the news frontier

Bringing a Big Story Home at The Omaha World-Herald

Local reporting in the age of wire copy
July 29, 2010

Most regional papers have relied on wire copy to tell the story of the 92,000 classified military documents released by WikiLeaks. The Omaha World-Herald, weekday circulation around 150,000, has been one of the few mid-sized outlets to supplement and advance the story with original reporting.

On Tuesday, Matthew Hansen, the World-Herald’s military reporter, wrote a story that touched on the civilian casualty reports within the documents. On Wednesday, D.C. bureau reporter Joseph Morton broke an exclusive interview with Nebraska senator Ben Nelson, who told Morton that whoever leaked the documents “is a traitor and should be tried for treason.” The discussions that went on behind the scenes at the World-Herald reveal why localization is so important, especially for a story as complex and media-noisy as this one.

Monday morning, as media outlets everywhere wrestled with how to get a handle on the story, the World-Herald’s editors decided to focus on the documents’ revelations of civilian casualties, rather than on the suspected ties between Pakistani spies and Taliban insurgents.

“The consensus was that the Pakistan angle was interesting, but that the civilian casualties thing hadn’t been covered as much, and that it might be more interesting to our readers who might not follow the geopolitical stuff related to Afghanistan and Pakistan,” said reporter Matthew Hansen, who wrote the story for Tuesday’s paper.

Executive editor Mike Reilly called Hansen’s story “a half a click off the news”—an issue-based piece to supplement the wires. “We took one of the main themes of the initial report, civilian casualties, and developed a story that we didn’t think we could count on getting from the wires, which was more about the dilemma of trying to fight wars like this when your enemy is part of the civilian population, disappears into it, and reemerges,” Reilly said.

The sheer scope of the WikiLeaks story played a part in that decision, as well. “We knew that was a compelling issue for our readers, and we knew we could do a good story on that without reading hundreds of pages of documents in four hours and then trying to say something intelligent about them,” said Reilly.

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Hansen noted that Nebraska has had, per capita, a proportionately high number of casualties in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and so war coverage touches their readership in a very direct way.

“Omaha is a military town, there’s a big Air Force base here,” Hansen said. “There’s also a Center for Afghanistan Studies here, at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, so we have access to experts who are actually Omahans…so you don’t necessarily have to call a D.C. think tank for some of these stories.”

For the lede of Tuesday’s big story, “Leaks Fuel Civilian Casualty Debate,” Hansen turned to one such source:

Raheem Yaseer didn’t need the release of nearly 92,000 classified documents to tell him that Afghans tend to turn against the American war effort when one of their friends, relatives or co-workers is accidentally killed by coalition troops.

Yaseer, the assistant director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, hears the stories whenever he travels to Kabul.

Stories of coalition forces bombarding a village in Helmand province — trying to kill the Taliban responsible for attacking a military convoy — and accidentally killing a dozen villagers instead.

Stories of Afghans who drove too close to a Humvee, or drove too fast toward a military checkpoint, and found themselves under fire.

“It’s actually improving, but it’s very difficult to repair past mistakes,” said Yaseer, a former Kabul University professor who fled to the United States during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

“These kind of mistakes, when repeated over and over and over … The resentment gets stronger. You feel, every day, a little bit more added to their cynicism.”

Reilly said he thinks of the paper as primarily a local and regional one, but it is still important to present their own take on larger, national stories. The same wire copy is available to every news source, so the World-Herald feels it has to distinguish its coverage with a unique slant whenever possible. While stories from outlets like the AP and McClatchy are an enormous resource, no one knows their local audience better than their own newsroom reporters.

“Frequently we find the day’s news a little wanting in terms of having enough context so that people will really understand the significance of these things.” Reilly said. “So some of what we do is just to bring together disparate pieces to bring context to these stories.”

The World-Herald editors know how important national news coverage is to their readers—because the readers told them so. A few years ago, Reilly said, they ran a survey asking their audience what topics they cared the most about. The results of the survey encouraged them to keep allocating staff time to national stories. The World-Herald still has a full time staff reporter based in Washington, D.C. Joseph Morton, who was recently elected president of the Regional Reporters Association, has been in the Washington bureau for about four years.

“I don’t think there’s any question that the ranks of regional reporters here in Washington have been dwindling over the years,” Morton said. “At the same time, I do know of examples where the newer technology has allowed some papers to put someone back in Washington where they didn’t have one for a while…with a Verizon air card and a laptop, they can work out of the press galley of the Capitol, or a coffee shop, or wherever.”

Morton agrees with his colleagues that it is important to maintain a physical presence in Washington. For one thing, he hears about important policy changes sooner than he would sitting at a desk in Omaha. And he wouldn’t be able to chase people down hallways for a quote if he were back in Omaha, either.

Being on the Hill every day allows Morton’s readers to have a connection to the national policy decisions that will affect them—in some ways that are unique to Nebraska residents, and other ways that are more universal.

“Most Omahans think of themselves as Americans before they think of themselves as Omahans,” said executive editor Reilly. “And in all of the obvious ways the world is getting smaller. So it’s important to us that we always look for ways to bring the world home.”

Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner