"Worldplace" Reporting in American Journalism

By Doug McGill
The McGill Report

ROCHESTER, MN -- A growing movement in American journalism, of which this column is a part, is trying to illuminate for readers the connections between their local communities and the international world.

I once called this trend "glocalizing," using a term coined by Thomas Friedman's in his paean to globalization, "The Lexus and the Olive Tree." But I'm now using another word -- "worldplace" -- borrowed from another brilliant thinker about our interconnected world, Jane Shevtsov, a UCLA student who started the website "World Beyond Borders."

The idea of worldplace news is that every place on earth is connected by strands of mutual influence, interdependence, and direct causality. Because the geographical distances are so great, say between Rochester, MN and Brooklyn, NY and Warsaw, Poland, it's easy not to see those connections. But those connections are there, and together they make up not only one's place, but one's worldplace.

The job of the worldplace reporter is to investigate and to write about his worldplace. The invisible strands of mutual influence connecting his place to the world, are his subject. They are what he tries to make visible, to bring into public light and public life.

Although the word itself is still new, the practice has been growing in journalism in recent years, mostly among individual reporters, editors, and bloggers who have taken on this type of writing and reporting as a personal project.

But the rise of worldplace reporting also has some powerful economic and social trends behind it. Economic globalization is making interdependence of global labor and consumer markets more important every day, right down to the kitchen table level. So has America's heightened international presence after 9/11. And so has the deterioration of America's reputation in the world following the invasion of Iraq.

Three fourths of Americans say the U.S. should share leadership in the world, as opposed to 11 percent who say that the U.S. should be the single world leader, according to a recent Pew Research Center Poll. And 66 percent say that the U.S. is less respected in the world than it was in the past, and this is a serious national security issue.

Those statistics show that Americans have a strong sense of America, and of their own communities, as worldplaces.

In the Global Rochester column, I try to show how trends like economic globalization, immigration and global political events, such as the Iraq War and the end of the Cold War, have had strong ripple effects that touch every retail shop, every farm, every home, every office and every classroom in southeastern Minnesota.

All around the country, local newspapers are doing the same thing.

"Local news is the whole franchise for a local newspaper because it's the one piece of the spectrum that they can own," says Chris Peck, editor of the Memphis Commercial Appeal. "But the definition of local news is changing and becoming more global. It's where the newspaper industry is headed."

Blurred Boundaries

When Memphis recently celebrated the 26th anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley, Peck didn't treat it as a local story.

"Elvis is not just a Memphis story, he's a global story," he said. "People from all over the world traveled here to pay homage." On a smaller scale, Peck recently wrote an article about buying a table at a local store and then, finding that one of its drawers didn't work, having to wait for six weeks while his order for a replacement was shipped all the way to China.

Worldplace reporting at community newspapers is developing naturally as the distinction between local and international news becomes increasingly blurred.

The biggest worldplace newspaper section is at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where a staff of six reporters and an editor puts out a regular Wednesday section called Atlanta and the World. One recent story explained the challenges faced by Latinos and Asians trying to buy homes in Atlanta; another told how Georgia catfish farmers had helped push a federal law severely limiting Vietnamese catfish exports to the United States.

In Manhattan, Kansas, the Manhattan Mercury treats the two largest local employers, the Fort Riley army base and Kansas State University, not as local industries but rather as the locally based global industries they are.

"Iraq is a local story for us," said Ed Seaton, editor-in-chief of the Manhattan Mercury. The paper has a reporter still embedded with the First Armored Division, out of Fort Riley, who writes about soldiers from the local community who are serving in Iraq. The base has sent 4,000 local men and women to Iraq and plans to shortly send 4,000 more.

A Post-9/11 Trend

The Mercury newsroom has a computer database used by reporters for quick access to local news sources, such as KSU professors with international specialties, who can illuminate local-global ties in stories appearing in all sections of the newspaper.

The devastation of 9-11, wrought by foreign invaders on U.S. shores, was a turning point in the movement to glocalize news in community newspapers.

"It proved how people who are anti-American in far parts of the world can have an impact right here in our back yard," said Ed Jones, editor of the Free Lance-Star of Fredericksburg, Va. "That's caused a much greater sensitivity in the public at large to the importance of local-global connections."

As president of a major journalism professional group, the Associated Press  Managing Editors, Jones has launched two programs to help community newspapers find new ways to glocalize coverage. One program puts local editors together with foreign correspondents and international editors of the Associated Press  in brainstorming sessions. Another offers overseas travel to grants to writing projects that "connect local mindsets to global events."

Copyright @ 2003 The McGill Report