International news is a good local story
June 23, 2003
Doug McGill's speech at the IPI/Poynter Institute
Home the World” last month. McGill is a reporter and
web site editor who lives in Rochester, Minnesota, "trying to
practice my craft in a way that helps me and my fellow citizens better
understand our place in the wider world." The
McGill Report is his journalistic experiment in global citizenship.
Tonight I'm going to talk about something
called "globalizing local news." The subject is dear
to my heart. After 9/11 I found myself sitting in front of my computer
in Rochester, Minnesota, where I live, and feeling
the same sense of helplessness that writers all over the United
States felt. I was writing feature stories and news stories about
people living in Rochester; also I had just returned from living
for ten years abroad in Tokyo, London, and Hong Kong and I was
suffering a pretty strong case of reverse culture shock.
Part of that shock was the feeling that nothing
I could say or write would have relevance to the horrible crimes
that had happened
in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. But another part of
it was rooted in my feeling that I was isolated in tiny Rochester
from writing about the great themes of the world. I felt I was
not able, or at least did not know how, to connect my ten years
of experience living abroad to the daily public life of Rochester,
Minnesota, through my journalism.
Well, turns out, I just was not thinking hard enough.
I was not thinking in the right way, from the right perspective.
to experiment, to look at things from a different angle, and found
I had been looking in the wrong places for stories. Once I found
the right place to look, and figured out how to write the stories,
I attracted readers.
I stumbled on what I call the “globalized journalism” style.
In our age of instantaneous global information and
money flow, of porous borders, of the Internet, of multinational
of global terrorism, of international pandemics, I asked myself “What’s
really needed here?” My answer was: a globalized journalism for a globalized world.
And why can’t I do it from Rochester as easily as from any
It was just a matter of putting on a new pair of
glasses. I started to investigate the links between my local community
and the world
beyond our borders. I devised several strategies for generating
and writing stories about these vital links. And it’s worked
out beautifully. I wrote a six-part monthly series for the Rochester
Post-Bulletin on immigrant entrepreneurs that was well received,
and a month ago started writing a weekly column for the same paper
that focuses on the international angles of local issues and events.
What I did not know when I started this project
was that I was starting to experiment with a newspaper writing
style that has
been identified by a number of leading newspaper editors and journalism
think tanks, such the Readership Institute at Northwestern University,
the Pew Research Center, the International Press Institute, and
the Poynter Institute, as having statistically proven potential
for building newspaper readership. I call this the “globalized style.” It’s notable
for the way it debunks a cliché of the newspaper business,
which is that readers are not interested in international news.
Well, it turns out, they are. Just ask adventurous
and seasoned newspaper editors, like Chris Waddle of the Anniston
News, of Anniston,
Alabama, who’s with us here tonight and who has used the
globalized style very successfully in his newspaper.
And also, ask the Readership Institute of Northwestern University,
which in the summer of 2001, before 9/11, published a survey of
37,000 readers at 100 U.S. newspapers. What did the survey find?
That newspaper readers want more – in fact, much more --
There is but a single catch, which is
that readers are very much interested in reading international
news – but only as long
as it’s written in a certain way.
Our panel discussions, workshops, and one-on-one sessions tomorrow
are dedicated to exploring the specifics of that way. Tonight, I’m
going to stick with the big picture.
First, let me note that throughout
history, the norm has been just
the opposite of that old chestnut about local readers being uninterested
in international news. Newspapers in Europe and the
United States were born largely as vehicles to gather and dispense
news from foreign lands. London
newspapers gathered news from continental Europe; continental newspapers
gathered news from England and its upstart colonies in the New
World; and the colonial papers, in their earliest days, took it
as a given that the most interesting gossip and news came from
their colonial capital, in London.
It was not until America’s middle class started
rising, and newspaper geniuses like James Gordon Bennett and Joseph
came along, that the realization fully dawned that local news in
communities across America held interest enough to attract and
sustain readers almost exclusively. Indeed,
Bennett experienced a glorious moment of epiphany about this while
covering, as it happened, the gory murder of a prostitute
in lower Manhattan. “We have no news from Europe, and who
cares?” he wrote in
the New York Herald in 1836. “We have enough of
interest on this dear delightful continent to occupy all our feelings,
our soul, and all our sensibilities.”
Short periods of foreign wars in American history
have punctuated longer periods of peace and affluence. During the
of foreign entanglements newspaper reader interest in international
news has spiked, only to recede again after the foreign threat
was over. Public interest in international news did drop, following
this cycle, after 1989.
Most of the foreign bureaus that closed in those
days have not yet re-opened. But 9/11 certainly marked a turning
point in America’s
relationship to the rest of the world. And it has set in motion
a rethinking, still going on, about journalism’s responsibility
to report the world.
