State of The American Newspaper
Foreign news is disappearing from
many of America’s newspapers. A legendary
war correspondent visited newsrooms across the country and found out why: It has been completely
overwhelmed by local news.
Peter Arnett is a former foreign correspondent for CNN and the Associated Press.
City streets radiate from Monument Circle in Indianapolis like the spokes in the wheel of an old race car. Designed as the hub of an imposing series of veterans memorials and plazas, the circle was downtown's main landmark until the Circle Centre shopping and entertainment complex opened in 1995. With its flashy eight-story glass rotunda and nearby museums, the center revivified downtown and put the lie to the old slur that the only thing that ever happened here was the Indy 500.
But for longtime residents, Monument Circle remains the reference point for the heart of the city, and for none more so than the 185 reporters and editors who work for the morning Indianapolis Star and the evening Indianapolis News, whose parent, Central Newspapers Inc., is the 17th-largest newspaper company in the United States.
That their preference is for news close to the circle was evident in the May 12 edition of the News I bought after arriving at Indianapolis International Airport. There were front-page stories on a tobacco industry suit, a business merger and, of course, the upcoming Indianapolis 500--but no mention of India's explosion of a hydrogen bomb the previous day. In fact, in the 30 pages of that day's News, I found only a few international briefs. Nine paragraphs, total.
Indianapolis was one of more than a half-dozen stops I was making to determine why most American newspapers, like the News and the Star, have come to focus so overwhelmingly on news from home. I had my reasons for picking Indianapolis, as I did with a couple of Manhattans (New York and Kansas). The other cities, among them Kalamazoo and Atlanta, I chose more serendipitously--no scientific sampling, but enough exposure to America's newsrooms to obtain at least anecdotal explanation as to why so many papers have given up on the world.
What drew me to Indiana's capital was the memory of a time--the late 1960s--when international news dominated the agenda of America's media. The story was Vietnam. The Indianapolis papers were run by the cantankerous Eugene C. Pulliam, the most powerful publisher in two states, Arizona and Indiana. Despite initial reservations about U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia, Pulliam had switched his full support to President Lyndon Johnson. The Pulliam papers in Indianapolis and Phoenix carried pro-war editorials and the old man lambasted anti-war protesters at any forum he could.
Pulliam also served on the board of the Associated Press, a prestigious seat because the wire service was such a dominant force in the news business. I happened to meet him in early 1966 at AP's New York headquarters at 50 Rockefeller Plaza. An AP correspondent, I had just returned from Vietnam to receive that year's Pulitzer Prize for international reporting. Wes Gallagher, the legendary AP chief who could out-growl any newspaper titan, invited me to lunch. Pulliam would be a guest.
"He's louder in his support of the war than LBJ is," Gallagher warned me, then smiled. "Don't worry, I'll protect you."
But during the meal Gene Pulliam asked nothing but sensible questions about my experiences covering the war. As we dined in Rockefeller Center's Rainbow Room, the 77-year-old Pulliam reminisced of his travels to Europe and the Middle East in the '50s. His grasp of developments overseas was confident and informed. Later I treasured any stories of mine that ended up on the front page of a Pulliam paper.
So now, 30 years later, I was traveling to Indianapolis. Pulliam's son, "Young Gene" Pulliam, in his 80s and his health declining, still ran the papers. I was armed with a rough survey I'd taken of the Star's use of international news the previous November. The big story had been Saddam Hussein's defiance of the United Nations weapons inspection teams. American members had been expelled precipitously from Iraq. The U.S. military buildup seemed to presage another round in the Persian Gulf War, with American lives at risk once more.
Yet the Star had little coverage beyond the obvious headlines. Only a tiny percentage of the newshole was international, even though this was once world-traveler Gene Pulliam's proud flagship, the main provider of news to central Indiana. What had happened?
