Finding local stories in national and international news isn’t always easy. But many big stories have local angles, and the news organizations that make the effort can tell important local stories that the community will be talking about.
The local people with personal ties to these stories don’t appear in the places you routinely find news: You won’t hear these stories on the scanner or see them on agendas or police blotters. But they are the biggest news of the day, sometimes the biggest of the year, in small circles of your community. And you often can learn of the stories with a few calls or social media inquiries. And the stories are worth the effort.
This post was prompted by Howard Owens. In an argument on Twitter yesterday that was mostly about other matters, Howard made this statement:
@stevebuttry Localizing is a bullshit act of journalism. If it doesn’t really have a local angle, move on.
— Howard B. Owens (@howardowens) May 21, 2016
I knew that Howard’s statement was bullshit because for five years, a major part of my job was localizing national stories, and it was important work in other jobs as well. Localizing big stories produced lots of good stories for my newspapers, with lots of real local angles. But good localizing isn’t always easy, and some journalists or news organizations move on too quickly, missing good stories.
Before I explain how to localize national stories, I’ll concede one thing: If an editor or reporter insists on localizing every national story or a particular story that doesn’t have an authentic local angle, yes that would be a bullshit act of journalism. Reflexively adding a paragraph or two that essentially says “this trend is happening in Ourtown too” is shallow and lazy journalism. If that’s what “localizing” means to Howard or to you, we agree that’s usually not a good use of a journalist’s time.
And if you’re a low-hanging-fruit newsroom that doesn’t have time to seek out stories that aren’t in the usual places, perhaps localizing distant stories won’t work for you either. But you’ll be missing some great stories.
The bullshit is not in the attempt to seek a local angle, but in suspending news judgment in pursuit of any story. Editors and reporters (usually not the good ones) try stupid things in pursuit of breaking news, meeting coverage, holiday stories and routine daily coverage. But those are all staples of community news, the genre not tainted by occasional poor execution. Localizing bigger stories works exactly the same.
But finding interesting local stories that are timely now because of their connections to world or national news is almost always a worthy story. Because the local story often isn’t immediately evident in the areas you usually look for news, someone following Howard’s advice might move on too quickly, missing the real local angle.
I spent five years as the “national correspondent” for the Omaha World-Herald, from 2000 to 2005. We defined my job as primarily pursuing the local angles of national stories and providing national context to local stories.
As national and regional editor for the Kansas City Times and later the Kansas City Star in the late 1980s and 1990, my staff did that a lot. Our Washington bureau covered the Missouri and Kansas delegations in Congress and covered other Washington news that mattered most to our hometown audience. In effect, they localized Washington news as their full-time job.
The statehouse bureaus in Jefferson City and Topeka covered state government and political news in a similar way, but a bit closer to home. Important legislation that would affect all of the state dominated their work. But they paid special attention to local delegations and legislation addressing local issues, so our coverage differed, in its localization, from reporting by the Associated Press or newspapers in St. Louis, Wichita or Topeka.
National and regional correspondents on my staff in Kansas City worked similarly to how I would later work in Omaha, often finding important or interesting local angles to national stories.
I also was a senior reporter for the World-Herald from 1993 to 1998, and reported several national angles during that time (and failed to persuade my editors to pursue them in a case I’ll detail later).
In my first hitch at the Des Moines Register, when it was a statewide newspaper, we found strong Iowa-angle stories so frequently, we joked an Iowan or former Iowan was involved in nearly story wherever it happened. And often our reporters proved the joke true and found great stories. Or at least good ones. (For example, a staff member found a former Iowan who was nearby the night John Lennon was murdered in New York.)
In all these experiences, I learned that local angles to bigger stories are plentiful and that looking for them isn’t always easy but is usually worth the effort.
A point I should address here is that size of the story, size of your community and size of your staff all make a difference in pursuing and finding local connections.
Howard is publisher of The Batavian, a news site covering Batavia, N.Y. Howard’s wife, Billie, is the editor, and in looking through the site’s stories over the last week or so, they were the only local bylines I saw, though I did see an ad for freelance reporters to help with local news coverage. When I worked in Omaha and Kansas City, each newsroom had dozens of reporters. Certainly a bigger staff can devote more staff time to pursuing local connections to national news. A smaller staff might have to devote its attention to easier news.
