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American Journalism Review
Continuation of <i>Goodbye, World</i>  | American Journalism Review
From AJR,   November 1998

Continuation of Goodbye, World   

By Peter Arnett
Peter Arnett is a former foreign correspondent for CNN and the Associated Press.     

I walked through the AP portals at 50 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, for the first time in October 1962, a year after signing up as a young correspondent in Southeast Asia. I had worked in cramped, often fetid, one-room bureaus overseas, but the fourth-floor newsroom in New York stretched across a vast landscape of clacking teletype machines, clattering typewriters and editors bent low over copy. In the distant southwest corner was the foreign desk, presided over by the formidable Ben Bassett in his green eyeshade, the last in the building, I'm sure. His steadiness and urgency had piloted the AP through the Korean War, the uneasy years of the Cold War and into Vietnam. His dictum was expressed in frequent messages to his far-flung staff in times of crisis: "It's time for cool heads..."

Bassett was already a legend, but only later would I realize that this was the golden age of AP. Giants walked the halls. There was Relman "Pat" Morin (two Pulitzers--the Korean War and school desegregation); Don Whitehead (a Pulitzer for his Washington reporting); Dan Deluce and Hal Boyle (both Pulitzer winners from World War II). At night they swapped tales at the crowded bar of the Overseas Press Club on 42nd Street, one of the most coveted memberships in town. The valorous Wes Gallagher, veteran of World War II reporting, was just taking the helm at AP. The Cuban missile crisis was at its peak. New York's major newspapers--there were seven--headlined the threat of nuclear war. Within two decades, the nation had been through two wars and was embarking on a third. What a time to be a foreign correspondent!

Today, more than 30 years later, AP remains at 50 Rock. The newsroom still covers the fourth floor. But the noise is gone. Editors stare, unblinking, into computer terminals. There are no green eyeshades; wrist pads guard against carpal tunnel. Once you caught everyone's eye as you walked through the place. Now they're closeted in cubicles; what you catch is their backs. The old foreign desk, now the "international desk," has moved to the southeast corner, where its boss, Tom Kent, a 48-year-old former AP Moscow bureau chief, struggles with uncertainties that never once plagued Ben Bassett.

Kent has spent his working life in international news. He oversees 93 international bureaus--a third more than during the height of the Cold War, when there was limited coverage behind the Iron Curtain--and he's under the gun to reverse the trend of diminishing international news in America's newspapers.

Traditionally, AP has taken the high road. It gathers and disseminates the stories. Newspapers can do what they will with them. But Tom Kent is willing to bear a greater burden. He told a seminar organized earlier this year by the Freedom Forum that he believed some papers were willing to publish quality projects, such as major takeouts on regions in crisis. "I am a very harsh judge of us, and I think if we do it right, it will be used," Kent told the gathering. "If they don't, it's our fault. I can't blame the American educational system or the fact that people don't read anymore or that everybody's watching 'Seinfeld'. I just blame us.

"We are trying to provide more explanatory copy," he said. "We are trying to gauge the moment at which a story suddenly is likely to attract attention and to give people a point of entry to that story at that time. For example, we've been writing forever about the euro [currency], but recently they actually had a summit on the euro and made a decision. I can imagine a lot of people saying, 'Oh, yeah, what is this euro thing that I've sort of... It's been vaguely on the edge of my consciousness, but now it's in the news.' So we did a Q&A on 'What is the euro?' that probably five or 10 years ago we wouldn't have done--would just assume, 'Well, you should have been listening.' Now we're realizing that points of entry to stories, the key time, are important."

After newspapers complained that AP didn't provide enough advisory information, that it left wire editors awash in wordage as deadlines approached, the service started making recommendations for page one. Still, for some that just wasn't enough. John Simpson, a senior executive of USA Today, weighed in at the Freedom Forum session, too. "I look at [the AP page one list] sometimes and I say to myself, 'Well, you guys are crazy.' But I also look at it and say, 'Well, if this is what most of the papers who are relying on the AP are going to have for their front pages tomorrow, this is important to me.' "

Jack Hamilton, dean of journalism at Louisiana State University, told the seminar, "The [wire] advisories should tell you why a story is relevant, why you should use a story--in a sense, almost an instruction manual for stories, giving people ideas for what they can build on at the local level."

But Kent worries that AP editors are already hard-pressed for time, trying to stay ahead of the news curve, too busy to warn editors about crises in advance. AP gives some advance word with interpretive stories, Kent said, but "frankly, there are many places around the world where we are told things can explode. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't. Often, newspapers don't find the room for the interpretive."

