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Globalized journalism
International news is a good local story

June 23, 2003
The Iranian

Doug McGill's speech at the IPI/Poynter Institute Conference  “Reporting 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. I started 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 corporations, 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 other place?

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 -- international news.  

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 Pulitzer 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, and our soul, and all our sensibilities.”

Short periods of foreign wars in American history have punctuated longer periods of peace and affluence. During the shorter times 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 world.

This rethinking expands the very definition of local news beyond the time-tested categories of city hall reports, crime and sports 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 it results in embedding 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 globalized newspaper.

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 more often. 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 that story.

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 at stake.

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 know-it-all 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 useful context, which is very often – I am tempted to say most often -- a global context.

Global journalism exposes the local effects of global causes, the local reactions to global actions, and the local love of global neighbors.

Globalized journalism is not a policy. It’s a point of view.

Globalized journalism does not require a commitment to running lots of stories with different geographical datelines. Rather, it requires a commitment to writing stories from a single cosmopolitan perspective.

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 the annual spring flu season would contain a sentence explaining that the flu originates in southern China each year and spreads from 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, or 1,266 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 from which they can pick and choose best practices, by comparing their own 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 from Thailand, 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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By Doug McGill

The McGill Report



Book of the day

Journalism After September 11
Communication and Society
By Barbie Zelizer & Stuart Allan (Editors)

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