Similarly, Batavia’s population is about 15,000, and Omaha and Kansas City are both 30 times as large, a difference that gets much larger if you count the full metro population of either area. So, however big the story is, Omaha and Kansas City are far more likely to have connections than Batavia or other smaller cities. However, my staff and I found many good local angles to national stories when I was working in Shenandoah, Iowa, which was less than half the size of Batavia, or Minot, N.D., about twice as large as Batavia.
The size of the story matters, too. As I noted to Howard Saturday, practically every community had ties to the events of 9/11 (and he correctly noted that such a huge story doesn’t necessarily illustrate the value of generally localizing national stories).
@stevebuttry 9/11 is a total outlier event and a poor example.
— Howard B. Owens (@howardowens) May 21, 2016
@stevebuttry But that happens once every 50 years at most, to have an event of that magnitude.
— Howard B. Owens (@howardowens) May 21, 2016
The smaller stories that are just the big national story of the week or year aren’t going to produce as strong stories every time or for every community. But they produce enough good stories often enough to be worth the effort.
Finding the local story
Here are some tips for localizing stories:
Check university ties
A local college or university has experts on national and international topics as well as exchange students from nations that might be in the news and study-abroad programs that take local students into countries that might be in the news.
After 9/11, covering the work of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha became a major focus of my work. I reported on an earlier visit to Omaha by Taliban leaders; about a former ambassador on the UNO faculty who had visited on Sept. 10, 2001, with the exiled Afghan king; about publishing school textbooks for new Afghan schools; about Afghan teachers visiting Omaha.
It’s unusual to hit that kind of mother lode of local angles, and I’ve already noted how huge a story 9/11 was. You’re more likely to get a quick-hit interview with a professor who’s an expert on a country in the news or a Skype interview with students traveling in or near the hot-spot. You might be able to find connections at the local university by searching its website and/or checking with the public relations office.
Check military connections
A military base also might have units deployed abroad and people who have been stationed in countries in the news. Or individual troops from your community might be involved in a military story.
Check for volunteers
Your local Red Cross or Salvation Army might be sending volunteers to assist in disaster relief (I will explain later about finding volunteers for both organizations from our coverage area in Oklahoma City after the 1995 bombing). Or local religious groups might be helping victims of a distant disaster.
When a disastrous mudslide hit Venezuela in December 1999, it seemed like a distant story. But when I learned that a mission group of 60 people from one of Des Moines’ largest churches would be helping in disaster relief, suddenly it was a local story, and I talked my editors into sending me along.
Check business connections
A large local company might have national experts in some of the topics related to its business. When I was an agribusiness reporter in Kansas City, I found the international vice president of Farmland Industries to have helpful perspectives and connections.
A good way to search for local experts and connections is to use LinkedIn’s advanced people search engine. You can localize searches, entering a country’s name or a topic, and quickly find people whose resumés list experience in that country or expertise in the topic. Again, a quick call to a public-relations person might help you find the local person whose perspective or experience is newsworthy.
A travel agency might also help you connect with local people who are abroad on business or vacation in a place that’s suddenly in the news (though online travel booking has made this a less-helpful source than it was in my reporting days).
Check with international adoption groups
International adoption groups might be able to help you connect with local couples trying to adopt children from a country in the news. I blogged in 2010 about the story of my niece, Mandy Poulter, and her husband, Matt, bringing their adopted daughter, Maya, home from Haiti after the 2010 earthquake that devastated that island country. The adoption process had already been completed, so Mandy and Matt were just waiting for Maya’s visa to bring her home when the earthquake hit.
Local media in Iowa, where they live, caught up with the story, but it was a national organization, ABC News, that broke and drove the story, reporting on Mandy and Matt’s attempts to find out if Maya was safe, finding Maya safe at her orphanage and eventually helping reunite the parents with their daughter. The U.S. Embassy provided an emergency visa and Maya made it home to Iowa a week after the earthquake. It was a genuine, riveting Iowa angle to a faraway disaster story. (Robin Roberts of “Good Morning America” last year called it her favorite story as part of GMA’s 40-year anniversary celebration.)
Similarly, when Mandy’s sister, Missy Rock, and her husband, Andrew, were seeking to bring an adopted daughter home from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, ESPNW beat local media to that story (the parents were former star athletes).
Missy flew back from Congo through the Brussels Airport, just a couple weeks before the terrorist attack on the airport. Missy and her mother (who accompanied her on the trip) would have made a good close-call story for their hometown media when the airport was attacked, but I don’t see any sign that local media in either community made the connection.