I'll put it simply: International news coverage in most of America's mainstream papers has almost reached the vanishing point. Today, a foreign story that doesn't involve bombs, natural disasters or financial calamity has little chance of entering the American consciousness. This at a time when the United States has become the world's lone superpower and "news" has so many venues--papers, magazines, broadcast and cable TV, radio, newsletters, the Internet--that it seems inescapable. So how is it that Americans have never been less informed about what's going on in the rest of the world? Because we, the media, have stopped telling them.
Sadly, that includes the vast majority of our newspapers. "The top 50 papers in the country do a good enough job--the other 1,550 dailies don't do anything," says Edward Seaton, owner-editor of the little Manhattan Mercury (circulation 13,000) in heartland Kansas. The worldly Seaton is the current president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and is so concerned about the disappearance of foreign news that he has made reversing the trend his top priority at ASNE. "For the average citizen of the United States," he says, "there is no international news available anywhere unless there is a major crisis."
Newspapers have been among the last holdouts. A few of the big boys--the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal--have stubbornly maintained substantial foreign reporting staffs and produce sterling reports. Many major metros still do a serviceable, if spotty, job. Coverage of global finance and such hot-button regional issues as immigration and trade are on the upswing. But that said, the rest of the newspaper industry has capitulated to the ominous trend that began in the wake of Vietnam and accelerated with the end of the Cold War.
Broadcast television has essentially left the field. (Ironically, the rise of my own employer, Cable News Network, exacerbated this situation.) Magazines followed suit; foreign covers, we've been told, are the newsstand kiss of death.
At newspapers, when the money crunches of the early '90s forced editors to pare budgets and newsholes, foreign reports were a major casualty. With the fall of communism, Washington bureaus for such chains as Cox, Gannett, Hearst and Scripps Howard eliminated or greatly pared their coverage of the State Department. Individual papers that once rightly bragged on their own foreign affairs coverage--Cleveland's Plain Dealer, the Detroit News and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, to name a few--virtually gave it up. As paper after paper wrestled with priorities, what resources there were stayed home. Local ruled.
Consider Indianapolis. In the 30 days of November 1997, by simple yardstick measurement, foreign news accounted for just under 3,900 column inches. That equals one full page of news a day. Not great for those big Thanksgiving-season issues; not bad, either. But if you consider the same month in 1977, the Star totaled 5,100 inches (adjusted for today's wider measure) of international report. So there was a 23 percent drop over two decades.
Of course, that's only a snapshot and should be taken as such. Frankly, there's precious little data on this subject. But in the late '80s, in one of the few consequential attempts to get a handle on the trend, a California State University professor of journalism, Michael Emery, measured the space that 10 major American papers devoted to foreign news. Emery found that it constituted only 2.6 percent of non-advertising space. That figure, Emery discovered, was down precipitously from similar (albeit less rigorous) surveys during the early '70s. And the papers he examined were standard-bearers--like the New York Times, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Tribune and St. Louis Post- Dispatch. One can only wonder how minuscule the percentages would be at the smaller papers most Americans read.
Beyond quantity, the trend also involves an overall reduction in the prominence of foreign news. Even at metro papers that still offer a reasonable diet of stories from abroad, a subscriber can go for days at a time without seeing one crack the front page. And the sheer number of foreign stories is clearly down. If you want to find out what actually happened the day before in a far-off place, the news is apt to be in those now-ubiquitous "World Roundups." On many days, in the smaller papers, those roundups are all you get.
My travels turned up no indications that this decline will be reversed. We would do well to fear the consequences of such a benighted state of affairs. In a new introduction to his 1996 book, "International News and Foreign Correspondents," scholar and media critic Stephen Hess points out that "the United States is increasingly one nation and two media societies. Particularly as this gap relates to knowledge of the rest of the world, Americans who have the time, interest and money will be awash in information, while those with limited resources, who probably rely on an evening network television program and a local paper for news, will not get the information that reflects the importance of the world for their lives."
