In the face of heightened globalization and with the U.S. engaged in two wars, many mainstream news
organizations have turned their backs on foreign news. Newspapers and television networks alike provide much less of it. Many outlets have shuttered overseas bureaus. But a handful of promising startups offer some hope for the future.
Senior contributing writer Jodi Enda (email@example.com) has written about Politico, changes in campaign coverage in the age of Twitter and Bloomberg News in recent issues of AJR.
This article was funded by a grant from the Open Society Institute.
During more than two decades at
the Chicago Tribune, Colin McMahon reported from bureaus in Mexico City,
Moscow, Baghdad and Buenos Aires. He served as foreign editor, directing a
cadre of correspondents as they covered the invasion of Iraq, the war in
Afghanistan, the Palestinian uprising. He was dispatched to Jerusalem for six
months. It was a heady life of globe-trotting that not only allowed him to be a
witness to history, but to bring stories from the far corners of the globe home
to readers in America's third-largest city, readers who live in Chicago's
distinctively ethnic neighborhoods, who often have intensely close ties to
far-flung places and who might not get such a rich diet of newsbreaking
or enterprise were it not for Colin McMahon.
Now McMahon goes by the title
of "national content editor." Once again he oversees the Tribune's foreign news
operation. This time, however, McMahon does not direct a staff of foreign
The paper has none.
The Chicago Tribune, like many
other newspapers, eliminated its storied foreign bureaus during the last
decade's repeated rounds of belt tightening. Instead of overseeing reporters in
the field and helping to shape articles that will form a unique international
report, McMahon runs a desk that receives foreign and national stories from the
Tribune's largest sister paper, the Los Angeles Times. His staff then picks
some of those stories, edits them, trims them if need be and places them
alongside wire service reports to create nation/world "modules" for the Chicago
Tribune and six other Tribune Co. papers.
"We take the content and we
edit it here and add infoboxes, graphics and other
material," McMahon explains. "So we are the central editing and design house
for seven Tribune Company newspapers. We send it fully designed. They drop
Each day, McMahon feeds three
to five foreign stories in prefab modules to the Tribune, the Baltimore Sun,
the Orlando Sentinel and Fort Lauderdale's Sun-Sentinel -- all of which used
to have foreign bureaus -- as well as the Hartford Courant, the Morning Call
in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and the Daily Press in Newport News, Virginia.
Rarely do any of those stories land on a front page. That would complicate the
module. If he has big news, McMahon creates a refer, a potentially sizable box
that summarizes the story on page one and directs interested readers to the
appropriate page inside.
Modules. Content editor. Central editing and design house. Intentionally or not, Tribune Co. has hit
upon the perfect words to describe a modern, industrialized, assembly line
approach to foreign (and sometimes national) news. And while the chain's
particular method of providing identical pages for a variety of papers might
not be the national norm, its pared-down vision of foreign reporting is.
Eighteen newspapers and two chains have shuttered every one of their overseas bureaus in the dozen years since AJR first surveyed foreign coverage for the Project on the State of the
American Newspaper (see "Goodbye, World," November 1998). All but two of them
eliminated their last bureau sometime after 2003, the year the United States
invaded Iraq and the last time AJR conducted the survey. Many other papers and
chains reduced their coterie of foreign correspondents, meticulously choosing
which bureaus to close. What's more, an untold number of regional and local
papers have dramatically decreased the amount of foreign news they publish.
Television networks, meanwhile, slashed the time they devote to foreign news
and narrowed their focus largely to war zones.
Remarkably, NPR is the only mainstream media organization that serves up a heartier foreign report, with
more bureaus and correspondents than in the past, to a chiefly American-based
audience, according to the survey. While Bloomberg News also has opened more
foreign bureaus, a majority of the terminals where their stories appear are
overseas. The "big four" national newspapers -- the Wall Street Journal, New
York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times -- all continue to have
vibrant foreign reports, though each has closed some foreign bureaus in recent
As the mainstream media steadily retrench, a mix of startups has stepped in to help fill the news
vacuum. With fellowships, grants and freelance contracts, new entries into the
foreign-news business are providing alternatives for journalists intent on
reporting from overseas, for editors who need to augment their reports and for readers
looking to supplement the now-limited offerings of newspapers and television
There is no pretending they can completely make up for the formerly dynamic coverage in many national and
In closing all their outposts abroad, a number of newspapers -- most notably the Boston Globe, Newsday,
the Philadelphia Inquirer and some Tribune Co. papers -- put an end to long,
much heralded traditions of delivering foreign news in their own way to their
own readers, of covering patches of the globe that their audiences had a
particular, sometimes singular, interest in. They covered breaking news and big
stories, to be sure. But, perhaps more often, correspondents from these papers
were ahead of the news or off it completely, telling stories about interesting
people, places and customs that you just couldn't read anywhere else.
They had passports. They wandered. And they took their readers with them.
Many editors say that kind of reporting was a luxury. Now, with some noteworthy exceptions, it is a relic,
gone the way of paper tape and the pica pole. Unlike those artifacts of days
past, foreign bureaus were not replaced by new technology. They were not
replaced at all.
Colin McMahon and his counterparts across the country have learned to make do. Rarely do they contend
they are doing more with less, the can-do mantra of the early years of budget
cuts. They merely do the best they can.
McMahon is one of the lucky ones. He has his pick of stories produced by L.A. Times foreign correspondents
and relies less on wire services than his counterparts at many midsize papers.
He might not have his own staff of reporters, but most readers are unlikely to
know the difference. It could be worse.
"I'm happy with a lot of the things that we do," McMahon says. "I'm happy with this approach. It's easy for
the reader and it makes a lot of sense for the new reality.