Check with immigrant or refugee communities
Many communities have pockets of immigrants and refugees from other countries. News from and about those homelands can produce interesting local stories.
The story of the Lost Boys of Sudan was a big international story when the world learned of their escape from war-plagued villages in Southern Sudan. Then it was a big national story when the United States agreed to resettle a large number of the boys (see the movie The Good Lie for more of the story). But it was a local story for Omaha because our city had one of the largest Sudanese refugee populations in the country and a large number of the Lost Boys would be resettled in Omaha.
I reported on the Lost Boys’ resettlement, and that led to other strong local stories: about efforts to help Omaha’s refugee community; about women and children adapting faster than men to our nations’ different standards for domestic violence, and calling police when husbands and fathers administered what would have been considered acceptable “discipline” back home; about arranged marriages of girls who were too young to marry legally in Nebraska.
Check out local impact of national stories
The Boston Globe’s famed “Spotlight” investigation of sexual abuse by priests opened the floodgates for reporting by newsrooms around the world about sexual abuse in their communities, and whether local church authorities covered up the crimes the same way that the Boston archdiocese did.
I had investigated a case of a pedophile priest in 1998 in the Omaha archdiocese, but it didn’t bring out complaints about other priests the way the national scandal emanating from Boston did four years later. I wrote lots of stories about other priests after the Boston scandal broke.
Much of my work as religion reporter for the Des Moines Register from 1998 to 2000 included coverage of local churches’ involvement in national struggles over whether churches should ordain and/or marry gays and lesbians. It was a national controversy, but local religious figures were activists on both sides. Iowa churches and religious conferences were divided over the issue, and I covered it extensively.
Many national stories play out in each community, providing powerful local stories.
Check out local involvement in events elsewhere
Howard tweeted disdain Saturday for a hypothetical story happening just a half-hour away from Batavia:
@stevebuttry We have a joke around here, the Pope gets shot in Medina. I don’t care. Fender bender on Main Street, all over it.
— Howard B. Owens (@howardowens) May 21, 2016
But actually, even a peaceful visit of the pope to a nearby town would be a huge event for your community. Batavia has two Catholic churches that I can see with a quick online search, and I guarantee you they would send busloads of parishioners to Medina, or any other nearby town, if the pope were to visit. That’s the biggest story of the year for a whole lot of people in your town, and if you don’t send a reporter on the bus with them, you’re at least going to have them call you from the Mass and send their photos, etc.
When Pope John Paul II visited St. Louis in 1999, hundreds of Iowans headed south to join the throngs at a youth rally in a basketball arena and a public Mass in a football arena. I connected in advance with a bunch of the Iowans and went along to cover their participation in both events. It was a huge local event that just happened to take place 300 miles away.
I should note that my perusal of recent stories in The Batavian included a press release with an example of a localized national story, about a local Gulf War veteran marching in the American Veterans Center’s National Memorial Day Parade in Washington. Some organizations are sophisticated enough to call these local angles to the attention of national media with localized press releases. But sometimes you need to seek them out yourself.
Data can help localize a story
When Bill Clinton was trying to start a national conversation on race in 1997, I used local, state and national data to show how different life was, in nearly every respect, for black and white people in Omaha, Iowa, Nebraska and nationally. That story would be much easier today with much of the data you’d need readily available online.
If a university, think tank, interest group or larger media organization publishes a study of state or national data on a topic such as crime, housing, health or pollution, check for local breakdowns of the data. Whether you access the same data for your own analysis or just quote the local statistics from the other organization’s analysis, you can provide the local facts and interview local experts in the topic. Of course, attribute where you found the information.
Ask your community
Crowdsourcing can help you make these local connections to distant stories. On your website, social media and/or legacy products, you can ask whether anyone knows of local people affected by a national issue or local people traveling in or with connections to a place in the news. Even if a particular appeal doesn’t work, repeated queries let your readers or viewers know that you care about their connections to distant news. Maybe they will call or email when the next big story breaks and they do have a connection.
Oklahoma City bombing
My coverage of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and the execution of Timothy McVeigh in 2001 underscored for me that big national stories have interesting local angles for news organizations that pursue them vigorously, even if you don’t know yet what they are. Here’s what I wrote last year, reflecting on lessons learned from my 10 years at the World-Herald (it was a largely positive post and a largely positive experience, despite the critical tone of this section):
The editors balked when I suggested we cover the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building. Oklahoma and Nebraska were close enough and connected enough, I said right away, that the story would have lots of local angles. I was sure we would have victims with Nebraska ties, Nebraskans helping in relief and rescue efforts and lots of stories no one else would be doing. And on the days when we didn’t turn up a local story, we could crank out the main story.
