did Purdue settle with Oklahoma rather than file for immediate bankruptcy protection?

Clearly, in my view, it’s not ready to file – but didn’t want the Oklahoma trial to start either. A cynic might wonder whether Purdue’s owners received profit distributions within the last year and are waiting to file for bankruptcy after the so-called lookback period expires. During the lookback period, creditors can claw back certain types of payments made within the year before the filing. For insiders like the Sackler family, the lookback period is a full year rather than 90 days – as it is for Oklahoma.

In any event, the Oklahoma settlement proceeds may well end up much lower than the settlement agreement provides. So the Oklahoma attorney general may have scored a political victory in announcing the settlement, but it remains to be seen whether his constituents will actually see the money – and, if so, how much and when.

Knowing that, it’s hard to imagine any significant further settlement activity, at least until another case gets within a month or two of trial. And, if Purdue does file for bankruptcy, the opioid cases may never get that close to a trial again.

And that, of course, means that the various states and local governments that have brought lawsuits will have to continue to bear the cost of opioid-related treatment and services for the foreseeable future.

Andrew Pollis is a professor of law at Case Western Reserve University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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How to Prevent the ‘Robot Apocalypse’ From Ending Labor as We Know It

The future of work could look more like this. Photo: BigBlueStudio, Shutterstock.com

It seems not a day goes by without the appearance of another dire warning about the future of work.

Some alarmists fear a “robot apocalypse,” while others foresee the day of “singularity” coming when artificial intelligence exceeds human intelligence. Still others warn that income inequality will continue to rise as owners of capital capture more of the benefits of innovations than those who labor for a living.

Yet there is also a counter-trend emerging: Groups as diverse as the World Economic Forum and the International Labor Organization are beginning to argue that it’s up to society to shape the future of work. What’s needed is action today to harness and channel technological changes, prepare the workforce for new demands and opportunities, strengthen their voices and built a new social contract that includes leaders in business, education, labor and government.

These are some of the issues we’ll be discussing in an online course that draws on some of the best experts in AI, robotics, economics and employment relations at MIT and around the world. Our main point is that avoiding apocalyptic outcomes requires bold actions and a collaborative approach.

How to shape change

Virtually every technological revolution has inspired workers to fear for their jobs. And for good reason.

Each one resulted in the creation of new jobs alongside the elimination of others. At the same time, new technologies changed the way work is done within most occupations.

But fighting technology-inspired changes, as the Luddites of the early 19th century did, rarely works – and can in fact have disastrous consequences. The Luddites, textile workers and weavers who feared the advent of automated looms in England, destroyed machines and burned factories, hoping to arrest their advance. The government eventually quashed the unrest, killing some workers and jailing many others.

The new technologies that transformed the textile industry continued unabated. While many weavers lost their jobs, it created new ones for mechanics and other industrial workers and increased overall productivity.

The important lesson from this episode is that the transition from an agricultural to an industrial economy occurred in the absence of updated policies to govern the transition, which led to more pain for those who were displaced than was necessary.

So as today’s workers in dozens of occupations face down the robot apocalypse, what’s needed aren’t more battle cries but concerted action by leaders in business, education, government and, of course, labor. And if, as predicted, AI and robotics do transform nearly half of jobs requiring new skill sets for workers, the current challenge may be greater than ever, making it even more important that we create a vision and a path forward that everyone can support.

GM’s joint venture with Toyota taught the U.S. automaker the value of integrating new technologies with new work practices. Photo: AP Photo/Paul Sakuma

Giving ‘wisdom to the machines’

Let’s start with business leaders since they buy and implement most new technologies.

The dominant business motivation for introducing new technology is to reduce human labor and the costs associated with it. Robots, or more broadly software, don’t leave for another job, go on strike or need bathroom breaks – let alone a paycheck or benefits.

But there is ample historical and current evidence that simply viewing technology as a labor cost saving tool leads to overinvestment and weak returns.

Just ask General Motors what it got for its nearly US$50 billion in robots in the 1980s in its futile effort to catch up with Toyota’s more efficient production and labor relations systems. The answer is not much.

Instead, GM eventually learned from Toyota via a joint venture that the highest return on investments came by integrating new technology with new work practices, which allowed workers to help “give wisdom to the machines.”

The key lesson for business is that it needs to engage workers in designing and deploying new technologies to get the greatest productivity gains.

Learning for life

Lifelong learning is the new buzz phrase when it comes to discussions of work. Transforming this from rhetoric to reality will require fundamental changes in educational institutions and teaching methods.

It starts with the children in schools today who will likely be most affected by the AI revolution in coming decades. And while in the past the focus was on the STEM disciplines – science, technology, engineering and math – industry leaders these days say they need tomorrow’s workforce to be filled with people who can think analytically and creatively, work well together in teams and can adapt readily to near-constant change.

In other words, workers need to be inculcated from an early age with more behavioral and analytic skills, such as teamwork, communications and problem-solving with data.

Even after people are in the workforce, learning new skills and acquiring new knowledge will continue throughout their careers. That means businesses and universities will need to form new partnerships that ensure the workforce can continue to adapt.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the first legislation tied to the New Deal in 1933. Photo: AP Photo

A new social contract

A key way government can contribute is by revisiting the legislative framework that supports labor.

The New Deal was a series of programs, projects and reforms that helped shift the U.S. from a primarily agricultural to industrial economy. It established collective bargaining rights, created Social Security and unemployment insurance, and set minimum wages and labor standards.

With the rise of the gig economy and the changing nature of the employer-employee relationship, a new social contract is necessary to support workers in this new reality. Benefits should be portable so workers can easily move from job to job without losing health insurance and other benefits now tied to a specific employer. Post-secondary education needs to be more affordable.

Labor law should make it easier so different kinds of workers, from professionals, to low wage workers, to independent contractors, can all have their voices heard. And safety nets need strengthening to support those displaced or whose career has been downgraded by all the seismic changes coming our way.

Workers need a seat

As for labor leaders, they need to make sure they’re at the table with business, education and government to ensure workers aren’t left behind by new technologies.

Training needs to be at the top of union bargaining agendas with business so that organized labor can be a champion of lifelong learning for workers. One important way is by building, expanding and modernizing apprenticeships.

In addition, they can’t just wait to be invited by companies to participate in discussions about implementing new tech. The union representing hotel workers is showing how to get engaged by actively negotiating new agreements with big casinos in Las Vegas and large chains like Marriott to ensure workers are heard in the process and are fairly compensated along the way.

The key point is that none of these groups can meet the coming challenges on its own. Just as we’ll be doing in our class in coming weeks, people from all walks of life and segments of society should be discussing these issues so everyone can participate in shaping the future of work.

Thomas Kochan, Professor of Management, Co-Director of the MIT Sloan Institute for Work and Employment Research, MIT Sloan School of Management and Elisabeth Reynolds, Executive Director of MIT Industrial Performance Center and Work of the Future, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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