Big World Reporting from a Small-Town Shop

When The Boston Globe announced in January that it was closing its remaining overseas bureaus, a shudder passed through those of us who believe vigorous foreign coverage by American news organizations is a key — and endangered — component of a free press.

In February, Jeffrey Dvorkin, executive director of the Committee for Concerned Journalists, asked: “If there are fewer good regional or local reporters assigned overseas,
where will the next generation of Anthony Shadids come from?”

Shadid wrote for the Globe until he went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting at The Washington Post in 2004.

How about the Valley News in Lebanon, N.H.?

You can stop Googling now. There’s no foreign bureau at my shop, a 16,500-circulation daily that covers the New Hampshire and Vermont communities clustered around Dartmouth College. But recently, we published a three-part series on a group of local teenagers who traveled with their teacher to Rwanda to spend time with some teens orphaned by AIDS.
 
The series was produced not by a wire reporter or an Africa-based stringer, but by Valley News staff writer Sonia Scherr.

Her work, I think, highlights one way small news organizations can help fill the growing void of foreign coverage and write stories that combine a local focus with global reach.

In November, Scherr came to me to talk, with palpable excitement, about some students from two local high schools who planned to travel to Rwanda. The students had raised money for a program called Project Independence that helps Rwandan teens orphaned by AIDS develop the financial skills to support themselves and their families. Taking their involvement a step further, the students decided to visit some of the program’s participants at their homes in East Africa.

The Valley News is a healthy community newspaper, and the family that owns it is generous in providing the resources needed for serious journalism, but a $2,500 trip to Rwanda seemed like too much.

“I’d be delighted to send you,” I told her. “But how are we going to pay for it?”

Within a week, Scherr had come back — with a grin.

She had discovered the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, an independent division of the World Security Institute, established last year to sponsor “the independent reporting that media organizations are increasingly less willing to undertake on their own.”

I talked to Jon Sawyer, who founded the center when the Pulitzer family sold the St. Louis Post-Dispatch at the beginning of 2006. The family used some of the money from the sale to bankroll the sort of correspondence that was rapidly becoming a memory at all but the biggest American news organizations. Sawyer, a long-time foreign correspondent and 31-year Post-Dispatch veteran, became the center’s director.

Since its establishment, the Pulitzer Center had largely funded freelance reporting that appeared in newspapers such as the Post-Dispatch, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. But Sawyer said he was intrigued by the idea of a staff writer from a small newspaper chasing a local story overseas.

Within days, Scherr had her ticket to Africa.

The Valley News series introduced readers to Rwandan teens building job and life skills. Just as importantly, it chronicled the American students’ emotional and intellectual effort to come to terms with the gulf between their lives in comfortable, rural America and those of their Rwandan counterparts. The stories appeared in the newspaper and online, at the Web sites of the Valley News and the Pulitzer Center.
 
Thanks to the Pulitzer Center, the stories reached a national audience as well as our local one. The center produced a short video documentary for Foreign Exchange, a public television program that reaches 70 percent of the American market. The video was also featured on the Pulitzer Center’s YouTube channel.
 
We weren’t, of course, the first small paper to undertake a foreign project.

The Tribune, a 25,000-circulation newspaper in Greeley, Colo., for instance, sent a reporter and its chief photographer to Ethiopia for six weeks in 2005. The pair documented the reporter’s father’s trip home after coming to the United States as a political refuge two decades earlier. The same reporter returned to Africa later than year on a National Association of Black Journalists fellowship to cover Liberia’s presidential election.

“Foreign reporting in this country traditionally has focused on diplomatic, military and government affairs and to a lesser extent on broader societal trends,” says Jim Fox, my Valley News colleague who edited Scherr’s stories. “With increased travel and global integration, more Americans are making direct, person-to-person contacts all over the world, and small papers might be able to do a service to their readers by documenting these contacts at home and, where financially possible, abroad.”

There is a potential pitfall to looking outside your newsroom for funding — independence.

Happily, that wasn’t an issue for us. The Pulitzer Center has impeccable journalistic credentials. And Sawyer agreed from the start that Valley News editors would have complete editorial control over the stories that appeared in our newspaper and on our Web site.

But what if a pharmaceutical giant hoping for happy news about its AIDS drug program offered to pay for our reporter to travel to Africa? Even if the corporate sugar daddy promised not to interfere with our journalism, I would say no rather than raise a legitimate question in readers’ minds about whose interests we were aiming to serve.

Let’s be honest: One trip to Rwanda is no substitute for foreign bureaus like the ones recently shut down by the Globe. While reporting from the Globe’s Africa bureau in recent years, for instance, staff writer John Donnelly turned his interest in AIDS and other global health issues into many strong stories. As the ranks of such full-time foreign correspondents thin, so inevitably will the range of stories.

But with organizations like the Pulitzer Center willing to lend a hand, there’s no reason individual papers — even small ones — can’t do their part.

Give Sawyer a call.

You might be surprised to find out where your newsroom can go.

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