Many media observers blame the gatekeepers. David Anable, president of the International Center for Journalists in Washington, told the Freedom Forum group, "Virtually every paper has a mass of international news available--the AP, the New York Times and other syndicates. Using more of it is cost-free. But most senior editors are reluctant to buck their publishers and money managers who are fixated on the public opinion surveys. And some gatekeepers are like some of their readers: They don't know what matters, what's relevant, what appeals or how to make it so."

At the AP, the man who must somehow juggle all these competing concerns is the cooperative's president, Louis D. Boccardi. An assistant managing editor at the old New York World Journal Tribune before joining the AP in 1967, Boccardi, now 60, took over the wire service in 1985. He and his top editors have worked hard to overcome AP's longtime image of a bulletin board service. Boccardi once told an AP annual meeting, "We want to make it impossible for anybody to disparage anything we do with the old insult that it's just 'wire service journalism.' "

Yet today Boccardi has a worse worry. Diminishing use of international news might cause newspapers to invest less in it, therefore restricting the AP's own ability to cover the world--and shutting off from the American public the best source of accurate, balanced news that it could ever get.

Azlan Ibrahim is a lone figure tucked away in a corner of a busy newsroom. He is wire editor of Michigan's Kalamazoo Gazette, arriving at four in the morning to begin poring over the AP, Newhouse and New York Times wires. ("I will name four or five stories that just have to run and pray that some of the others make it," he told me.) He keeps his eye on the CNN monitor across the room for tips on breaking news. But since the TV is closer to the sports department, the channel is often mysteriously switched to ESPN.

Ibrahim is one of those gatekeepers Lou Boccardi and others are counting on to advance foreign news play. To be sure, Ibrahim wants to help. But he's up against it.

The Gazette, an afternoon paper with 63,000 daily subscribers, is local and proud of it. "Local news is our franchise," explained Editor James Mosby. "We're original, and we want to stand out from the other papers around here." He conceded that in "the eternal pull and tug of daily news decisions, non-local news might not make it as much as it should." But he pointed to the paper's letters to the editor to buttress his views that local matters most. There, Kalamazoo readers teed off on such social issues as crime, abortion and hometown politics. I also noticed some vociferous diatribes, a few laced with bigotry or extreme ideology. This southwestern part of the state, the Gazette's circulation area, gave rise to the notorious Michigan Militia.

On the other hand, there is a flourishing cultural life here, due in large part to the presence of Western Michigan University and Kalamazoo College. The city, once best known for Glenn Miller's '40s hit "(I Got a Gal in) Kalamazoo," has its own symphony orchestra, a new museum, a renovated civic theater and public library, and an arts center that recently doubled in size. In the '50s Kalamazoo conceived the nation's first outdoor pedestrian mall, but now the mall is considered an obstacle to progress. The trees will be cut down, and traffic once again will flow along Burdick Street after a four-decade hiatus.

The Gazette is a Booth paper, owned by Newhouse. Mosby, editor here 10 years, contends he is publishing a sufficiently nutritious product. "My readers can live with the Gazette alone," he told me. "I don't think they could with five-minute radio [news] or the 30-minute TV news." Not all his readers agree. The content of the Gazette plays "to the lowest common denominator," complained Gail Griffin, an English professor at Kalamazoo College. "The Gazette is more parochial than it needs to be, and what's not local is often celebrity stuff. We talk about it--that it's more and more like People magazine."

At the hub of these conflicting passions is Azlan Ibrahim.

But he has found an ally in Gazette veteran Mary Tift. She has been at the paper since 1962 and has run the editorial page since 1987. A quietly commanding figure with a vigorous intellect, Tift writes two editorials a day, often six days a week. One of every five deals with international affairs. "I have a personal belief that Joe Sixpack desperately needs to know what is happening in the world," she said. "He has an abysmal understanding of how international events affect his everyday life. The newspaper is the last stronghold of informational reality today. Many people around here rely on talk radio for what they think about the world. Or they visit militia group sites on the Internet. What we have in our community are people ranging from the well-educated to the determinedly ignorant."

Ibrahim contends there's more interest in the world-beyond-Kalamazoo than management believes. Sometimes in the supermarket, he said, people stop him, want to know where he's from, then chat fondly about old college roommates from Africa or Asia. He said his neighbor, a blue-collar worker, listens to National Public Radio. A car that recently pulled up alongside him at a traffic light had the BBC news report blaring from its speakers.

