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posted: 12/12/2013 1:04 PM

Giving world news a suburban context

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Sometimes world news is just world news.

That's not an easy thing to acknowledge for a local newspaper doing battle every day with two of the biggest metros in the country. And the truth is not exactly what the phrase suggests. But there are times -- and the death of South African icon Nelson Mandela is one of them -- when the global story must be told primarily, if not entirely, in its global context to be understood locally.

A line in Ron Howard's 1994 movie "The Paper" depicts some of the mental workings of editors of local newspapers, when the foreign editor of the locally focused city upstart describes her top stories during the morning news meeting: "Terrorists blew up a restaurant in Paris, killing five. None from New York," she drones. "Ferryboat capsized in the Philippines, drowning 300. None from New York. There was a violent coup in Bahrain. None from New York! Witnessed -- Witnessed by two people from Long Island."

In National Lampoon's classic 1980s newspaper parody, the mythical Dacron, Ohio, Republican-Democrat carries the theme to an even more ridiculous, but sometimes uncomfortably proximate extreme. Its main headline blares "TWO DACRON WOMEN FEARED MISSING IN VOLCANIC DISASTER" and is followed by the much smaller subhead "Japan Destroyed."

It is practically a given in our newsroom that anytime something major happens almost anywhere in the world, someone from the Daily Herald circulation area will have a connection. We consider finding that connection to be one of our natural roles. Sometimes, though, that connection is purely personal for every reader, not geographic.

Don't get me wrong. We would welcome the opportunity to tell the story of a suburban resident who had met or worked with Nelson Mandela or perhaps even had worked in some capacity related to the fight against apartheid in South Africa. This is what people do, it's what friends or family do, whenever something major happens. We talk of the circumstances in which we met a participant or visited the affected part of the world. We tell what we've heard from family or neighbors or friends or even friends of friends who may have had a direct contact. It's one of the ways in which we all connect with the world and with each other. And it can enhance some general understanding of a person or event. But it ought not, indeed it cannot, diminish the larger meaning of something or someone who is larger than life.

So it is that -- noticeably unlike our front-page play on Wednesday of another bit of world news, the injury keeping Naperville native and figure skating legend Evan Lysacek out of the Olympics spotlight -- our reporting on the death of Nelson Mandela has not had a strong specific suburban connection, no resident or former resident of a suburban community who worked with him, met him once or knew someone who did. Our coverage has focused on the man himself and the reactions around the world to his passing.

Is that a suggestion that he had no particular influence on the suburbs? To the contrary, it has emphasized a wide range of his characteristics that are as important in the suburbs today as anywhere in the world at any time in history -- empathy, forgiveness, collaboration, justice, dignity, unity.

These are important traits not just to South Africans or to understanding the historical struggles against apartheid. They apply equally to suburban readers in everything from understanding the workings of our own complex national, state and local politics to helping us each as individuals better steer our lives in our own rapidly diversifying communities.

As President Barack Obama said in his eulogy on Tuesday, Mandela's example can lead every person to ask, regardless of his or her heritage or circumstance, "How well have I applied his lessons in my own life?" Our primary job, then, has been to describe Mandela's experience and the world's reaction to it in ways that help suburban readers put this larger-than-life figure into a context everyone can understand and identify with.

We may yet report direct local connections, but for this story and all others like it, their value will be to supplement the lessons of an event that is, well, not exactly "just" world news.

• Jim Slusher,, is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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