So many editors embrace the canard that readers don't want foreign news. Yet surveys just don't bear this out. In a 1996 poll, for instance, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press asked readers what kinds of news stories they regularly follow. Fifteen percent said international affairs--just one point below Washington politics, and slightly ahead of consumer news (14 percent) and the celebrity stuff (13 percent) that gets cranked out these days by the boatload. American newspaper readers instinctively realize that with today's interconnectedness, what happens halfway around the world directly affects them. A one-day, 500-point swan dive on Wall Street is laid to the collapsing Asian and Russian economies. Recessions abroad threaten American jobs. Terrorists blow up U.S. embassies. We launch cruise missiles in response. Iraq continues to flout U.N. resolutions and the American will. India and Pakistan engage in nuclear one-upmanship. There's the Mideast. Korea. Kosovo.
The world presses in on us, even in Indianapolis.
My taxi driver, Earl Gibson, told me the Indianapolis News was his paper. He talked enthusiastically about its coverage of the Indiana Pacers basketball team. I asked if he cared for international news. "Hell," he responded with a laugh, "all those years..they were talking about the SALT talks with the Russians? I thought they were talking about salt like in shakers, not nuclear bombs!" Earl dropped me off at the turn-of-the-century brick building at the corner of Pennsylvania and New York that houses the Star and the News. He pointed to the large black-checkered flags tied to power poles and to the rows of benches temporarily erected along sidewalks: "We got an Indy 500 parade comin' up!"
An old AP pal, Chip Maury, now director of photography for the two Indianapolis papers, met me upstairs in the second-floor newsroom. He started right in: "Proximity, proximity, proximity--that's what it's all about, that's what they're saying at the J-schools." Maury is gray-bearded, 59, and near retirement. By "proximity," he meant the ascendancy of local news. At the 4 o'clock meeting to determine page one of the next day's paper, I saw exactly what he meant.
Bob di Nicola, the acting wire editor, dealt his budgets round the table. He had culled several pages of national and international story suggestions from hours of scanning wires from the Associated Press, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Knight Ridder-Tribune service and others, a blue-ribbon news motherlode that costs the Indianapolis papers nearly a million dollars a year.
Di Nicola, a 58-year-old news veteran, was pinch-hitting for Jennifer Morlan, an assistant news editor. His picks for page one: President Clinton on a stepped-up campaign against organized crime; Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in Israel squabbling with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; and a follow-up story to India's nuclear blast.
Executive Editor Frank Caperton took his seat at the head of the table. "Where's local?" someone asked impatiently. Moments later "local" arrived in the person of Thomas Leyden, the brassy master of the city desk's 65 editors and reporters. He bustled to his chair and shoved around his lists. A police reporter in Chicago before joining the Star, Leyden has been a fixture here for 18 years. The meeting began.
Editors talked mostly about local stories. An Indiana man with cancer was arrested after admitting on television that he grew marijuana as medicine. A murder exposed the dark side of a high school romance. The governor threatened to sue his auditor. Each of these made it to page one, along with the Clinton press conference on crime. After some debate that evening, an L.A. Times analysis on India's nuclear tests cracked the front. The U.S. demand that Israel give up an additional 13 percent of the West Bank went inside.
Leyden seemed to dominate the meeting, and he did nothing to alter that impression when we talked by telephone a few weeks later.
"Hey, in terms of play in the most precious part of the paper--the A section--it's the survival of the fittest," Leyden told me, with an almost gleeful laugh. "I am a partisan of local news. I want the local story to be played. I fight with everyone if I have to."
Until the early '80s, the Star set aside 10 or more A-section columns--nearly two open pages--for national and international news. But over the past decade, local news has gradually consumed more and more of that space and the front page as well. "A great day for me is an all-local front page," Leyden proclaimed, doubtless speaking for city editors everywhere. Indeed, a few days earlier severe tornadoes had strafed Indiana and blown all other news off page one.