In August, months after my visit, I checked back in with Ibrahim. He told me how the bombing of the two embassies in Africa and the American retaliation had warranted "power headlines" in Kalamazoo. "This is what we are in business for, the big story played in a big way," he said.

As for Mary Tift, she had painstakingly researched the collapse of the Russian economy, carefully wording her editorials to bring the disparate readership of the Gazette into the global picture. "I try to tell them, 'These events happen far from you, but they affect your lives,' " she said. Then she laughed, "I can't wait to get the mail."

Editor Mosby seemed grateful for their input. "We don't want to lose that," he told me. But he added, "Don't forget, happenstance dictated play. International events took over for a while. Our franchise is still local news."

More than a decade ago when I lived in Atlanta, I sometimes ate at the Varsity burger and hot dog joint on North Avenue. The place was capacious, outfitted in chrome. The waiters dressed like bellhops and scuttled across the floor bearing plates piled high with tasty Vidalia onion rings. Atlantans liked the Varsity because it was a throwback to the '50s. At the Varsity time stood still. The rest of Atlanta was changing. Fast.

As I drove to work each day I passed beneath an electronic billboard that stretched across a main thoroughfare, blinking the daily increase in the metro population--over a million, and still counting. On Atlanta's outskirts, greeting arrivals from the airport, was another billboard, boasting: "The World's Next Great City." Boosters mused about bidding for the Olympic Games. The city's industries and institutions tried to mold themselves to the new prosperity and sophistication. None did this more resolutely than Cox Newspapers' morning Constitution and afternoon Journal.

In late 1986 the Atlanta papers recruited Bill Kovach, then Washington editor of the New York Times, as their new editor. Kovach championed an East Coast aggressive style of journalism. He aimed to win prizes and to cover the world. But he struggled from the outset with a kind of culture clash. He was trying to bring a Times world-view to papers whose most popular writer was down-home humorist Lewis Grizzard (who once allowed that "the Constitution and Journal sure as hell should worry more about Cobb County than Botswana").

After two years Kovach was gone, and Cox brought in Ron Martin, a USA Today veteran. Four years later, in 1992, the Atlanta papers finally vanquished their suburban rival, the Gwinnett Daily News, whose doors were shut by an embarrassed New York Times Co. Cox moved to consolidate its position--and its costs. The morning and afternoon papers were merged. And Atlanta continued to boom. Today more than 3 million people live in the greater metropolitan area, and the Journal-Constitution woos them with a blend of local news, short stories, features--and upbeat style.

I visited the paper's international editor, Keith Graham, on the same day he met with representatives of the Japanese consulate. They noted that some 300 Japanese enterprises had established themselves in the Atlanta area. The businesses had a combined workforce of nearly 20,000. Aggressive marketing by state officials had made Georgia second only to California in Japanese investments in the United States. Yet the Japanese had noticed that Cox Newspapers had closed its Tokyo bureau. News from China was getting better play.

They left with Graham's sympathy and understanding. He'd been appointed international editor only the previous year but was making a determined bid to strengthen international coverage. He'd already given top management a moving memo, which he showed me:

"Thirty years ago when I moved to Atlanta from Phoenix there was one Mexican restaurant. There were maybe three or four Chinese places and a single pseudo-English pub. You had to go out of your way to discover an international presence. A few minutes ago I had lunch down the street at a brewhouse where people were watching soccer broadcasts from both England and South America. The woman who cuts my hair is from Uzbekistan. I shop at the Korean grocery. The plumber who came to my house the other day is from Israel. People from Germany and Pakistan and Canada and Switzerland have moved into my neighborhood. The world has come to us and it will come in a bigger way in the future. Our readers need to know about key events that could affect their lives--wars, ecological disasters, trade disputes, and, sometimes, they just need to know enough about other cultures to be able to talk to their neighbors."

Was anyone listening? I asked.

Graham grinned. He knew the odds. Yet he has posted a few victories. Management gave him two staffers to cover international events in Atlanta, including activities at the Carter Center and stories around the South with a foreign-affairs slant. Graham even resurrected an idea from Kovach's days, suggesting in his memo: "For our market, we need to push more strongly for an African position or at least Africa stringers." No dice. But in August he did send reporter Don Melvin to Nairobi after the U.S. Embassy bombing and later to Khartoum to inspect missile damage after America's retaliatory strike.

