Reporter finds third-world news lurking in mid-American towns

Jack Hamilton had for some time wanted to prove to newspaper editors in mid-America that economic and political development in the third world is a good news story in their towns. Last month he got his chance.

Taking a temporary absence from his job as a World Bank public relations official, Mr. Hamilton recently reported for work at the American, a newspaper with a daily circulation of 25,000 in the Mississippi town of Hattiesburg.

His temporary assignment: Find the links between this Southern city of 40,000 (and its surrounding counties), and developing nations - then write about it.

Many journalists recognize the growing importance of United States ties with the world's poorer countries. But they and their editors are often afraid stories on the subject will bore their readers, Hamilton says.

They think it's like ''wrapping garbage even before it was put in print,'' as Hamilton puts it.

That seems especially true in the heartland of the US where economic ties with third-world nations are not nearly as obvious as in the nation's port cities.

Indeed, Frank Sutherland, managing editor of the American, was somewhat skeptical about Hamilton's chances for coming up with any stories of genuine interest or importance.

Now, since ex-foreign correspondent Jack (John Maxwell) Hamilton has turned in a series of five stories and photos, Mr. Sutherland admits: ''There are more connections - cultural, historical, economic, political - with the third world than anybody would guess.''

Hamilton's first story, which ran on Sunday, tells of soybean and wheat farmer Joe Morgan, who has never traveled abroad. Most of Mr. Morgan's soybeans are shipped to Asia to be made into soy sauce, even though he himself has never tasted soy sauce.

Morgan's prosperity, the article notes, depends largely on the economic and political stability of the third world. When the Soviets occupy Afghanistan and the US imposes an embargo on wheat shipments to the Soviet Union, he's hurt.

If third-world foreign debts prompt these nations to restrain imports, that hits his business too. When the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries boosts prices, Morgan pays more for the 28,000 gallons of diesel fuel he uses each year in his farm equipment. When population pressures prompt Panamanians to deforest the hills along the Panama Canal, low water levels make it tougher for the ships carrying his wheat or soybeans to move through the canal.

That overview article also probed the influx of about 2,300 Vietnamese to the nearby gulf coast (and a much smaller number to Hattiesburg itself) that has resulted from political turmoil in Southeast Asia.

In addition, the story reveals other local connections with the third world. A large number of medical doctors in the state, for example, received their education abroad; that the southern Mississippi Chevron refinery buys more than two-thirds of its oil from developing countries; and that Bolivian peasants, desperate for a cash crop, produce the cocaine that is part of the local drug problem.

Another of the stories focused on Mississippi companies that depend on sales and imports from developing countries. Hamilton showed that Hercules Inc., a chemical plant, used to get rosin from pine stumps in the area, but now imports the rosin from China at half the cost. A local music distributor imports guitars from South Korea. Another firm imports steel from Brazil.

Miller-Picking, a custom air-conditioner maker, in some years exports as much as 90 percent of its sales to developing countries. With these local examples, the article discusses the issue of protectionism vs. open trade.

The new Leaf River Forest Products plant in neighboring New Augusta, the article shows, has seen the biggest potential growth market for its pulp in less developed countries. The sales strategy for the company includes Indonesia because that populous nation has just introduced compulsory elementary education , and that means it will need more books and the pulp to make the paper with. So increased literacy in Indonesia means more sales for Mississippi's pine forest region.

Hamilton also was able to discover a local angle for foreign aid by writing about church charities.

Cora Joyce and Ralph Davis (both missionairies in Ghana) spoke about the food problems in that African nation at the Temple Baptist Church earlier this year.

After their talk, the congregation doubled its contribution to missionary activities to $18,000, adding an extra $8,800 for the Davis's mission.

Hamilton says there is a ''general feeling'' in Hattiesburg that government foreign aid is a waste of money. But, he notes, its citizens are most generous in their personal giving to meet foreign needs.

Of course, the goal of Hamilton's project was not just to get several articles published in the American. Instead, he says he hopes the series will be a model to demonstrate to newspaper editors across the country that there are good local stories with third-world angles.

American editor Frank Sutherland agrees.

''We shouldn't leave these stories to the urban press,'' Mr. Sutherland said. ''We see these stories as existing in all the heartland of America.''

Any newspaper of, say, 25,000 circulation can find third-world issues ''in its own backyard,'' he says.

Sutherland hopes his own staff has been educated to the possibilities of such stories in the future. His staff has already produced three articles to run along with the Hamilton stories.

Susan Siltanen, a faculty member at the School of Communication at the University of Southern Mississippi, will be surveying American readers before and after the articles are published to see whether the stories are read and whether they boost the awareness and concern of readers about third-world issues.

Already the newspaper has had some indication of interest from readers, notes city editor Bill Sutley. ''It goes along the line of, 'I didn't know we had any relations to the third world.' ''

Now back at the World Bank, Hamilton plans to publish a booklet outlining the experiment and its results for distribution to editors and writers working for the nation's smaller newspapers.

Although the World Bank is mentioned only once in passing in the articles, the bank was interested enough in the project to pay Hamilton's salary during the few weeks he spent at the American.

Bank officials hope that out of such endeavors, US citizens will become alert to the growing interdependence of the nation with the developing countries. Such knowledge might make it easier for congressmen to support foreign aid, including financing of the World Bank.

Editor Sutherland, as president-elect of the Society of Professional Journalists, may well talk about the project with his colleagues around the country. Hamilton plans to write about his experience for The Quill, the society's monthly publication that circulates to many editors around the country.

A half century ago, Floyd Gibbons, a top foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, wrote to a China stringer: ''You must always write down - don't be 'intellectual,' the people who buy the Tribune in Chicago don't understand . . . about Far Eastern politics - they want hot stories about battles and bandits.''

Hamilton wants to remove the remnants of that journalistic attitude in mid-America.

Small town newspapers are unlikely to be able to afford their own foreign correspondents because of their expense. But, he says, they can snoop out the third-world angles in their own areas at little or no extra cost. He figures he has proved it.

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