The tornado stories belonged there, without doubt. But the point is, in Indianapolis "there is a temptation to be local to a fault," conceded Ted Daniels, managing editor for news. International stories have to meet a higher threshold just to get into the paper, much less be awarded prominence. Fifteen years ago Daniels himself was wire editor. At the end of the day, he said, he felt fully informed but was frustrated at being able to pass along to readers only 1 or 2 percent of what he'd read. Important regional papers like the Star and News--combined circulation 275,000--ought to avoid the temptation to go all-local, Daniels said.
I also followed up with Jennifer Morlan. It's her job to stay on top of both foreign and domestic news. She told me about her first news meeting. It was late July 1990. The wires were reporting ominous troop movements in southern Iraq. Neighboring Arab countries were concerned. Morlan pushed the story at the page one meeting. But perhaps her newness at the job or her youth--she was 23--went against her. "Someone muttered, 'Sounds like a helluva long way from the Circle,' " she recalled. The story didn't make page one. It didn't even make the paper. The next day Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.
Morlan had better luck a year later. As political instability roiled the Soviet Union, she argued vociferously to move the story onto the front page. This time she had a formidable ally. Myrta Pulliam, the granddaughter of old man Pulliam and the paper's director of electronic media, had just returned from the Soviet Union. She said Morlan was right. The day after the story hit page one in the Star, there was an attempted coup against Mikhail Gorbachev. "I live for moments like that," Morlan said.
Most days, though, she must bow to the inevitable. "If there are three great international stories and three great local stories and I'm page one editor that day," she said, "I'll pick the local stories. That's the way it is here... Sometimes you want to share wonderful stories and events with readers, but you cannot."
Executive Editor Caperton, who came to the Star 15 years ago, was bluntly to the point. "We print the best stories of the day, and that's it," he told me. "No favorites, no biases. I have to worry about readers enjoying our paper enough to renew their subscriptions. You ask about international news? We just cannot shove things with interesting datelines in the paper and serve it like breakfast cereal. We are in more than 55 percent of Indianapolis homes. We want to stay there."
But I reminded him: When Gene Pulliam ran the papers with an iron hand, one of his objectives was to "let everyone's view be known." Pulliam's heightened awareness of the uniqueness of America's free press caused him to change the motto of his papers to read "Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty," words that remain on the masthead today.
Caperton shot back: "At that time, no matter how bad the paper, 90 percent of the population would read it--read it as entertainment. You were assured readership then. Today, people are much more discriminating. We must be more discriminating." Discriminating, as in more local news. Of the newspapers in all the communities I visited, the Indianapolis Star ran the least international news.
My journey made one thing obvious: The very culture of today's newsroom puts wire editors at a disadvantage. They work in solitude, watching the news roll across their screens. Meanwhile, the army of local reporters and editors fills the newsroom with buzz. These days, there aren't even bells from the old clattering teletypes--the once-familiar signal that something happened in the world.
Of course, there are reporters and editors in Indianapolis who remember--as I do--those bells, the wire-room staffers running in with takes, straight to the copy desk. But that's what it is now, memory. The victors write the history..and the local editor, Tom Leyden, made it a short history:
"That was another era--long gone."
I watched international news fade from America's newspapers in the 1970s. International news was my life's work, so I worried as my stories for the AP appeared in fewer and fewer papers. I was stunned by the editorial indifference. I had lived through the Vietnam War, the last great era of the wire services. AP's Saigon staff battled fiercely with United Press International, and a two-minute beat on a big story was still worthy of celebration, and headlines, from Maine to Montana.
But after the war ended, international news fell dramatically out of favor with editors. They were armed with surveys that suggested readers wanted more local news and service-oriented features (though not necessarily in place of world and national news), and they were scarcely immune to the country's inclination to turn inward after the decade-long nightmare of Vietnam. There was less room for crisis stories, much less longer series with exotic datelines.