Graham's team also produces a weekly "International Atlanta" page. The page happened to be on the schedule for the day I visited. The lineup included two stories from Atlanta's sister city, Tblisi, Georgia--one about baseball fever in the former communist country, the other about a nurse from Atlanta's Grady Memorial Hospital who was helping develop a nurse-training program there. There was also an interview with Carter Center officials en route to China with computers for remote villages. The page floats from section to section. It runs wherever there's room.

But that afternoon, a bulletin interrupted the news meeting. Paula Jones' lawsuit against President Clinton had been thrown out. The next morning's Constitution had to undergo major reshuffling. Graham sighed. "Well," he said. "We won't make it today."

That evening he phoned me with an update: "We lost International Atlanta at 4:30--but we got it back an hour later. It's in tomorrow's paper." A small victory, but worth cherishing.

On busy Interstate 70 just beyond Lawrence, Kansas, road markers point the way to the Oregon Trail. Locals say if you search long enough you can still find the wagon wheel ruts in the hard clay gulches of the Flint Hills. Farther west you reach Abilene, a rip-roaring frontier town long after the pioneers moved on. Some 170 miles southwest is the Dodge City of Wild West legend. Add to those tales the struggle of abolitionists who help escaped slaves travel north ahead of the approaching Civil War, and the unrest that followed, and you have a 19th-century Kansas where local news was far more interesting to frontier editors than anything else in the world.

Fast-forward 130 years or so and not much seems to have changed--at least with the editors. I stopped off to buy a copy of the Topeka Capital Daily, reputedly one of the best papers in the region, and it carried not one international story and virtually no national news. Local stories on politics and crime prevailed.

Yet it is here, in Kansas, that a campaign is beginning to put international news back into America's newspapers. The trailblazer is a mild-mannered hometown editor, Edward Seaton, whose family owns the Manhattan Mercury. Manhattan is almost literally middle America, 120 miles east of the geographic center of the contiguous 48 states. Seaton's campaign aims to rehabilitate foreign coverage in the small and medium-sized daily papers that most Americans read.

That such a journalistic initiative comes from an out-of-the-way place like Manhattan is less surprising than it first seems. With 44,000 people, it is one of the bigger communities in the state. Kansas State University is located here, and a former president was Milton Eisenhower, brother of Dwight. Manhattan was settled by abolitionists from Boston in the mid-19th century, and a landmark building outside town is the clapboard Beecher Bible and Rifle Church, so named because in the wars against pro-slavery forces, Henry Ward Beecher's abolitionists shipped guns here in boxes marked for Bibles.

Manhattan also has close links to the wars of the 20th century. When I drove into town on my visit late one evening, distant storm clouds seemed to be discharging bolts of lightning that reminded me of artillery explosions. It turned out they were real. My motel desk clerk later informed me that a brigade of the First Infantry Division from neighboring Fort Riley was on maneuvers in the rolling hills.

Ed Seaton's campaign will be an uphill fight, even at home. Mercury Executive Editor Bill Felber and Seaton's son, Ned, the news editor, are sympathetic but not entirely supportive.

"I don't pretend that we on the Mercury are doing much better than anyone else. We are learning, too," Seaton said as he gave me a tour of his paper's modern downtown plant. As editor in chief, Seaton prefers the persuasive approach with his staff, and says of Ned, "He never gave a rat's ass about international news until India and Pakistan exploded the bomb this year, and then he told me, 'Wow, now that's a story.' "

Felber is an outspoken adherent of local news first. With the circulation of the Mercury down a bit in the past year, Felber's voice is a commanding one in the newsroom--and with the accountants. "You have to understand Kansas editors," he told me. "They operate from a concentric circle, with the most important news coming from their hometown, with diminishing interest as those circles widen. It's a zero-sum game. You put one story in and that means another is kept out. The local makes it, the others don't."

But Ed Seaton is the boss, and so Felber said in acknowledgement of that reality, "Should Americans know what's happening in the world? Yes, but we can only communicate a few things in our paper. But if we don't tell them, where will they get it?"

Seaton's passion for international news doesn't surprise anyone who knows him. Now 55, Seaton grew up on a farm in Coffeyville, Kansas. His dad was publisher of the Coffeyville Journal, his grandfather was publisher of the Mercury, and his great-uncle's brother was Ned Beck, the longtime editor of the Chicago Tribune. Seaton went to Harvard, where he majored in government and was a varsity swimmer. He wrote a senior honors thesis about the regime of Francisco Franco of Spain. A Fulbright Scholarship took him to Quito, Ecuador. After a stint as general assignment reporter for Louisville's Courier-Journal, he became editor in chief of the Mercury. He was 26.

