Bucking the trend



WFYI-Plus DT 20.3

(Brighthouse 119, Comcast 242)

10:30 p.m. weeknights

You hear all the time about how news organizations are cutting back, closing overseas bureaus and devoting less time to international news.

What does that mean to you? Less information to help you make informed decisions about an ever-shrinking, interrelated world.

PBS, however, is bucking that trend with a new nightly news show called Worldfocus, which will feature what former NBC and CNN reporter, Martin Savidge, calls, “compelling stories gleaned and gathered from all around the world brought back to Americans in a way that really matters.”

The half-hour nightly program will team with TV and print organizations worldwide – from The New York Times to NHK in Japan to Palestinian TV – as well as a half-dozen of its own correspondents to cover stories that American TV networks most likely wouldn’t or couldn’t touch.

“We will make foreign news seem less foreign to Americans,” Savidge said by phone from his New York office during a mid-September interview. “We will answer the question: What do these stories mean to our American audience? We can say why the rebel attacks that intensified this week on the oil infrastructure in Nigeria are something you need to be aware of – because Nigeria is the fourth-largest oil supplier to the United States. We get 10 percent of our oil every day from that country. And if somebody over there is messing with that supply, it’s going to have a direct impact on what you pay for a gallon of gas. We try to do that in every story.”

Here’s more of the conversation:

NUVO: You’re getting to do important reporting for a network that doesn’t worry much about ratings. Do you now wake up in the morning and say, “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth”?

Savidge: Yes, I do. I don’t want to say that I don’t care about ratings; we still obviously care who watches, how many people watch and why they watch. But I’m proud of the product we’re turning out every day in rehearsals. We have an outstanding product that will stand up against any international newscast you can find. It’s exciting to be part of a new program. It’s exciting to be part of this staff. It is a refreshing change from the world of commercial television. There is a certain sanity here, a stateliness. And I don’t find the egos quite as large. In fact, I haven’t bumped into any at all. The focus is on the product, not on the politics.

NUVO: What’s a typical story and how will it be reported?

Savidge: Today, we’re doing the continuing saga of the world markets and the reaction to the moves the U.S. government is making to reassure investors. I think what will make it different is, traditionally news organizations here in America would go to their correspondent – an American in London or an American in Beijing. This is a person who is either stationed there or has been inserted there to report the story. We go to people who live there, who have been working there for decades, covering that region of the world. And we talk to people who are from that part of the world. Nobody knows the story better than the locals.

On top of giving tremendous insight, they also give you a different perspective. It’s a different pair of eyes looking at a story we’ve seen thousands of times before. But this time, we’re seeing it from the experience of somebody who has lived it in a different part of the world.

Sometimes, that will be controversial -- when you see stories, say, from the Middle East. I think we wanted to have a story from Palestinian TV, which is essentially Hamas, on the election of Tzipi Livni, who may become the second female prime minister of Israel. (She was elected after this interview occurred.) That’s controversial, obviously, but a fascinating perspective. We will set it up and say Hamas has an ax to grind and you have to understand the viewpoint here, but it is a form of reporting you would not get anywhere else.

We did a story on hunger in Iraq, and it’s a very moving piece. It was done by one of the Iraqi television stations, on people scavenging for food in the garbage dumps. This is the kind of story you would rarely see on domestic news, and it’s told from a region of the world where it’s happening, which adds a wealth of value.

NUVO: You have the “what it means to the viewer” aspect of the story. Will you also have a “what can I do to help” component?

Savidge: We have our web site, worldfocus.org. There, we have set up international bloggers all around the world. We want to open up a dialogue that you can’t have on television. People can communicate to us, and if people are interested in following up, the web site is our posting place to say here’s where you can reach out if you want to reach out.

The greatest service we can provide is by informing you of these problems – and it’s not always going to be problems – if it motivates you, that’s wonderful. We want to stir something inside you. We don’t necessarily always offer solutions, but with the web site, we do offer the opportunity to start a dialogue. We can respond to questions, we can respond to ideas.

NUVO: What are the two or three most underreported world news stories right now?

Savidge: This isn’t a story, it’s a region, but Africa is hugely overlooked. We’re working on a story on the impact of the economic downturn on Africa. A lot of the people who are suffering – whether it be institutions or private investors – are so focused on their own losses that they are less likely to contribute to organizations and funds that benefit Africa. And Africa knows this, and they’re already bracing for how they’re going to deal with the tremendous human needs they have if money is cut back.

South and Central America are almost invisible to Americans. We have a story from Nicaragua, a tremendously poor nation that still suffers severely from hurricanes. Mitch killed thousands there. They can’t throw money into solutions, so they came up with this network of women shortwave radio operators. They go out and measure the river depths in their neighborhood. They report on the weather and they communicate with one another. So the information is disseminated that way. Very low cost, very low tech, but apparently very effective. It’s a wonderful story that was done by (Germany’s) Deutsche Welle, and you wouldn’t see that anywhere else.

NUVO: Do you have a sense that Americans don’t care about the rest of the world?

Savidge: That was always the argument when I worked at NBC, and it was even somewhat an argument when I worked at CNN, at least on the domestic side. 9/11 changed that somewhat because we realized that how the rest of the world thinks about us is not only important but can impact our safety and our security. I think there was an upsurge in people wanting to know more about the world.

With the passage of time and the wearing down of the war, Americans might have fallen somewhat from that. But I think Americans are interested. It just needs to be told well. I don’t think American networks have done a very good job of telling. They don’t tell the stories in compelling ways. They don’t make the connection: Here’s how it affects you. It’s all in the telling. It’s in the bringing it back so people can understand.

NUVO: You’ve reported from Vietnam, Russia, the Middle East, among other places. Do you feel qualified to be vice president?

Savidge: (Laughs) I am happy in this role, to try to serve as a conduit of information. The vice presidency is not something in my mind.


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