AP foreign veteran Mort Rosenblum, now senior international correspondent, was so concerned that in 1981 he wrote "Coups & Earthquakes," the first book to identify the diminishing interest of news executives in international coverage. Rosenblum quoted Harris and Yankelovich surveys showing that nearly half or even more readers were interested in international news. Yet a Harris poll revealed that news executives believed only 5 percent of readers cared. "Many of them allowed themselves to be guided by their own instincts--and prejudices--than by the polls," Rosenblum concluded.
Which may explain why there has never been a full-scale debate over this peculiar idea that there's room to publish an adequate local report, or room to publish an adequate foreign report, but not both. To me, it's a case of journalists making an ideological issue out of what is, in fact, a cost issue--and not a very big cost issue. Building in one additional page a day to beef up a paper's existing international coverage would cost a fraction of 1 percent of its operating expenses, yet would do much to ensure a foreign report that at least touches all the bases. Most newspapers of any size guarantee a certain amount of space for, say, the sports report, but except for the New York Times and maybe a handful of other top papers, how many set aside minimums for international news?
At the AP, whose showcase foreign report had won a fistful of Pulitzers over the years, editors struggled to cope with the growing apathy. The wire service had always hewn closely to the inclinations of member newspapers, so it responded to suggestions that foreign news be better related to the audience, that detail be traded sometimes for explanation, that "people reporting" become an important element in explicating complex international crises.
I did my own lobbying with America's editors at the annual AP Managing Editors conferences and on assignment around the country. One editor assured me, "Peter, when your byline's on a story on the wire, I can tell you our editors are eager to read it. Whether they use it in the paper is another matter." What came through to me in these conversations was that the editors believed my stories had already been told--on network TV. Walter Cronkite's avuncular "and that's the way it is" seemed to bring down the curtain on that day's news. For many newspapers, it meant curtains for foreign news. We'd been scooped.
The technological advances of TV news coverage in the '70s were a wonder to behold but a horror for print hacks like me. I remember scribbling in my notebook at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines early in 1973 as American POWs returned home from Hanoi. They came off the planes into the lenses of cameras beaming their emotional reunions around the world. Bernie Kalb and Liz Trotta had already told the story to network audiences before I could even get to my typewriter to bang out a bulletin.
The cost of those live broadcasts was enormous, but the networks operated their news divisions under relatively altruistic management. Bernard Kalb's brother Marvin, another CBS News star of those years, recalls meeting with network founder William Paley, who encouraged his staff to get the POW story on the air at any cost. "I have the Jack Benny Show to pay for it," Paley told him.
I, too, marveled at the immediacy of TV news, the powerful synergy of picture, sound and voice. But all the while I knew: Print reporters were dispensing far more substantial information. Cronkite himself, a former wire service man, had no illusions about this. At the height of his considerable fame, Cronkite encouraged viewers to turn to their newspapers each morning to get the stories behind the networks' 30-minute nightly summaries. But as more and more people told pollsters they relied primarily on TV for national and international news, mainstream newspapers opted increasingly for what networks could not cover--local news and sports. The hometown paper could get an outright clamp on local coverage. Meanwhile, I got tired of wheedling my own AP stories into the nation's newspapers. I couldn't beat the enemy, so I joined it. In 1981 I signed up with Ted Turner's infant Cable News Network.
Doom-criers predicted that an all-news channel could never be profitable. CNN quickly proved them wrong. It provided viewers with an exhilarating immediacy and rode the cable boom. Then, unexpectedly, the major networks began to stumble. In the mid-'80s, corporate owners sliced budgets and trimmed staffs. Foreign news coverage plummeted. A 1987 New Yorker cartoon noted the retreat: "Owing to cutbacks in our news department, here is Rod Ingram to guess at what happened today in a number of places around the globe." The decline was detailed poignantly in the 1991 autobiography of former NBC News President Reuven Frank, "Out of Thin Air." He wrote, "Like all American companies and later than most, broadcasting had moved from supplying customers to maximizing stock prices and their managers' bonuses... The old role, our way, had served a long time. Never had Americans known so much about the world in those years. It would be enough to be remembered by."