The editors wouldn’t send me. They didn’t see any local angle immediately, and we were not a confident enough newsroom to just send a good reporter after a good story (an almost instinctive reaction in the Des Moines and Kansas City newsrooms). My Omaha editors specifically said they didn’t want to just “duplicate the wires.” I said I wouldn’t do that. I’d work on local stories that the wires wouldn’t be doing, and I’d beat the wires on some stories. But they wouldn’t send me. At least not right away.
A few days after the blast, the first local angle surfaced: When Timothy McVeigh rented the truck that he used for the bomb, he gave an Omaha address. That was enough of an angle to send photojournalist Phil Johnson and me on the road to Junction City, Kan., where the truck had been rented. But there we were just going to be duplicating the wires and playing catch-up (when we might have been able to break the Omaha angle if we’d been working the story from the first).
As Phil and I drove to Junction City, we heard on the radio that Terry Nichols, who was being sought as an accomplice to McVeigh, had surrendered to the FBI in Herington, Kan., a half-hour south of Junction City. We changed plans and headed to Herington, figuring we could check out Junction City the next day.
Of course, Herington was crawling with reporters, exactly the “duplicate the wires” scenario my editors didn’t want. So Phil and I did something investigative reporters always encourage: We zigged when the others were zagging. Nichols was in the sheriff’s office being interviewed by the FBI. The crowd of reporters (and quite a few townspeople) gathered outside the sheriff’s office would all get the same story and photos, and we could get that from the wires.
So Phil and I wandered around town to learn who Nichols was. We found the real estate agent and insurance agent who had recently sold him a home and its insurance. Neither had been interviewed by other reporters yet (unlike the Nichols neighbors we had interviewed). We learned from the pair a fascinating fact (which we reported before any other media, to my knowledge) that revealed the depth of Nichols’ government hatred: The mortgage for his house was held up for a while because he claimed not to have a Social Security number (that wasn’t true). He told them he didn’t believe in Social Security or in registering with the government. Anyway, we didn’t have a Nebraska angle that day, but we did beat the competition on an important angle to the national story. While we got a story out of the next day’s visit to Junction City, it wasn’t much.
But by then, a story had surfaced that a man matching McVeigh’s description had been seen in an Omaha federal building a few weeks earlier, asking for the offices of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (a federal agency demonized by white supremacists). That report apparently was untrue, but it was enough to prompt my editors to send me down to Oklahoma City, nearly a week after the blast.
It was tougher by then to develop relationships with local officials, who were weary of dealing with the horde of reporters who had descended on the community. And my editors let me stay only a few days. But I did get some local angles: Interviews with people from our area who had flown down to Oklahoma City to help as Red Cross and Salvation Army volunteers and with a former Nebraskan who had an appointment later that morning at the federal building and narrowly missed being killed.
I returned to Omaha after a few days, and urged my editors to let me continue covering the local angles to the bombing story. They said no, and I moved on to other stories.
When I was doing some workshops in Oklahoma City in 2001, I visited the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum (a moving experience) and bought a book about the victims. As I read about their lives, I found several Nebraska angles, touching and tragic stories that we should have told in 1995 and the years since. I told some of them, even though they were old, using the peg of the approaching McVeigh execution.
More on Howard Owens and me
I’ve cited Howard Owens here on multiple occasions before today. We’ve argued over whether you can collaborate with competitors and over what was newspapers’ “original sin” in the digital age and agreeing with him about paywalls and whether to spell the opening sentence of a news story lede or lead (it’s lead). I’ve credited (you might say blamed) Howard with getting me started on Twitter.
When I hear someone lament that no one has proved that local online news can succeed, I point out that Howard has been succeeding in local online news in Batavia for eight years now. He’s a great model to follow for local news entrepreneurs (and one of many who are succeeding), even if we disagree about localizing stories.
We also disagree about data journalism, which was the primary topic of our argument on Twitter, but I didn’t decide to blog about that.
Interested in a workshop?
If you’d like a workshop or webinar for your organization, on localizing stories or one of the many other topics I teach, contact me at stephenbuttry (at) gmail (dot) com.