Washington, Moscow, Beijing and other global capitals may be datelines most commonly associated with global journalism. And yet for more than 500 international journalists, another capital city, St. Paul, has had an outsized influence on their worldview. That’s because for 50 years many have come to Macalester College, and now the University of St. Thomas, as fellows at the World Press Institute.
The WPI, a private nonprofit organization funded by foundations, media organizations, corporations and individuals, annually gathers nine or 10 journalists for nine weeks of study and travel within Minnesota and throughout America, including newsrooms at the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, CNN and beyond, as well as visits to Congress, Google and other influential institutions.
This weekend, 39 WPI alumni returned for the WPI’s 50th Anniversary Celebration. Seminars are scheduled, and among the speakers are National Public Radio correspondent Kelly McEvers and James Fallows, a national correspondent for the Atlantic (and WPI board member). At an alumni reception Thursday, some international journalists shared their thoughts on the WPI’s influence on their journalistic careers, as well as on journalism itself.
“The WPI was really the turning point in my life,” said Hu Shuli, editor of the Caixin Media Group who arrived from China in 1987. And what a life it has been. Hu was described as an “incurable muckraker” in a 2009 New Yorker profile. “The WPI was a very special opportunity to not only understand the world beyond China, but also the diversity of the U.S. and the perspective of the international community. I think it totally changed my view about the world. I got to see the whole elephant — through his nose, his tail, everything.”
Often the Minnesota portion of this elephant gets translated back home. “We were walking and talking ambassadors based on our experience and time here,” said London-based media relations strategist Michael Pirrie, who came from Australia to be a 1987 WPI fellow.
The diverse perspectives are partly a result of the journalists experiencing similar events through different eyes. “Every year the life of the fellows could become a novel,” Hu said.
She wasn’t directly referencing Ian McDonald, a WPI pioneer from 1963. But she could have been. The Scot saw the ’60s narrative arc up close. On the day of the JFK assassination, Harry Morgan, who then led the WPI, “borrowed an old DC-3 from 3M, so that night I was able to bluff my way into the White House. So I was there when Jackie came back with the body,” he recalled.
McDonald spent months reporting on the appalling Appalachian poverty that partly inspired JFK’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, to declare the War on Poverty. Later, he toured the United States and ended up covering the 1964 Republican National Convention in San Francisco, where Barry Goldwater — the godfather of the conservative movement that was partly a response to LBJ’s Great Society — was nominated.
Things weren’t mundane in Minnesota, either. McDonald’s host family was Wheelock Whitney, who ran against Sen. Eugene McCarthy in 1964. “I got to understand American politics in a way that journalists based just in Washington don’t get,” McDonald said. “The WPI gave my career tremendous impact.”
He also met his wife here. “What more could I want?” he said, smiling.
What most will want is for the WPI to continue to influence global journalists and journalism — and maybe even home countries.
“The WPI raised two or three generations of journalists and exported journalistic techniques and knowledge throughout the world,” said Pirrie.
He cited the affect that investigative journalism had on his generation of journalists, not just in post-Watergate America, but globally. For Kaius Niemi, senior editor-in-chief of Helsingin Sanomat newspaper and WPI board member who came from Finland in 2003, post-9/11 crisis journalism, as well as data-driven reporting, were durable journalism dynamics.
Technological transformations have changed media, and thus journalism. And yet the WPI alumni think that even in the new media era, old-school, on-the-ground reporting is more important than ever.
“Everything is changing in terms of platforms and mediums, but the key thing that will always be central to good journalism is content and accurate information that informs, inspires and educates people to the sort of experiences and the sorts of institutions that the WPI does,” said Pirrie.
“Content is king,” agreed Niemi, who added that even with social media having much more international influence, there is no substitute for “really feeling it for yourself.”
And then it’s important to share it back home.
“You’re seeing American culture and political life and [seeing] democracy in action,” said Pirrie. “You can’t help but go back to your own country and then compare the same sort of way of operating with what’s happening with freedom of expression, freedom of the press, how they stack up in your own country. That in itself becomes a catalyst for change.”
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.