How to Glocalize Your Local Newspaper
A Speech to the IPI/Poynter Institute
“Reporting Home the World” on Thursday, May 8, 2003
Tonight I'm going to talk about
something called "glocalizing international news."
subject is dear to my heart. After 9/11 I found myself sitting
in front of my computer in Rochester, MN, 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
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 “glocalized 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
I call this the “glocalized style.” I got the word "glocal" from
Tom Friedman's 1999 book, "The Lexus and the Olive Tree,"
in which he defined "glocalism" as the ability to "assimilate aspects
of globalization into your country and culture in a way that adds
to your growth and diversity, without overwhelming it."
translated successfully to the newspaper business, the glocalized
style is notable for the way it debunks a cliché of
the newspaper business, which is that readers are not interested
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 glocalized 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
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.
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
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
Indeed, Bennett experienced a glorious moment of epiphany
about this while covering, as it happened, the gory murder
of a prostitute in
“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
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
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
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 “glocalized journalism” which can be written from any
place on this earth.
The practice of glocalized journalism doesn’t generate
new kinds of stories so much as it changes how traditional
Glocalized 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 glocalized city hall story, a glocalized crime story,
sports story, a glocalized feature on buying a home. You get
a glocalized 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
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
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
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
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
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.
Glocalized journalism really doesn’t at all require that
we become some kind of cosmopolitan smarty-pants or know-it-all
We just need to become better journalists.
So what is glocalized journalism? Let me sum up.
Glocalized 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.
Glocal journalism exposes the local effects of global causes,
the local reactions to global actions, the local opportunities
of global trends, the local threats of global dangers, and the local
love of global neighbors.
Glocalized journalism is not a policy. It’s a point of
Glocalized journalism does not require a commitment to
running lots of stories with different geographical datelines.
a commitment to writing stories from a single cosmopolitan perspective.
Glocalized 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,
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
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
in southern China each year and spreads from there around the
world. A story about a local medal-winning weightlifter
that the world record for weightlifting is held by an Iranian,
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,
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 glocal style, your newspaper can read with
exactly that kind of deliciousness – seasoned with the
brilliant spices and
the wisdom of the world -- every day.
Copyright @ 2003 The McGill