Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Report globally, write locally

Posted By on 03.26.08 at 10:52 AM

One of the more provocative comments Richard Longworth made in my March 20 Hot Type on his new book, Caught in the Middle: America's Heartland in the Age of Globalism, concerned the fitful record of midwestern papers at putting hometown issues in a global context. Best, Longworth told me, is probably the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The Chicago Tribune "has a very good foreign staff, but needs to work harder at linking their stories to readers in Chicago."

That brought me a letter, which I passed on to Longworth, from a newspaperman on the west coast who wanted more information on what the Journal Sentinel is doing right -- he knew his own paper could stand a lot of improvement. Here, slightly revised, is Longworth's response:

"The Journal Star is still locally owned, fairly solid fiscally, one of the few happy newsrooms I’ve been in recently. But like all midwestern papers except the Tribune, it has no foreign correspondents of its own, and hasn’t for years, nor does it belong to a chain that still has a few. So to do any foreign coverage that links to Milwaukee at all, it’s had to be fairly imaginative.

One thing they did was to go out and hire some foreign correspondents to come to Milwaukee and work there. Most midwestern newsrooms have so few people with any overseas experience and, hence, no real ideas on how their cities fit into the rest of the world. The JS hired people like Bill Glauber from the Trib: he used to be the Baltimore Sun’s bureau chief in London. But their best hire was John Schmid, foreign Frankfurt bureau chief for the International Herald Trib. John’s regular beat is business and economic reporting, but he breaks away periodically for overseas trips linked to Milwaukee. One such story began with a long and sad walk through an empty factory in Milwaukee with the owner, the fourth generation of his family to own the company, who was pretty much in tears over his decision to save the company by closing the Milwaukee factory and moving all manufacturing to China. Then John went to China, visited this guy’s factory there, and talked with the workers. He zeroed in on a young woman, the first member of her family to get out of the village, who was living in a factory dorm and earning about $2 per day. But this wasn’t sweat-shop stuff, and John was pointing no fingers. Instead he was humanizing globalization, explaining why Milwaukee lost its jobs, explaining why this young woman, who was delighted to have the job, was the wave of the future. 

At the same time, the Trib was doing roughly the same story, but by its bureau chief in Beijing. The Trib guy spent most of a year making periodic visits to a Chinese village and then following young villagers, many from the same family, as they migrated to global-era manufacturing jobs in the cities. It was really a good series, but it talked only about China. There was no Chicago connection. The Trib correspondent spoke Chinese and knew China a lot better than John did but for sheer local clout, John did as good -- possibly a better -- story. John’s series is now being held up as an example of global-local reporting at a j-school class at Northwestern. The class is taught by the Tribune’s foreign editor [Kerry Luft]. 

John made another trip to China to look at that country’s trade with Wisconsin. He pegged it to Harley-Davidson, naturally, and found a Chinese black marketeer with a big business selling Harley hogs with no warranties, at wildly inflated prices -- a great lead-in for the promise and peril of doing business in China. He did another piece on Wisconsin ginseng sales to China -- who knew that Wisconsin dominates the global ginseng market? -- and the problems Wisconsin exporters are having with rip-offs, non-Wisconsin ginseng masquerading as the real thing, sort of an agricultural version of fake Rolexes. He traveled with Wisconsin welders and machinists who travel the world for a Wisconsin company to fix machinery around the world: Wisconsin metal workers are still first-class, but there may be more global than local jobs for them now. He talked with a Wisconsin guy who used to make power generators, but found he had to import his engineers from Asia: now retired, he’s started a foundation to promote science education in midwestern schools.

John also is tying a water-engineering plant which Siemens is opening in Wisconsin with what Siemens is doing in Germany. From his Frankfurt days, he has good Siemens contacts, and he understands how the company works. He also wants to do a story on a Milwaukee-area industrial group that does a lot of engineering and is about to open its largest engineering center near Shanghai, hiring Chinese engineers whom it thinks are a lot more innovative than most people know. John also had a couple of kids born on the German national health system, so he knows a lot about European medicine and health systems, enabling him to go to Europe and do a series on how the Europeans do it, both the pluses and minuses, and how this could fit into Milwaukee. 

The JS also has launched a Chinese-language web site. It seems that the Chinese became really interested in Milwaukee when the Bucks hired their big Chinese center, Yi Jianlian. The paper is working to get advertising from Milwaukee companies who want to do business in China. The idea is that Chinese readers will click on the JS site to read about Yi and will stay to look at the ads. 

I still feel that there’s no substitute for having foreign correspondents on the scene. Correspondents give depth, scope, and continuity to a paper’s daily report that no amount of parachute journalism can accomplish. The JS is getting great stuff out of China, but the Trib’s day-by-day report, by Evan Osnos and his predecessor, Mike Lev, is better. But newspaper economics have their own reality these days, and nobody -- probably including the Trib -- is going to have the foreign staffs they used to. So how do we make the best use of available resources? The JS does it by bringing aboard some people with overseas experience, who see their towns through global eyes, who see the connections, who can compare an American city to one in Asia or Europe, who have some understanding of how the global economy works at all levels, and then giving them the money for occasional travel, the encouragement to develop local stories and the space to show their stuff.

Hope this helps."

