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From AJR,   April/May 2007

“Global News is Local News”   

Online Exclusive » Why McClatchy maintains the network of foreign bureaus it inherited from Knight Ridder

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.     

In a recent column decrying the cutbacks in foreign coverage by the U.S. media, I mentioned that much of the burden now falls on the major national newspapers.

But there's also a newspaper chain that hasn't turned its back on the world.

McClatchy has a network of nine bureaus that it inherited when it swallowed up Knight Ridder last year. They are in Baghdad, Beijing, Berlin, Cairo, Jerusalem, Mexico City (now vacant), Moscow, Nairobi and Rio de Janeiro, although the company plans to mothball Berlin and open an outpost in South Asia, perhaps later this year.

Both AJR columnist John Morton and I have blasted McClatchy for cherry-picking Knight Ridder, unloading papers that weren't in high-profit, go-go markets, and for jettisoning Minneapolis' Star Tribune. The new owner of the latter, the private equity group Avista Capital, promptly took an ax to the staff.

But McClatchy deserves props for keeping the foreign staff and blending the strong Knight Ridder Washington operation with its own. Knight Ridder had distinguished itself with its against-the-grain reporting on Iraq, and that tradition has continued under McClatchy. John Walcott, who was Knight Ridder's bureau chief, kept that role with McClatchy, directing the operation with Washington Editor David Westphal. Another Knight Ridder vet, Mark Seibel, oversees the foreign coverage as the bureau's managing editor for international news.

So why is McClatchy maintaining those costly foreign bureaus while some Tribune Co. papers and the New York Times Co.'s Boston Globe are shutting them down, when the ubiquitous mantra in the newspaper business is "local, local, local"?

"Global news is local news nowadays," Howard Weaver, the company's vice president for news, wrote in an e-mail to AJR. "There's never been a time in our history when world events had greater impact on Americans--terrorism, security and war in Iraq, obviously, but also immigration, job outsourcing, international trade, African genocide and the possibility of pandemic flu or other global diseases. Does this seem like the right time to cut back?"

Apparently a lot of people think so.

It's trendy in some quarters to dismiss foreign coverage as a self-indulgent frill. But Weaver says his company is looking for meat-and-potatoes news, not esoterica and exotica.

"We're not too interested in G8 conferences or glitzy summits in Davos--but we think Americans care a lot about their friends and family fighting in Iraq, about how opinions on the Islamic street get shaped in Cairo, about why commercial aviation is especially hazardous in South America right now."

The newspaper business is beleaguered as circulation steadily drops and advertising strays to the Internet. Anxiety about the future reigns. And McClatchy is no stranger to economic considerations, as its sell-off of newspapers makes clear.

"Everybody knows newspaper economics are being reset, and that affects us at McClatchy like others," Weaver says. "We have to make tough budgetary choices and delay some hiring and scale back some plans. But we also know why we're in this business in the first place: public service journalism. That's a mission embraced from the CEO on down around here. Why else be in the news business?"

It's an excellent question.