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Get away, Guardian

December 6, 2009

On Monday morning, 56 newspapers in 45 countries publish a coordinated editorial calling for action on climate change. This is obviously a good and heartwarming thing. That major newspapers in Europe, Asia, Africa and North and South America understand climate change to be maybe the cause of our time, and so take this unprecedented step, is good.

But of course, this wouldn’t be much of a blog post if I didn’t have reservations. Not so much about what the editorial says, but about such a coordinated effort in the first place. For starters, this was orchestrated by the Guardian, which doesn’t have a good record of meddling in other countries’ affairs. But more importantly, I think it misunderstands not only the value of newspapers, but fundamentals of campaigning and communications.

Newspapers are local institutions. Whether they are covering City Hall or war a world away, they do so with their community in mind. Or that was the idea, any way. The internet has been rapidly cutting this away over the past few years. This makes obvious business sense – the Palookaville Herald can attract more readers if it writes less about Palookaville – but it’s a huge loss for the Palookas.

But in going this route, news media have found it increasingly impossible to differentiate themselves from all the other local media who have done the same thing. This is one of the (many) things that has been killing off local papers across the US. They’re losing their local readers, but can’t attract enough non-locals.

I would have hoped that, in order to save themselves, newspapers would go back to basics. Remember what they were founded to do, remember their audience, and serve them best. But if this editorial is any indication, they are going the exact opposite route, and I don’t see how they can continue to survive if they do.

The world doesn’t need 56 newspapers all saying the same thing at the same time. With all news online, we only need one newspaper to do that. What the world could definitely use is hundreds of newspapers arguing the same basic points, but framing the argument in local terms. It’s a fundamental of any kind of advocacy writing – remember your audience. What’s persuasive in Dhaka is probably not going to change minds in Miami. Which is fine. That’s how it should be! I don’t see the merit of ignoring it for a journalistic stunt.

Or is the argument that the audience isn’t people, but politicians? International pressure might up the ante a bit – or it might not at all – but the point still stands. Do South African politicians really care about Jamaican editorials? Didn’t think so.

You could make the argument that climate change is a global problem and requires a global response. You’d be right, and you’ll no doubt be very pleased to know there’s a conference coming up in a few days to do just that. But newspapers are not governments, they are not the UN. They inform the communities they serve. If they want to help turn the tide against climate change, they need to sell it to their own readers.

The editorial is an impressive feat, and it would be lovely if it signalled new global cooperation. But I’m not convinced it was the best use of anyone’s time.

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