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Assignment 1991 : A Glimpse at the New Year's Global Headlines : Reporters usually covet 'good' stories over merely important ones. Some thoughts on where they may occur.

January 01, 1991|WILLIAM D. MONTALBANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ROME — There are times, face it, when our shrinking world, that splendid but begrimed Global Village, seems more to resemble a large asylum.

Such moments--fire and brimstone, falling masonry, a shocked-but-riveted international audience--are those that foreign correspondents prize most.

Foreign correspondents tend, at least in their own estimation, to be an exotic bunch: They are often slick in foreign tongues, wear impressive trench coats, and sometimes even cross their sevens. Beneath the patina, though, they're reporters, like any other.

All reporters, whether they are covering the Himalayas or Hackensack, covet news that is both important and compelling to cover: "good stories," in journalese.

"Good stories" are born on distant desert sands, and around the corner. Construction of a new high school is important news for any town. Construction of a new school in which building funds quietly slide into the pockets of the board of education is a "good story," not least because it takes reportorial gumption, and luck, to get it.

Presidential or papal trips are important, like watching your cholesterol, but not always exciting for jet-lagged reporters at the back of the plane. George Bush in South America and John Paul II in West Africa are important stories. But George Bush or John Paul abroad in the Soviet Union are also "good stories."

As they flit about the world, foreign correspondents encounter many things that are important. And they cherish those relative few that transcend importance. The difference is common sense and, yes, headlines, but those of a sort that echo over the dinner table.

Today, everybody talks about the Persian Gulf. All cab drivers have insights into Mikhail Gorbachev's chances. But it is difficult to imagine a thirsty neighbor sliding onto a bar stool to marvel: "Did you see how Europe's uniting?"

For reporters, "good stories" are time-robbing, all-consuming, troublesome, and sometimes dangerous. Some are the stuff of history. All, every time, are more rewarding to chase than paper. Often, they are tragic, but not always: A mudslide that swallows a South American city is a "good story," but so is the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe.

That a fundamental distinction exists between an important story and a "good story"-- doctrine to reporters--is sometimes disconcerting to laymen. Around the world today live a disaffected legion of foreign correspondents' divorced spouses who never could grasp the difference. Or understand it too well.

With that as preface, in this section today is represented an irreverent and unabashedly unscientific view of the world in 1991, fileted as a news-hungry correspondent might carve it.

The first and most important slice contains those places that will produce "good stories"--the world's best--guaranteed to grip reporters and readers alike in '91. No secrets here. Anticipate the venues from which your appropriately haberdashered anchorman will be urbanely stern-faced in '91. See: ANY FOOL KNOWS.

Another slice is the sleeper countries that could drowse along, or vault overnight from nowhere to Page 1, catching most people off-balance by their urgency and intensity. Most of America's media got blindsided in 1989 by China's explosion and the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. In 1990, there weren't many July 4 editorials denouncing Saddam Hussein. Sorry. This year, no excuses. See: THE FIRE NEXT TIME and CARDINALS COULD ALWAYS ASSEMBLE.

The next piece holds many important places that will produce news of reach-into-your-pocketbook significance--but which, however weighty, may also prove a trifle dry to some people. Mind, it doesn't mean you shouldn't read about them. See: NEVER FORGET MOM'S BIRTHDAY . . . AND DON'T FORGET TO FLOSS.

The end cut could be well-known countries where the news is usually bad and the throbbing echoes of anguish may numb participant, observer and reader alike. Unhappy, but true, and no sense killing the messenger either. See: WAKE ME WHEN IT'S OVER . . . IN THE CARNAGE CLUB.

And the last cut is those places where religion is a way of death as well as a way of life (IN GOD'S NAME); where countries nudge reporters and readers to an identity crisis (CALL ME WHEN THE NAME CHANGES . . . AGAIN); where mostly nice things happen, mostly in quiet (ADORABLES ANONYMOUS), and where, whatever happens, hardly anyone seems to notice (P.S. WHATEVER HAPPENED TO . . .).

Such crystal-balling, even as New Year's whimsy, has its pitfalls, to be sure. Drama of the sort that spawns "good stories" tends not only to march to its own drummer, but also to improvise its own tune as it goes along: The Labor Day odds on Britain's Margaret Thatcher and the Soviet Union's Eduard A. Shevardnadze both being out of office by this morning would have been long indeed.

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