FEBRUARY 18, 2005

The Local, the Global, and the Journalist In Between: Doug McGill

By Jay Rosen
Chairman, Department of Journalism, New York University

"We have freedom of speech and freedom of the press in this country," he says. "Much more easily, cheaply, and safely than ever before, we have the ability to export and share these precious freedoms via web-based journalism." It works. McGill uncovered a genocide this way.

Doug McGill--the former New York Times reporter, now a blogger and journalism thinker--wrote "The Fading Mystique of an Objective Press" for PressThink back in October. Now he has a new weblog, Local Man: Global Journalism, named for an idea he has been developing.

Over the years and before September 11th, I went to any number of foundation-funded meetings about how to get more Americans interested in international affairs-- and news from abroad. After each one I thought: why do we always wind up at the same, miserably obvious places, like "find the local angle on international news," and "Americans don't realize the stake they have in global problems." Ugh.

McGill has a better idea than anything we conferencers ever came up with: "glocal journalism," which he also calls "worldplace journalism." He got the term glocal from Tom Friedman's best-seller, The Lexus and the Olive Tree. He got worldplace from a college student's site, World Beyond Borders. The names aside, he means weaving a global narrative from local thread.

"The idea of glocal or worldplace news is that every place on earth is connected by strands of mutual influence, interdependence, and direct causality," McGill writes in a manifesto style essay. "Because the geographical distances are so great, say between Rochester, MN and Brooklyn, NY and Warsaw, Poland, it's often easy not to see those connections. But those connections are there."

That every place on earth is connected, invisibly but not unknowably, is a vaguely spiritual idea. (McGill: "For me it's by far the most important part.") The job of the glocal reporter is to investigate and write about the "invisible strands of mutual influence" connecting town to globe, or one place to another place halfway across the world. Those connections are what the reporter "tries to make visible, to bring into public light and public life."

Now all this would be just another abstraction were it not for the fact that it works. By doing glocal-style reporting in Southeast Minnesota, Doug McGill discovered a wave genocidal killings in Ethiopia; and he was then able to alert the world. This kind of reporting is one of the highest achievements in journalism, and it can be credited to his blog, The McGill Report, where the initial account appeared: "U.S. Anuak Refugees Fear 400 Dead in Ethiopian Massacre." (Dec. 22, 2003.) The Post Bulletin, the local newspaper, also ran many of his articles on the killings.
At 1 p.m. on the afternoon of Dec. 13, more than 200 uniformed soldiers of the Ethiopian army marched into the town of Gambella in remote western Ethiopia, near the border with Sudan.

The soldiers spread out through the town and knocked on the doors of the houses and huts made from corrugated steel and straw matting. Some of the soldiers had pieces of paper with addresses and names. If no one answered their knocks, the soldiers broke down the doors and grabbed all the men and boys inside the house, looking under beds for anyone hiding.

Once the frightened prisoners were in the street, the soldiers beat them with their guns and then told them to run. When they did, the prisoners were shot in their backs. Meanwhile, civilians in town from a different ethnic group than the victims appeared wielding spears and machetes.

" I am going crazy right now," said Romeago, a Minneapolis resident whose sister's home was burned down. "My sister and her kids ran for their lives into the bush. We have no idea if they are safe. We are just praying."

" The world's largest diaspora population of Anuak, whose tribe is being viciously ethnically cleansed, live in southern Minnesota," he told me in recounting the story. "I started just by interviewing them. They told me their family members were being gunned down every day by uniformed Ethiopian troops. I went to Ethiopia, Sudan, and Kenya to check out their claims. They checked out. And that's what I wrote."

The articles he wrote about the ethnic cleansing in Ethiopia put pressure on the Ethiopian government, on agencies like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and also on the U.S. government. They all began to recognize what happened to the Anuak (who are largely Christian.) The US Embassy is now demanding that the government of Ethiopia punish those responsible for ethnic cleansing of the Anuak. McGill expects a genocide case will be filed soon against the Ethiopian government at the International Criminal Court.

It started, according to The McGill Report, when "hundreds of Anuak refugees living in Minnesota reported receiving frantic telephone calls from their relatives living in Gambella state in Ethiopia." A local story. McGill heard about it. He interviewed the relatives of survivors who had witnessed the killings. They became his eyes and ears on the ground in Ethiopia. He became their link to the Internet, and to the possibility of world attention. This is how he explained it to me:

Over the phone connections, Anuak in Minnesota were able to know what what happening virtually minute-by-minute during the massacre of December 13, the single day when more than 425 Anuak were killed by uniformed Ethiopian soldiers. Indeed, many of those Anuak men who were killed that day were actually on the telephone with their friends and relatives in Minnesota when they were attacked by the soldiers, dragged into the street, and shot. Then I, in turn, was able to get nearly firsthand accounts from the Anuak in Minnesota who had had those conversations. In one case, only days after the massacre, I got on the telephone myself and interviewed an eyewitness.

