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How do you dig your way into an international story sitting in Topeka?

By Randall Smith


U.S. nuts in China

Educate yourself so you can cover the impact of international business on your market.


The headlines are rapid fire.

A British oil rig blows up in the gulf on April 20, killing 11 workers. The Greek government, which has hidden years of overspending, sets off a European financial crisis. North Korea torpedoes a South Korean navy ship, killing 46 innocent sailors.

So far this year, we’ve faced a possible war in Asia, an environmental disaster of record proportions and the potential for a second round of economic hardships. These international events are occurring at a time when the American press, in a financial crisis of its own, is devoting less attention to the world.

“We ignore international news at our own peril,” says John Schidlovsky, director of the International Reporting Project at Johns Hopkins University. “What happens 10,000 miles away can affect our community today, tomorrow and next week, in good ways and bad.”

So how can we, as business journalists, be ready to tell the international story that’s exploding on our front doorsteps?  How can we, sitting in Topeka or Toledo, place events in context when there are limited funds to travel and to learn?

In short order: Ask good questions. Think about international stories in the context of your community. Take advantage of free training and travel that, surprisingly, is available in these difficult times.

Start by asking these questions to academics, industry experts and hometown businesses:

  • What trends and events do you see overseas that might impact the businesses in your community?
  • What foreign companies are doing business locally, either through outsourcing or through direct ownership?
  • What is government doing to attract jobs from overseas?

When I first started my reporting career in the 1970s, I worked for a medium-sized paper in western South Carolina.  The state was proud of its low wages, and the economy was three-tier: agriculture, textiles and all of military pork that the late Senator Strom Thurmond could pump into the state from Washington D.C.

I met many people, including local leaders, who had worked their entire lives in a cotton mill – just like their parents and grandparents.
But the economy changed dramatically when the French and Germans arrived.

Michelin, the giant French tire maker, offered higher pay and better jobs, and eventually located its North American headquarters in Greenville. BMW, the German luxury car manufacturer, followed in 1994 with a large assembly plant. This June, BMW proudly announced the production of the millionth X5 at the Spartanburg facility.

One of many reasons behind the German and French invasion: The state invested in two-year trade schools to change the dynamic of its workforce.
When I began my job, there was not one college graduate on the city council. When I left about five years later, everything had changed. All of the new council had graduated from college and a couple of them had doctorates.

Fast forward to today.  At my last job in the Midwest, senior management dealt regularly with several foreign operations. Our press was built in Germany, and we spent a year with a German team as they installed it. Some of the financial work was done in India, and it wasn’t unusual to see executives from that company.  And newsroom software was developed in Denmark, and we sometimes dealt with engineers there.  My former company isn’t that unusual.

Look, too, at the trade offices that are in your city. I was amazed, for example, when I first discovered large delegations of Taiwanese who would came to the Midwest in the late summer. They would work their way, along with other foreign trade groups, from the Dakotas to Oklahoma, buying wheat to feed their countries every year.

Another helpful tip comes from Eleanor Bloxham, who is the CEO of the Value Alliance and Corporate Governance Alliance. She writes regularly for Fortune and other business magazines, and is a voracious reader.

She says that she watches Europe for trends that may reach America. One unexpected wave, she says, is gender balance on boards of directors, a big issue now in Scandinavia. Another is the restriction of CEO pay, which is a movement in Great Britain.

A larger change is on the horizon, she said. The upcoming generation is much more savvy because so many have studied abroad.  Indeed, U.S. students are studying overseas at rate that’s four fold of 20 years ago, according to the Institute of International Education. What’s more, there are notable increases, according to IIE, in these diverse destinations: China, Ireland, Austria, India (all up about 20 percent), as well as Argentina, Costa Rica, Japan and South Africa, which are up nearly 15 percent.

Add this to the equation: Thanks to the Internet, my son is as likely to play a video game with someone in France as he is a classmate down the block.
In short, there are lots of international story leads in our local universities.

Another way to dig your way into an international story, advises Bloxham, is to ask the question that nobody else is asking. In a recent column for Fortune on the BP oil spill, she raised an important point: Why didn’t BP’s corporate culture allow for a whistleblower?

In past crises, such as the explosion of the space shuttle, there have always been workers who have noticed something is wrong but have been stifled by culture, she writes. What can company executives do to encourage employees to step forward? In addition to asking good questions, we’ve got to think community context. If the car beat was important to my city, one story that’s fascinating is the next generation of transportation.

In particular, where will the lithium come from for the batteries for our electric cars?

Bolivia, which has 50 percent of the world’s known reserves, could become the next Saudia Arabia. Chile will not be far behind, and Afghanistan has important deposits. Competitors for these resources, including China, are already at the doorsteps in some of these countries.

What does this mean for General Motors?  What does that mean for your city?

An important way to gain perspective on these issues is to travel and report overseas. In 2007, I went on a ten-day trip to North Korea and South Korea that was sponsored by the International Reporting Project. See www.internationalreportingproject.org.

The program’s core mission, says Schidlovsky, is to increase the American public’s understanding of global issues by providing opportunities to U.S. journalists to report overseas. In the past 12 years, 330 U.S. journalists have received grants from IRP to report from more than 90 countries around the world, with a strong emphasis on the developing world.

As North Korea moved towards implosion this spring, there were a dozen of us who could write authoritatively about the situation because we had been there.
I encourage you to check out IRP and apply for one of their upcoming fellowships.

And, finally, will America suffer a double dip recession?

My answer is to closely watch how Europe handles its economic crisis this summer. Greece was not the only country that was overspending its budget. As we know now, many in the EU were doing much the same thing. Now, they must cut their budgets and that includes social programs. For many in Europe, retirement will be put off beyond age 65.

Just as the American recession spread to European shores in 2008, the EU’s handling of this year’s crisis will instantly be reflected in our markets and economy.

We’re in this together.

Randall Smith is the Reynolds Endowed Chair in Business Journalism at the University of Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia.

In Biz Journalism Professors, Career tips, Featured, Networking.

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