In the heyday of Walter Cronkite, John Chancellor and Frank Reynolds, at least 40 percent of television news was international. These days the figure is at best 12 percent and dropping to as low as 7 percent. Americans who'd developed the habit of getting at least a fix on international affairs from network news were now getting virtually nothing. That CNN had introduced a new era in dramatic, real-time TV news coverage was salutary but beside the point; the audience was too small.
In the print world, a harbinger of the decline of foreign news was the meltdown of UPI in the '80s. From a peak of 200 bureaus in the United States and around the world, with more than 1,200 employees and several thousand clients, UPI tottered into bankruptcy twice after Scripps Howard unloaded it in 1982. AP, a cooperative owned by America's newspapers, had effectively knocked UPI out of business. After Vietnam and with the emergence of Watergate, the energy crisis and other domestic concerns, the industry wanted less international news--and fewer papers could afford to subscribe to both comprehensive services. Today UPI is owned by Middle East Broadcasting, a Saudi company, and is down to a dozen bureaus in the United States and abroad. Said one former staffer, "UPI's only real assets are its name--and Helen Thomas," referring to the legendary doyenne of the White House press corps.
Ironically, the demise of UPI encouraged the supplemental wire services, such as Knight Ridder-Tribune, Cox and the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post syndicate, to fill the breach. There was renewed commitment on the part of some major papers, in the early and mid-'80s, to an overseas presence. For instance, Knight Ridder, starting from scratch in 1979, had 18 foreign correspondents by 1986. Its news service went from serving mainly its own papers in the early '70s to upwards of 350 clients in recent years. Other premiere and emerging papers, such as Newsday, the Boston Globe, the Christian Science Monitor and the Dallas Morning News, moved to keep pace.
But the supplemental services were not immune to the recession of the early '90s and the waning appetite for foreign news. Knight Ridder's foreign correspondents have always belonged to its major subsidiary papers, but in the past year the company began consolidating the foreign operation in Washington. More than a few editors--inside and outside the company--fear that Knight Ridder will now essentially duplicate AP's work and deprive the chain's metros of the chance to tailor a foreign report to their own audiences. But the company said the centralization came about in part from frustration: Knight Ridder's own papers were using too little of their foreign report.
Media specialist Hess, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, made the same point in his book: Foreign coverage is there, but not the commitment to publish it. "The newspaper industry almost requires us to move to certain large cities if we wish to be well-informed about the state of the world," he wrote. To prove his argument, he examined the 2,000 news stories used in 20 mainstream papers (ranging in size from the Arizona Republic to the Grand Rapids Press) that appeared on one day--September 28, 1994, a date chosen because no major global events occurred to skew things. Hess found the papers used an average of only 4.5 international stories a day, other than briefs. He also found that the AP still set the agenda for international news in the United States, and that in addition to its trademark breaking news, it produced interesting enterprise pieces. "But few get published," Hess asserted, "and what is even more troubling is my finding of how few first-rate overview articles coming from the supplemental services..are chosen by newspaper wire editors."
Hess was right. There are still talented reporters out there producing terrific stories. They're just not getting used. As part of this examination of foreign coverage, the Project on the State of the American Newspaper canvassed papers around the country to find out how many staffers they have working full-time (or on exclusive contract) in foreign postings. Not including the Wall Street Journal, whose overseas reporters focus predominantly on financial matters, our count is 186--not a lot, considering there are more than 1,500 daily newspapers.
If you include the Journal, the total is a more respectable 286. In fact, the overall number of newspaper reporters abroad may actually be up in recent years, a development almost certainly attributable to the exploding interest in business and finance. Today thousands of business journalists (and quasi-journalists) around the world are doing largely specialized work for specialized consumers who can and will pay for the information. Not much of this work, however, trickles down to everyday consumers.
That is the discouraging reality the AP must face. It puts out a superb international news report, paid for by all of America's newspapers, that's hardly being touched.
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