Even in a remote African village, electronics were sufficiently present to link that village to the Internet-- first via the cell phones, and via my Internet connection to the global Anuak diaspora community, the Washinton community, and the world. Many Anuak say that for many years similar killings--and even worse--have happened to their tribe. But no one outside of their village prior to this massacre had ever heard about them and so no outrage and international pressure was ever succesfully brought against the killers. And my point is, the cell phone-to-internet connection made it possible, linking a genocide in remote Africa to a reporter in southern Minnesota.

And that's glocal journalism. Sitting with knowledgeable immigrants in Minnesota (who are connected by cell phone to Africa), McGill is better able to report on this kind of massacre than a correspondent in Addis Ababa, the capital. The Anuak are unlikely to have any voice there. But the Web works around that situation. "The first day I wrote a major story about the Anuak situation, I got 75 e-mails from Anuak who are living all around the world."

So it's partly about the civil liberties taken for granted in a place like Rochester. McGill speaks of putting them in motion. "We have freedom of speech and freedom of the press in this country," he said. "Much more easily, cheaply, and safely than ever before, we have the ability to export and share these precious freedoms via Web-based journalism."

In this case, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and his entire government have felt the pressure of the free press more acutely than ever. It didn't happen to be the free press in Ethiopia--where there is none--but that didn't matter in the end. Freedom is freedom. It gets around and it does its work, especially if journalists give it a chance.
McGill's new blog, Local Man, is mainly for journalists interested in practicing glocal journalism, or who want to incorporate a global view into more of their reporting. "I will interview people on that single topic, as you do with folks on more general blogging and journalism topics," he told me. "And I will try to collect the best glocal pieces from American journalism that are published every day and week -- grab them, link them, cite them, critique them."

He's also starting a second blog with a different idea-- picking up where the local newspaper leaves off. The Daily V, named for a geese formation seen in the skies over Rochester, "will be a site open to any citizen of southeast Minnesota who wants to publish an article or item of interest that the local newspaper, the Rochester Post-Bulletin, is not covering sufficiently." Instead of a watch blog criticizing the local newspaper's coverage, it addresses the omissions:

I have been to plenty of public affairs programs in Rochester where, during the Q&A, people get up and say "Why doesn't the Post Bulletin write anything about this?" It is very commonly asked by parents who want to know more about what goes on in Rochester's K-12 schools, for example. In recent months, at these public affairs programs, I have heard people say "I am so frustrated with the Post Bulletin, I am going to start a web site myself." But I haven't actually seen anybody start one yet, certainly no journalist has made the effort. So now I will.

That one, which hasn't debuted, he plans mostly to edit. Both projects have well-defined audiences and a clear value proposition, which McGill sees as crucial to succeeding with a citizen journalism blog. "If you want to get people to read your blog, you have to offer them real value, which means reporting," he says. "Tell them useful stuff they didn't know before."

I find interesting McGill's evolution away from Newsroom Joe attitudes, which he absorbed in the course of his career.

" At some point as a Times reporter, I got tired of always carrying on like I knew everything, of cultivating that phony 'know it all' tone of writing. The Times being the Times, reporters and editors there have a really serious case of this. Even the copykids at the Times think they are helping solve the world's problems every day. I certainly did. And it's an incredibly worthy and self-sacrificing goal. But it can also become surreal.

"The know-it-all voice has been exposed for what it is, a facade. The corporate powers will now try to regroup and co-opt. But individual journalists have the chance to step out courageously and try something new."

Individual journalists have the chance... Peggy Noonan made the same point yesterday in her Wall Street Journal love letter to bloggers, which was also a shrewd piece of writing. "Some brilliant rising young reporter with a growing reputation at the Times or Newsweek or Post is going to quit, go into the blogging business, start The Daily Joe, get someone to give him a guaranteed ad for two years, and become a journalistic force," she speculated. "His motive will be influence." His method will be excellence.

Yes, but influence and excellence for what? Glocal journalism isn't really a technique. It's the beginning of an answer to that question. McGill sums it 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 view.

And if you have share it, I'm sure Doug McGill would love to hear from you, so as to make a few more connections.

Permalink: http://journalism.nyu.edu/pubzone/weblogs/pressthink/2005/02/18/mcg_glcl.html