UPDATE: Tribune foreign editor Kerry Luft has sent us this reponse to these comments by Longworth:

I’ve been reading with some interest and considerable bemusement your back-and-forth with my friend Dick Longworth, but now I think I need to weigh in to point out the outstanding work by the Tribune’s staff that appears to be getting short shrift in the conversation.

I do cite John Schmid’s work in my journalism classes, and I’ve had John come in to talk to my class a couple of times. I think his work is a great example of what can be done by a paper that doesn’t have a foreign staff. Most of my students are not going to start out at papers or other outlets that have foreign correspondents, so I use John and the Journal Sentinel as a example of what you can do with ambition, good planning and hard work, even if you’re not based abroad. My hat is off to them.

But I think it’s unfair to imply that the Tribune doesn’t do a good job of tying the world to Chicago and the Midwest. I can point to numerous specific examples and several more general ones, but just for starters:

* Evan Osnos’ work on product safety in China is part of a much-honored series that has already won the Polk Award and the Scripps Howard Foundation's National Journalism Award for public service reporting, and is in the running for more prizes.
* Paul Salopek last year won an Overseas Press Club award for an amazing, groundbreaking piece of work that traced a single tank of gas from a station in South Elgin, Ill., to continents around the globe, documenting and explaining the worldwide implications of gasoline consumption by our local consumers.
* Laurie Goering earlier this year took a tragic case of arson in the southwest suburbs, one that prosecutors say was connected to caste tensions between immigrants, and explained how those tensions might play out back in India, including exclusive interviews with the victim’s family.
* Christine Spolar, our Rome correspondent, traveled to Florence to explain how arts benefactors from Chicago were financing the restoration of priceless Florentine art.
* Business writer Michael Oneal wrote a fascinating two-part series about Cummins Inc., the diesel engine-maker that shifted much of its work from Indiana to India, and he traveled abroad to do so.
* Mexico bureau chief Oscar Avila and his predecessor, current foreign editor Hugh Dellios, have extensively documented the historic migration of workers from Mexico into the Midwest, and Dellios and Kirsten Scharnberg teamed to write a harrowing tale of how some of those migrant workers died horribly in a boxcar on their way to work in Iowa.
* Avila and metro reporter Antonio Olivo did a terrific story explaining political connections between Chicago and Mexico, and another one explaining how Mexicans have become a dominant force in Chicago’s restaurants.
* Chief European Correspondent Tom Hundley has written in the past year from Poland about a Chicago-area resident deported back to her native land, as well as the case of a Glenview businessman whom the Polish government wanted to extradite to stand trial in a murder for hire plot.
* Early on in the Iraq war, we ran a compelling series about a Marine fighting there and his antiwar activist mother in Chicago. Since then, reporters such as Aamer Madhani, Kim Barker, Liz Sly, James Janega and Mike Dorning have chronicled the tales of many soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, including those from Chicago and the Midwest. One of our signature pieces marking the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war was datelined Paris … Illinois.

Chief Business Correspondent David Greising covers globalization and its impact on Chicago and the Midwest as part of his beat, and he teamed up with Goering last year on a series that illustrated new approaches to global warming – a story that has broad impact in the Midwest, and one I think you praised in your column. Greising and others in our business department explained the competition between Chicago-based Boeing and Europe’s Airbus in stories written both here and abroad. We’ve written about Brazil as a challenge to local soybean farmers in Illinois and the Midwest.

In the past year or so we’ve done several stories about the Olympics, including visits to cities like Barcelona and Sydney to explain how the Games affected those cities and what lessons they might hold for Chicago.

With all due respect to Dick and the Journal Sentinel, there is simply no comparison between our work and that of any other Midwestern news organization, in terms of volume, quality, or its ability to explain global issues to a local audience in ways both large and small. And that is only one dimension of the work of our foreign correspondents, who every day explain issues of vital importance to people across the nation, not just in our region.

I use stories like theirs in my j-school class too, because they’re examples of the kind of nuanced reporting you get only by putting good people on the ground and letting them develop the deep knowledge and understanding that cannot be matched by even the best parachute journalists.

I very much appreciate Dick’s comments that there’s no substitute for having foreign correspondents on the scene. I agree wholeheartedly.

FURTHER UPDATE: And here's Longworth's response to Luft:

Kerry Luft is right on both his main points. First, what the Journal-Sentinel is doing can be a model for those papers -- the overwhelming majority of papers, especially in the Midwest -- which don't have foreign correspondents based overseas and are unlikely to get them. My letter to the West Coast journalist looking for tips on how to cover the world was written for this specific purpose.Second, as I said in that letter, there is no substitute for having foreign correspondents, for all the reasons Kerry lists. A paper like the Trib with superior correspondents, and good leadership from the foreign desk back home, will always do the superior job, and I have a terrific admiration for Kerry and his staff. But in this era when most papers are cheaping out global news with the excuse that readers can always go to the Trib or the Times, the Journal-Sentinel is thinking hard about how to fill that middle ground between committed day-by-day coverage and no coverage at all. The Trib does try to link foreign news to other Midwestern places -- see Mike Oneal's piece on Cummings in India-- but a reader who wants to know, on a regular basis, how globaliaqtion and global affairs are affecting non-Chicago cities like Milwaukee has only one place to go, and that's a local paper like the Journal-Sentinel. Too few are meeting this responsibility.

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