He has been in Kansas ever since, but his love of Latin America had a powerful influence on his life. He has been heavily involved in the Inter American Press Association for more than 25 years, and in 1977, on one of his many humanitarian trips south of the border, Seaton helped secure the release of jailed Argentine editor Jacobo Timerman.

It was no surprise, then, that when Edward Seaton became president of ASNE he quickly went on record about his chief goal: make international news more interesting, more relevant, more enjoyable and more available to newspaper readers across America. He named his campaign Project ASNE for International News.

Seaton rejects the often-heard view that slipping circulations warrant less foreign news. "That just won't wash," he said evenly. "Newspapers should be the vehicle for giving Americans a better view of the world because we have more space than the other media, and that space is expandable." He also sees a unique opportunity for the print press. "International news has been pretty much abandoned by network television and weekly magazines. What a chance for us to be back into the game again."

Seaton's ASNE initiative will specifically target editors, giving them the knowledge and the techniques to explore how international forces affect their own communities. "All this talk about 'local, local, local,' " Seaton said. "I figured, why not make a local story of international news? The average reader has to be guided into understanding how international news affects them. Just one example--look at the clothes they wear. I'll bet they weren't made in the USA."

Driving me around Manhattan, he showed me what he meant. We passed the McCall Pattern Co. factory that exports its products to the far corners of the earth. I remembered in New Zealand in the '40s, when material was scarce, my mother carefully traced McCall's patterns on yards of cotton for the school clothes she hand-sewed for me. Near McCall's was an auto plant that modified vehicles for alternative fuels for markets in Asia. And the sprawling Kansas State University campus is an assignment editor's dream. The Grain Marketing and Production Research Center has close connections with grain-producing countries in Europe and Asia. The American Institute of Baking, also on campus, attracts cooking specialists from home and abroad. Wichita, 130 miles to the south, is home to three major aircraft manufacturers--Beech, Cessna and Lear--and Boeing remains the state's largest private employer.

"All this and Fort Riley, too," Seaton said. "Most American communities have similar linkages if editors take the trouble to look for them. That is the principle of our project. By writing more about how our communities have become internationalized, and about the international connections to their lives, then the reader will make the connection to the international country. If these stories are written, then people will become more interested in the policy stories that drive them."

Seaton has devised a practical way to advance these ideas. With assistance from the Freedom Forum, ASNE is taking a look at how mainstream daily newspapers can improve foreign coverage. "Then we will produce a handbook for every U.S. editor on covering the world, and then hold workshops around the United States," Seaton said. "We even plan to offer, as part of the annual ASNE writing awards contest, a prize for the best writing about the impact of international forces on the writer's local community."

Similar efforts percolate elsewhere. The Pew Charitable Trusts (which underwrites the State of the American Newspaper series) is establishing a four-month-long biannual program to send seven journalists to Washington and overseas to study such issues as population, the environment, immigration, refugees and human rights. APME will send four staffers from small newspapers abroad each year to interact with AP bureaus. Editors are being advised to take advantage of the U.N. Development Program's annual trips overseas for journalists; they are inexpensive and have flexible schedules. Several newspapers are introducing "sister" programs with overseas papers to give their staffs foreign reporting experience.

The editors and media experts who give their support to Ed Seaton and his Project ASNE for International News have no illusions that the effort will be easy. They agree it's a matter of getting the news editors, the reporters and everybody else in the newsroom to appreciate what's at stake and to rethink how they approach the news every day.

LSU's Jack Hamilton says that in his endeavors around the United States to promote the use of international stories, he learned that the top editor was the first who needed convincing. "If we found an editor who wanted to do it, we were always successful. If a reporter alone in the newsroom wants to do it, it's a constant fight."

Ed Seaton is one of those editors who wants to do it. As we drove about his hometown, he pulled over to a lookout on the crest of one of the rolling Flint Hills that stretch from Nebraska in the north to Oklahoma in the south. Seaton talked of his heartland legacy. "Our congressional district abuts the districts that Harry Truman, Ike and Bob Dole came from," he said, pointing east and then west over grassy fields and green hills. "Those three Plains-states political figures had a hell of a lot to do with shaping American foreign policy in the last half of the 20th century, of giving us the great advantages we enjoy at home and abroad today."

Then he added, "Our obligation, surely, as editors of the nations' newspapers who labor in their shadows, is to provide the public all they need to know about the world."

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