Like it or not, the definition of local news has changed.
As many stories in American cities become inextricably bound to events in Afghanistan, Iraq or Mexico, local news becomes more difficult to master and more expensive to gather. But without the commitment to do it right, local news becomes shallower--and more expendable to readers.
When I was editor of the Denver Post, this truth was established vividly and permanently in the days following September 11, 2001.
The AJR article about the Post (see "The Next Level," December/January) showcased the traditional debate about whether international reporting is a realistic and appropriate pursuit for regional or local newspapers. That includes the Post, which then had a daily circulation of more than 300,000, a staff of about 240 and a newsroom budget of more than $24 million. Since the Post's aggressiveness in this area expanded dramatically after September 11, I'm sharing the history lessons that might help some of us decide our roles in the future.
Within minutes of completing our 9/11 Extra edition, the Post's newsroom leaders huddled to decide what to do next. We knew, instinctively, that this story would propel our staff literally around the world. Part of this had to do with our ambition to become a great regional newspaper. Too bad that 9/11 happened in an awful year for newsroom budgets. We'd just have to manage. This was the story of our times. We could not wait for the next one. But the sharper focus was in refusing to leave it up to the wires to answer Colorado readers' questions.
So we adopted this mantra, repeated often over the next several months: "No story is more local than the one that changes every one of our readers' lives."
The events of 9/11 did just that. Some were changed by what they saw and the victims they knew. Some were changed by their faltering economic fortunes. Or by new travel restrictions. Or by new priorities that altered relationships with family, or faith. Or by their preparations for war. Or by a need to know more about neighborhoods in their midst and nations far away.
Some editors and reporters who had been at the Denver Post for a while, conditioned to expect a frugal approach, needed assurance about costly coverage plans. I had to say only once that our readers had urgent questions and we were going to answer them, no matter how far we had to travel to make that possible.
Soon, we had nine journalists in New York, three in Washington and two in Pakistan. The number of staff overseas soon became four, then, briefly, six and eight. Our roving regional essayist, Ron Franscell, reported on war perspectives from throughout the Rocky Mountain West, and later accompanied American troops abroad.
Along the way, we had to contend with those inside and outside our newsroom who were skeptical about our decision to do whatever was required to get the story right. They made a couple of major points:
The Post staff hadn't much experience in foreign news. We had only a handful of staffers with extensive international experience, and all but one were recent hires. But Assistant Managing Editor Larry Price, a Pulitzer-winning photojournalist who had worked in about 140 countries, prepared our staff headed abroad. Before 9/11, how many American newspapers had reporters and photographers expert on Afghanistan and Pakistan? Within a few months, the number of Post staff with overseas experience was close to 20.
What could the Post do that the wires couldn't? In the end, the wires still produced most of our overseas coverage. But we feared they wouldn't give us precisely what we wanted, on our timetable. And we were right.
Colorado angles were never a major reason for going, nor a priority once on the ground. We did end up with several (about troops from the state, about a Colorado-based company that had a prominent role in Uzbekistan), but those were hardly the main event. Rather, we focused on the questions of Colorado readers--for the most part, the questions for readers everywhere, but some focused on local economic conditions, local security, local preparedness for war.
Our instinct not to leave it to the wires proved sound. We would have ended up with later, and lesser, answers to some of these questions. For instance, we traveled to Israel for two stories only after several weeks of being frustrated that we had not seen them on the wires. We wanted to know what Americans could learn from citizens who lived under the constant threat of terrorism, and how Israeli officials were dealing with the possibility that Israel would be a bargaining chip in an American-brokered coalition against Middle East terrorists.
Once overseas, we could address new questions as quickly as they took shape. For instance, recall that the rout of the Taliban took awhile to develop, then was rapid once it began. Right away, we asked the question: What is it like to have a country with no government? No laws? No currency? And we ended up with a fascinating A1 piece by Trent Seibert from an empty jail in Jalalabad. All that was left was one guard. Some of the released inmates had been political prisoners. But others were murderers and rapists now free to roam at will.
Proximity gave us stories we could not have anticipated. For instance, Gwen Florio's stories about Razia, an Afghan widow who had lost her husband in the factional fighting that led to the rise of the Taliban, then her children to an orphanage when she could no longer afford to feed them after U.S. bombings destroyed the Kabul bakery where she worked. When Razia regained work after many months, she reunited with all but one of her children. Karl Gehring told the moving story of Hakima, the young daughter who decided that life in an orphanage was so much better than at home.
In a season of newsroom budget cuts, we found about $1 million for travel, overtime and newshole for 9/11-related coverage. That money could have been used to hire an assistant managing editor for features, upgrade Web site software and devote newshole to new initiatives. We postponed all these things, and more. But we were repaid in many ways:
Enterprise reporting. We elevated what readers--and our staff--came to expect from the Denver Post. Multilayered stories, combining local events with regional, national or global context, became commonplace. This was a potent addition to the Post's renewed commitment to investigative reporting.
Recruitment. Raising standards has a way of attracting talent. In two-and-a-half years, the paper filled more than 60 vacancies with top-drawer talent from large papers across the country, many of them outside the former typical hunting grounds of the Post. In the process, the paper increased minority staffing from about 10.5 percent to 17.5 percent at a time when industry progress was flat.
Technology. The satellite phones we purchased for photographers overseas completed our conversion to a completely digital photo department--part of a technological revolution that brought a new front-end system to the newsroom and PCs and Internet access to every reporter.
The Post can count many important accomplishments today because it dared to think bigger about its place in the world.
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