short takes

Global Village

Are regional columnists under pressure to think locally?
July 20, 2009

Let’s not call this a trend. Not yet, please. In April, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the paper that championed civil rights in the South in the 1950s and ’60s, announced that it was moving Cynthia Tucker, its Pulitzer-winning columnist and editorial page director, to Washington and replacing most of its editorial board.

It became clear, too, that national and international issues would no longer be a priority on the paper’s op-ed pages. “We have moved to a different kind of editorial that’s much more about community issues and less about, ‘let me opine on national issues,’” editor Julia Wallace told The New York Times.

It’s a stunning development, and one I fear is contagious: this notion that regional newspapers—and the AJC has been among the best nationwide—should reflect only local concerns. If ever columnists could help to make sense of the world, it is now, as papers continue to shrink news holes for national and international coverage.

Increasingly though, regional columnists tell me they feel pressure to eschew the bigger picture. Readers, their editors insist, want locally focused columns. But pretending the rest of the world doesn’t exist does not make it so, and we shouldn’t enshrine this myopia. World news is local news, and a columnist can expand readers’ sight lines to see that what happens in China affects them too. We learn that lesson repeatedly here in Ohio, which has lost over 250,000 manufacturing jobs and ranks fifth among states in war deaths. Few here would argue that the two wars, and trade policies with China, are someone else’s problems.

As a columnist at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and with my editor’s blessing, I address both tipping policies at local restaurants and civil rights protests in Pakistan. But ever more, I feel the need to tip the balance toward national and international news as our paper culls such coverage. Last year, for example, we failed to publish a news story about—or even point readers to—New York Times reporter David Barstow’s astonishing story about the Pentagon’s behind-the-scenes manipulation of network and cable news coverage of the Iraq war: Pentagon-coached former military officers masquerading on air as independent observers, and failing to mention ties to military contractors profiting from the very policies they were asked to evaluate. I weighed in, noting that newspapers had frequently quoted from these interviews and published op-eds by some of these men.

Why did this story matter at the local level? Most Americans get most of their news from TV, and Barstow’s story, which won a Pulitzer this year, was a jarring reminder of the perils of that dependency. I received hundreds of calls and e-mails from readers thanking me for discussing it; many had read about it for the first time in my column.

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Like most journalists today, many newspaper columnists fear losing their jobs, and so some spoke cautiously, or off the record. Most said they feel pressure—self-imposed or from editors—to emphasize local issues. Others mentioned treading a middle ground.

“I understand the paper wanting to serve up local news and flavor to our readers,” Buffalo News columnist Charity Vogel said via e-mail. When writing about national issues, she said, “I do readers a service by ‘bringing them home.’”

Addressing the AIG bailout, for example, Vogel contrasted executives’ excesses on the taxpayers’ dime to many of her readers’ daily lives: “Your tax dollars went to a spa that charges $350 for a 60-minute ‘Mediterranean harmony’ massage—while you are struggling to meet the mortgage so you can keep a roof over your kids’ heads.” The column got a lot of response from Buffalo residents outraged over corporate waste.

Such columns illustrate the value of regional columnists weighing in on the big issues of the day, argues David Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has resisted hyper-local coverage at his paper, particularly by his columnists. “When the columnist has an expertise or point of view that comes out of living in Pittsburgh but is relevant to what is happening nationally, I want that perspective,” he told me. “And our readers know our writers better than they know Tom Friedman or Maureen Dowd. They trust our columnists to provide context.”

For years, Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts has withstood occasional pressure from editors to narrow his focus. “That attitude that ‘it only matters if it happens in my town’ doesn’t work for me, as a columnist or as a person,” Pitts said to me. “I don’t care if it happens in Miami or Cleveland or Kalamazoo, if it interests me, I’m going to write about it.” He added, “It’s about putting the pieces together, making sense of it all.”

As newspapers’ coverage of the world shrinks, the informed columnist will become more valuable. We don’t live in a vacuum, and if we fail to draw connections to events beyond our county lines, we fail our readers in their roles as global citizens.

Many columnists say readers aren’t asking for such a limited worldview. When asked how many readers have complained that he doesn’t write enough about local issues, Pitts’s answer was swift, unequivocal: “Not one. Not ever. Editors sometimes complain, but I’ve never heard that from a reader.”

Connie Schultz is a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 2005.