More to the point of this conference, a major part of that rethinking
is for journalists to ask how to apply the tools of their craft
to write stories that grab and keep reader attention and teach
them about the vital connections linking their community to the
This rethinking expands the very definition of local
news beyond the time-tested categories of city hall reports, crime
news, and consumer service features. The rethinking ends in what
I called “globalized journalism” which can be written
from any place on this earth.
The practice of globalized journalism doesn’t generate new
kinds of stories so much as it changes how traditional kinds of
stories are written. Globalized journalism results not so much
in lots of new and exotic datelines in the newspaper, so much as
lots of global nuggets in the newspaper. So you get in one newspaper
a globalized city hall story, a globalized crime story, a globalized
sports story, a globalized feature on buying a home. You get a
Let me tell you a little more about that
Readership Institute study of the summer of 2001. The Institute
asked 37,000 readers what
kinds of stories they would like to read in their local newspapers
that they don’t now see, and ranked them by the amount of
demand for each one.
Out of 15 different content categories, the one called “Government
and Global Relations” ranked a strong third. The two categories
ahead of it were called “Local, People-Focused News,” which
ranked first, and “Lifestyle News,” which ranked second.
The study also asked newspaper readers specifically
what kind of writing style would make them read international stories
Here we’ve come back to that italicized section of my remarks,
which is that people want to read international stories as long
as they are written in a certain way. The Readership Institute
study defined that way in four parts.
First, a feature-writing style. Second, stand-alone opinion sections.
Third, color photos. And further, readers just wanted more international
stories, in quantity alone.
Now, as we all know in this room, getting a person
to read any kind of article in a newspaper is not an easy thing
to do. But
with some kinds of articles it’s easier to do than with others.
If there’s a photograph of your next-door-neighbor in the
newspaper – the guy whose dog keeps you up all night barking – it
takes only a minimal amount of writing skill to get you to read
If it’s local, it will be read, simply because
of familiarity. Now think about a story that’s not based in your hometown,
but in the next state over from yours. Let’s say you are
in a part of California wine country where the water comes from
mountains in Nevada. So you travel upriver to the source in Nevada,
and you attend a town meeting where the subject is a plan to divert
water to Nevada fruit farms instead of California vineyards. It’s
a pretty boring meeting but there are truly major consequences
So now, as a writer, you have at least two more
challenges to engage the reader than you did before. First, you
are in another state
from your readers, and second, no one said anything quotable at
the town meeting. So your job, which is first to get reader’s
attention to the story, and second to persuade them that very big
issues are at stake for them, is now quite a challenge.
What do you do? Of course, you personalize the story.
You find a California vintner to quote. You dramatize it by buttonholing
the Nevada mayor and asking a provocative question, to get the
juicy quote he didn’t provide in the meeting itself. You
particularize and colorize, by looking for attention-grabbing details
to sprinkle through your narrative.
The farther you go from your
actual, physical, local neighborhood, the more of a challenge you
have as a writer to get the reader’s
attention, to keep the reader’s attention, and to persuade
him or her of your point of view. Globalized journalism really
doesn’t at all
require that we become some kind of cosmopolitan smarty-pants or
journalist. We just need to become better journalists.
So what is globalized journalism? Let me sum up.
Globalized journalism is a way of writing the
news that describes and explains a community in the widest possible
which is very often – I am tempted to say most often -- a
Global journalism exposes the local effects of global
causes, the local reactions to global actions, and the local love
Globalized journalism is not a policy. It’s
a point of view.
Globalized journalism does not require a commitment
lots of stories with different geographical datelines. Rather,
it requires a commitment to writing stories from a single cosmopolitan
Globalized journalism is not about taking the moral
high road in the newsroom, suffering for one’s political beliefs, or finding
ways to make readers eat their global spinach. It’s about
kicking one’s craft to a higher level with stories that truly
delight, deeply inform and, sometimes, persuade.
A story on a loosening of state gun control laws
would ideally contain not only a comparison to gun control laws
in other states
but also in other countries, so readers can see how loosening
the law correlates elsewhere to gun-related violence. A story on
annual spring flu season would contain a sentence explaining
that the flu originates in southern China each year and spreads
there around the world.
A story about a local medal-winning weightlifter
would explain that the world record for weightlifting is held
by an Iranian, Hossein Rezazadeh, who lifted 472.5 kilograms,
pounds, in Warsaw in 2002.
The overall impact of these accreted
details will be to situate your community more firmly, for
your readers, into the matrix of the world as it is actually
situated. It opens readers to a world of useful knowledge and fact
which they can pick and choose best practices, by comparing
lives to those of others living in this world. And it simply
makes the newspaper a better read.
You know those World Festival days where everyone
brings a dish from their own country? Green and yellow curries
spicy sausages from Germany, minted spring rolls from Vietnam?
By adopting the global style, your newspaper can read with exactly
that kind of deliciousness – seasoned with
the brilliant spices and the wisdom of the world -- every day.
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