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The Star Tribune’s horizons expand in Afghanistan

In recent years, I’ve written a lot about the Star Tribune’s diminishments, so I think it’s important to note when the paper has grabbed back some of what was lost.

Before bankruptcy, readers might not have batted an eye at a reporter going overseas; in fact, reporter Mark Brunswick traveled to Iraq, among other places, when McClatchy Co. owned the Strib. But those datelines almost seemed like a mirage during Avista’s tortured control.

As Chapter 11 proceedings wound down last fall, Strib editors created a military affairs beat and redeployed Brunswick. Late last year, he and photographer Richard Sennott were sent to Afghanistan for a full month. On Sunday, the first result appeared in the paper. It was spectacular.

Crossing the Desert of Death,” is a gripping but not mawkish tale of Minnesota grunts on a 20-hour resupply mission through dangerous Helmand province.

Like its protagonists, who crawl over sand at 3 miles per hour, Brunswick’s prose is compelling precisely because it disdains showiness and sweats the small stuff, from the goat curry the soldiers eat before their slog to the tattooed, energy-drink-fueled Minnesota gunner staring at a hostile crowd for 15 minutes and deciding not to shoot. It’s read-to-the-bottom material — yes, a metaphor for America’s torturous crawl, but authentic, not contrived — and Sennott’s photos make the protagonists that much more indelible.

I didn’t write about the four-part series yesterday because the Strib’s “Only in Your Sunday paper” policy put the piece off-limits to non-subscribers. Thankfully, that wall crumbled more quickly than usual; the opener and today’s Part II, along with various v-logs, are available now.

Managing editor Rene Sanchez says the paper spent $6,000 on the trip — a pittance really, though giving up a reporter and a photographer for a month was the bigger cost. But the biggest benefit, aside from telling memorable stories about a vital issue, is that top-notch journalists regained an opportunity to seek those tales no matter where the subjects take them.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Hannah on 02/02/2010 - 12:34 pm.

    Several years ago Bob Greene wrote:

    If you’re old enough, and you ever worked in the news business, there is a word with which you will be familiar –although chances are, you haven’t heard it in awhile.

    It is a word that used to have a lot of meaning, in defining how the news of the world was delivered to the people of the United States.
    The word is — was — “Afghanistanism.”
    It wasn’t heard much outside of newsrooms. Depending on whom you ask about it, it had two almost opposite meanings. Yet the two meanings addressed the same issue.

    “Afghanistanism,” some old news hands recall, was used as a derisive term to describe local editors who were too meek to take on the problems in their own towns, so instead wrote long-winded editorials about countries far away. Don’t want to incite the wrath of the mayor, or the city council, or the city’s leading merchant? Then leave them alone — and instead pontificate about the political climate in Afghanistan.

    The alternate meaning of “Afghanistanism,” according to those who remember its use, could be translated something like this: “One cat in a tree rescued in this town warrants bigger display on Page One than 5,000 people killed in an earthquake in Afghanistan.” As with the first definition, it was spoken with not a little cynicism — the people who spoke about Afghanistanism were not endorsing it, they were moaning about the provincial aspects of hometown news coverage.

    Not to dwell on the self-evident aspects of this, but of all the countries that could have been used to describe this set of news phenomena, “Afghanistanism” has special meaning to us now. The word was used, half-a-century and more ago, in an effort to come up with a reference almost absurd in its distance — both geographic and symbolic — from the United States. A country to use as an example of a place American readers would have absolutely no interest in? Afghanistan won that dubious prize.
    Now no country in the world is receiving as intensive news coverage as Afghanistan.

  2. Submitted by Bruce Adomeit on 02/02/2010 - 03:08 pm.

    The term “Afghanistanism” was in common use by the 1950s, when Bob Greene was in grade school and there were no American troops in that far-off land. With the U.S. committed to having 100,000 soldiers and Marines in Afghanistan by this fall, any attempt to imply that what happens there is of no real consequence to Minnesotans is absurd. Just ask the Red Bulls, newly back from Iraq, where they think their next deployment will be.

  3. Submitted by John O'Sullivan on 02/02/2010 - 07:04 pm.

    Wait, David, do you not subscribe to the Strib’s print edition? (re: not being able to read about the story until it premiered on the web)

  4. Submitted by David Brauer on 02/02/2010 - 09:06 pm.

    John – I subscribe, but not all BrauBlog readers do.

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