A new working paper from Harvard’s Shorenstein Center – where my friend and colleague Rebecca MacKinnon began her new academic career – is rarely the cause for a news story. But when the author of the paper is Jill Carroll, the freelance reporter who was kidnapped and held in Iraq for over two months and the subject of the paper is the value of foreign reporting, well, that might just be worth a few column inches.
Foreign reporters are an endangered species in the US today. I got a tangible reminder of the crisis in the profession when I gave a talk at CUNY’s new journalism school, where I was hosted by Lonnie Isabel, who ran Newsday’s Pulitzer-winning foreign bureau. After the Tribune-owned paper decided to cut its foreign bureas, relying on the Chicago Tribune and LA Times for foreign coverage for all Trib papers, Lonnie was laid off and migrated to CUNY, where he’s helping build a very exciting new program. But Newsday, which had unique and exciting Africa coverage under his leadership, now has only four overseas employees and will close all bureaus by the end of this year.
They’re not alone. The Boston Globe is shuttering its four overseas bureaus, leading Christine Chen in Foreign Policy’s Passport to observe that there’s now only one foreign correspondent for each 1.3 million people in the US. The closure of Newsday bureaus will lower that number even further, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see other mid-sized papers closing their foreign bureaus in an attempt to cut costs. (Chen’s observation makes me wonder what an optimal correspondent to population ratio would be – more on that a bit further…)
The basic argument of Carroll’s paper is this:
- Some American readers – mostly highly educated newshounds, an attractive demographic – are hungry for international news.
- While there was a surge in international coverage right after 9/11, there’s been a steady decline in international news coverage over the past two decades, especially in international news that doesn’t involve US foreign policy
- While newspapers are struggling to cope in the wake of the Internet, the fiscal crisis isn’t quite as awful as we tend to think – newspapers aren’t struggling to survive so much as they’re struggling to make 15-20% annual profit. Keeping some foreign bureaus isn’t going to break the bank.
- Foreign bureaus are a good deal – they build your credibility, give you original content and cost surprisingly litte (so long as they’re not in war zones.)
This last piece was interesting to me. Carroll cites Robert Ruby, former foreign editor at the Baltimore Sun, whose bureaus cost about 5% of the paper’s budget and generated 20-25% of their front page stories. She notes that the Sun ran especially lean foreign bureaus. And bureaus in war zones cost a lot more, as security can cost more than the salary and housing for the journalists.
Carroll has a few suggestions for reviving international coverage in the age of newsroom cutbacks:
- Use more freelancers. (Given that Carroll is a freelancer, perhaps this is a predictable suggestion. But given that she was kidnapped as a freelancer, it’s good that the notes that security is one of the main problems with using freelancers.)
- Give correspondents a good, long time to read up on the nations they’re travelling into before sending them abroad for short assignments. (It’s still “parachute journalism”, but at least it’s a better sewn parachute.)
- Contextualize international news by connecting it to local products and issues. (She cites an Oregon newspaper which tracked local potatoes to Asian dinner tables.)
- Use soft news (network morning shows, for instance) to inform the group of people who don’t pay attention to international news.
What was most interesting to me is what Carroll didn’t mention in her discussion of future strategies for international news. One of the reasons many newspaper publishers are able to justify cutting foreign bureaus is a belief – accurate or otherwise – that they can cover international news via newswires. Carroll doesn’t mention AP, Reuters, AFP or any of the other newswires in her discussion, which seems like an odd omission. Some of the arguments Carroll makes in defense of foreign correspondents – local knowledge, language skills – are true for many of the correspondents who write for wire services.
It’s possible that Carroll doesn’t address these correspondents because she feels they don’t have the distance from a situation a foreign correspondent has – brilliant correspondents like Kapuściński didn’t just report facts, they contextualized them so they’d make sense to their audiences. The perspective is that of an informed outsider, not that of an insider. It’s also possible that Carroll doesn’t think the style of news produced by most wire services is a substitute for the long feature stories produced by dedicated foreign correspondents. But given the importance of wire services in reshaping the media landscape, it seems like an odd omission.
It also struck me as odd that Carroll doesn’t address citizen media as a possible alternative or complement to foreign correspondents. Our experience with Global Voices suggests that, in most countries, there are both local and expatriate bloggers capable of offering views and perspectives on local news. Some have journalistic backgrounds and aspirations, while others don’t… but all are there, on the ground, and could represent a vast, untapped resource for papers looking for unique stories and perspectives. It would be interesting to see a creative paper like the Sun or the Globe try to rebuild a modicum of independent international coverage by leaning hard on bloggers and other citizen journalists in another nation.
I’m with Carroll that it’s a sad commentary on the state of modern journalism that the foreign correspondent is nearing extinction. But I wonder if she’s missing something at least as interesting – the possibility of getting a view of life in another nation from the perspective of non-journalists living there, but sharing their experiences and expertise.