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'Rough Translation': Redefining local news in an interconnected world

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

What's a local news story? Seems obvious, right? Local is what's nearby, what's around you. So why would a hyper-local news site in New York have its own Ukraine war correspondent? Gregory Warner of our Rough Translation podcast tells the tale.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: The story of how the town of Red Hook in the New York Hudson Valley got its own war correspondent - it starts with a different job posting. Emily Sachar launched the online Red Hook Daily Catch in June of 2021. And it was such a hit that by that December, she had more than 1,000 subscribers, and she needed to hire an editor to help.

EMILY SACHAR: I put an ad on journalismjobs.com, and in comes, to my email, an application from a man in Russia - or I thought it was Russia.

WARNER: Did you get a bunch of international applications?

SACHAR: No. We got no international applications. In fact, I specifically asked for people who knew the Hudson Valley.

WARNER: She opens this application from a certain Pavel Kuljuk, a 44-year-old journalist living not in Russia, as she first thought, but outside the city of Kramatorsk in eastern Ukraine. His qualifications were doubtful for the editor role. He'd never been to the Hudson Valley, nor to the U.S. He did not write or speak English very well, and he'd never been an editor. But...

SACHAR: He said he'd love to be the editor that I was looking for, not to edit the stories of American journalists, but because he could generate interesting stories for us. And his example of what he could offer was that he had gone through the Red Hook town board database - I don't even know where he found this - and he proposed a story with data on how revenue from dog permit licenses was down.

WARNER: Pavel in Ukraine seemed more curious about the micro trends of Red Hook than a lot of Red Hook locals were. And while Pavel did not land the editor job, Emily stayed in touch. Two months later, when Russia invaded Ukraine, it was Emily's turn to get curious about Pavel's hometown. She emailed him questions.

SACHAR: Where exactly are you?

WARNER: Pavel would answer in Russian, his mother tongue.

PAVEL KULJUK: (Speaking Russian).

WARNER: And he would run it through Google Translate and email it back. We hired a voice actor to represent Pavel in English.

KULJUK: (Through interpreter) I live with my wife. She's a very patient and hardworking woman. She bakes bread at home. We have a small flock of domesticated quails, four cats and a yard dog.

WARNER: There is a curious specificity to Pavel's answers. He lists every item that's short in supply.

KULJUK: (Through interpreter) In Kramatorsk, there's a shortage of bread, toilet paper, potatoes, clean drinking water, meat, eggs, and milk.

SACHAR: Are you trying to get out?

KULJUK: (Through interpreter) No, we will not evacuate. Our home is here.

SACHAR: What sounds do you hear?

KULJUK: (Through interpreter) Now the city is quiet, but silence is the most terrible sound in war.

SACHAR: But silence is the most terrible sound in war.

I just read it to myself. I read it out loud to my husband. I called a few people and I said, am I imagining things, or is this really gripping?

WARNER: But when Emily published the interview you just heard in the Daily Catch...

SACHAR: Right away, I had readers writing in to us - editor's letters. Why is the Daily Catch covering this story in Ukraine? You need to be down at the planning board meeting to find out why the local donut shop is having so much trouble getting their permit.

WARNER: But Emily felt that Pavel had been so curious about Red Hook, she wanted to get Red Hook curious about Pavel.

SACHAR: I learned that he was walking, every third day, six miles each direction, to the dacha to feed his cat.

(SOUNDBITE OF GATE OPENING)

WARNER: His cat Dora lives there alone because, he says, Dora does not get along with the other three cats that live in their house.

SACHAR: I thought, we're going to tell the story about the cat. And if people don't want to read it, they'll skip it. And it was a leap of faith on my part that it would either feel relevant right away or it would become relevant. And it became relevant very quickly because we got feedback from readers who were really interested in what was going to happen to the cat.

WARNER: They'd write in messages.

SUSAN: Is there any way to get flea and tick preventative to Pavel?

JOHN: I'm left speechless by this man's vivid, heartfelt accounts.

WARNER: Those are readers Susan and John reading their comments to the site. Readers learned in other dispatches about his morning exercise, what he grew in his garden, about his daily stresses and how his neighbors were protecting their windows from blast waves.

SACHAR: What is local anymore? Is local what's happening at the local school? Is local what's happening at my street corner? Or is local what I may care about, what I may come to care about in my life?

WARNER: Why had Pavel applied to the Red Hook Daily Catch job? He told us he's lived in eastern Ukraine all his life, and he likes to take virtual trips online around the world.

KULJUK: (Through interpreter) And I just look at how people live there and imagine myself being one of the residents there.

WARNER: Now Pavel felt like he had a community in Red Hook that was watching him, people following his words, offering to send him hoses for his garden. He's almost a kind of long-distance neighbor.

KULJUK: (Through interpreter) I mean, for me, working with the Daily Catch has boosted my self-esteem. I suddenly realize that my ordinary life has some value.

WARNER: Recently, he went to the dacha to feed Dora and he noticed she was weak and listless.

KULJUK: (Through interpreter) I examined her, and I found hundreds of fleas. Fleas were climbing in Dora's eyes, on her mouth and even inside her nose. Fleas literally are sucking all the blood out of her.

WARNER: He'd been spending so much of his attention on virtually escaping the war, he'd ignored the cat he thought he was caring for. Dora was dying from neglect.

KULJUK: (Through interpreter) Four days in a row, I searched for fleas on Dora. And I managed to kill hundred twenty of the little suckers.

WARNER: Of course he counted each flea.

KULJUK: (Through interpreter) Anyhow, all this attention to her fleas must have boosted my cat's self-esteem. Imagine what a cat thinks when a person catches their fleas for hours on end. For all my inattention to Dora during this senseless war, I have expiated my guilt.

WARNER: Pavel says that as the Russian army gets closer to his hometown, he will focus on his wife and his garden and his cat. Emily says that for as long as Pavel keeps writing, she will keep publishing. And she hopes readers will keep reading.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTINEZ: That's Gregory Warner. He's the host of the podcast Rough Translation, where you can find more reporting on Ukraine and stories from around the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gregory Warner is the host of NPR's Rough Translation, a podcast about how things we're talking about in the United States are being talked about in some other part of the world. Whether interviewing a Ukrainian debunker of Russian fake news, a Japanese apology broker navigating different cultural meanings of the word "sorry," or a German dating coach helping a Syrian refugee find love, Warner's storytelling approach takes us out of our echo chambers and leads us to question the way we talk about the world. Rough Translation has received the Lowell Thomas Award from the Overseas Press Club and a Scripps Howard Award.