The new paper trail

By Richard C. Longworth

Paper is in the Midwestern news these days — specifically the paper grown, pulped, and produced from forests and mills in states like Wisconsin and Minnesota. Most of this news, alas, isn't good, because it describes a once mighty industry under assault from digital technology and (like so many other Midwestern industries) China.

If there's a silver lining here, it's that some of this paper is going to put out newspapers like the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Neither paper is immune to the financial problems plaguing the American press, but both still employ first-rate reporters and are willing to give them the time, money, and space to do stories on the economic forces transforming the economies of their states.

The most ambitious of the two is a two-part series, entitled "Paper Cuts," by John Schmid, a veteran foreign correspondent now bringing an international viewpoint to the Journal-Sentinel newsroom. The Journal-Sentinel doesn't station correspondents overseas, but it's very aware that Milwaukee and Wisconsin are part of the global economy and wants to send reporters like Schmid out into that economy, to give readers back home an understanding of what's happening to their lives.

Schmid's reporting took him from the forest and mills of northern Wisconsin to the eucalyptus forests and mills of Hainan, a tropical province in southern China, where modern science and government subsidies are enabling the Chinese to turn out high-quality paper and sell it in the US for less than locally-made paper costs. The arrangement seems to violate world trade laws but, as Schmid reports, more Wisconsin mills may be bankrupt by the time the case is settled.

In Minneapolis, a rising young business and economics reporter named Adam Belz turned out his own three-part series for the Star-Tribune on the decline and possible survival of forestry and paper-making in Minnesota. If Belz, unlike Schmid, stayed in Minnesota, he still went where the trees are grown, talked with loggers and paper-makers and got the story.

The Journal-Sentinel series was enhanced by some terrific graphics: this is a newsroom that knows a good story when it sees one and can use both words and pictures to bring it home.

But it had some outside help, and this help is another silver lining in the generally grim picture of American journalism. Schmid and a photographer traveled on a grant from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, a Washington-based organisation that funds ambitious and expensive projects for papers that once scattered reporters across the globe and which struggle today to keep their newsrooms going.

Among other projects, Pulitzer helped the Des Moines Register send reporter Phil Brasher to Africa for a fine series on biotechnology in African agriculture — a hot topic for farm-and-bio-focused Iowa readers.

No one really knows where American journalism, especially foreign reporting, is going, but this sort of collaboration between a newspaper and a non-profit center is part of this future. Once newspapers kept everything — financing, reporting, editing — under tight control in their newsrooms. This included the decision on what stories to cover.

The Internet, the Web and, especially, the calamitous decline in classified advertising have changed all that. Not that the Journal-Sentinel has outsourced its integrity and news judgement. But it can no longer do what it needs to do without some help from deep-pocketed friends like the Pulitzer Center.

Doesn't this give organisations like the Center too much power? Perhaps, in the same sense that foundations like the MacArthur Foundation play a big role in deciding which parts of civil society get funded. But these funds and foundations are conscious of this power and, for the most part, lean over backwards to exercise it responsibly.

Pulitzer can do this because its employs former mainstream journalists who themselves know a good story, know the importance of foreign coverage and are themselves part of the wrenching changes in newsrooms. One key Pulitzer staffer, for instance, is Tom Hundley, who was chief foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune when that newspaper had a foreign staff, who got caught in the downsizing that accompanied the death of that staff, who still believes that Americans — especially Midwesterners — need to know what's going on in the world, and makes it his mission to see that reporters like John Schmid do this vital work.

Which is why Schmid found himself in Hainan, and why Wisconsin readers now understand the global forces that are changing their lives. It's not a journalistic world that old-time correspondents would recognise but it may be a glimpse to a new and evolving world of global news-gathering.

This post was originally published by The Midwesterner

2 January 2013