Guest Post by Steve Buttry
(Steve is a long-time journalist who teaches at the Louisiana State University Manship School of Mass Communication. You can follow his blog, The Buttry Diary)
Finding local stories in national and international news isn’t always easy. But many big stories have local angles, and news organizations that make the effort can tell important local stories that the community will be talking about.
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.
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 miss good stories by moving on too quickly.
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, you can easily miss the real local angle.
I spent five years as the “national correspondent” for the Omaha World-Herald. 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, 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.
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 when 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.
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. 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.
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 nation’s 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 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
Of course, it’s a huge story if the pope visits your community. But even a visit to a community in your region will be the biggest story of the year for a whole lot of people in your town, who will travel by bus or car to see the pope. If you don’t send a reporter on the bus with them, at least 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.
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.