"I'm not happy with the new reality, though. I think this is the best solution, but I wish it were 2004
again, when I was a foreign correspondent. I don't think there's anybody at
this newspaper, including the editor, who wouldn't want 13 foreign
Jon Sawyer was less accepting of the "new reality."
Sawyer had long been the Washington bureau chief for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, but he made his name
reporting and writing major projects from distant shores. By his count, he
traveled to five dozen countries, many more than once and for weeks at a time,
during three decades as a newspaper reporter.
"There were a number of big, regional papers that were determined to have their own voice and report on
global issues," Sawyer recalls now. "That was changing, and changing quite
rapidly, in the early 2000s."
The swift decline and, in some cases, wholesale disappearance of original foreign reporting at some of the
nation's premier papers created a yawning journalistic void. Increasingly,
big-city newspapers relied solely on wire services to provide foreign news.
Space tightened again and again. Local, local, local became louder, louder,
louder. No longer did papers have the space to run fascinating yarns about how
people lived in remote, little-known villages thousands of miles away. They
barely had the staff necessary to cover their own backyards. Neither did they
have the resources to develop foreign stories that were not only interesting
but also important stories that might explain a culture or a country in
ways that either foretold or underscored key global developments in places like
Pakistan, China or Congo.
So when the Pulitzer family sold the Post-Dispatch and 13 other newspapers to Lee Enterprises in 2005 (see
"Lee Who?" June/July 2005), Sawyer, fresh from reporting in the Middle
East decided to chart a new course. He asked Emily Rauh
Pulitzer, the wealthy widow of newspaper magnate Joseph Pulitzer Jr., for seed
money to allow him to build a program that would support the kind of
international stories the Post-Dispatch and other papers seldom would produce.
Video Interview with Jon Sawyer Video by Kerry Davis
The idea, Sawyer says, was to help finance reporters, young Jon Sawyers, if you will, who would go
overseas for weeks at a time and produce in-depth projects for regional
newspapers and broadcast outlets. His hope, Sawyer says, was that once
reporters produced one or two such stories with help from outside, they would
be able to make the case that their employers should pay for future projects
themselves. In that way, the money would have a ripple effect.
Sawyer is one of a handful of journalists trying to step into the foreign news breach with inventive and
varied upstarts. John Schidlovsky is another. He founded the nonprofit International Reporting Project to finance foreign
reporting in 1998 when he began to witness what then was a gradual
decline in international coverage but has expanded and shifted the
center's course to meet the changing needs of journalists. A newer addition to
the mix is Philip Balboni, who in January 2009 launched GlobalPost, a for-profit Internet venture
that pays freelance reporters based overseas for regular submissions to its
round-the-clock news report. (See "Foreign Affairs," April/May 2008.)
None of these endeavors replicates the old model of hiring reporters, paying them a living wage,
providing them benefits, sending them and their families overseas with generous
expense accounts and housing allowances and interpreters and "fixers," and
dedicating prime real estate in the paper or on nightly newscasts to their
reports. Whether those days are over or simply on hiatus at most media outlets
is anyone's guess. The new models, for-profit and non, require
journalists to be more resourceful and nimble to make a (frequently modest)
living, patching together freelance gigs and travel grants that allow them to
report from overseas.
The organizations founded by Sawyer, Schidlovsky and Balboni have become the beneficiaries of the great migration of reporters from daily
newspapers. Each of their organizations has been inundated with entreaties from
foreign correspondents who have left the news organizations that they feel
abandoned them or, perhaps more to the point, their readers. "These are really
talented people who have many years of working for major newspapers behind
them," says Schidlovsky. "They could still be working
for the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Philadelphia Inquirer, if
those papers didn't downsize."
Even some reporters who remain at papers that have a foreign presence, including the New York Times and
Washington Post, occasionally seek outside funding for specific projects that
their papers wouldn't otherwise undertake, say Schidlovsky
and Sawyer. Both of their organizations, which underwrite individual projects,
have partnered with reporters from large papers to produce stories with foreign
datelines. The Washington, D.C.-based International Reporting Project has
worked with journalists from "almost every organization in the country," says Schidlovsky, himself a former foreign correspondent for the
Both the IRP and the Pulitzer Center prefer to finance journalists working on stories that are unlikely to be
reported elsewhere, often in developing and under-covered parts of the world.
The need is great. Schidlovsky says he receives 300 applications for about 40 grants a year. Since he founded it a dozen years ago,
he says, the program has sent 174 reporters overseas to a total of 92
countries, for five weeks at a time, and given them another four weeks to work
on their projects in Washington. It has sent 156 senior editors to foreign
countries for two weeks of intensive learning.
When he started the IRP, Schidlovsky intended to provide lengthy training and
kind of a mini-master's degree to reporters who were employed by
newspapers and hoped to become traditional foreign correspondents. But as one
paper after another closed foreign bureaus, he realized he needed not only to
teach reporters how to work overseas, but to get them there fast. Few
applicants to his program could afford to spend an entire semester learning about
international reporting. They had to just do it.
Phil Balboni has a wholly different approach. He doesn't send journalists overseas; instead,
he pays reporters who have traveled abroad on their own dimes to write for him.
The founder and past president of New England Cable News, Balboni was dissatisfied with foreign news coverage long
before the latest cutbacks. As many as four decades ago and throughout what
most people regard as the zenith of international news, he judged the range and
variety of stories as "modest, at best, and insufficient." In 2006 and 2007, he
wrote a business plan for an Internet-based foreign news service that he hoped
would make a profit and meet what by then had become a gaping need. Ultimately,
Balboni raised $10 million from wealthy investors,
including Ben Taylor, former publisher of the Boston Globe.
Nearly two years ago, Balboni and Executive Editor Charles Sennotta,
former foreign correspondent for the Globe, launched GlobalPost.
In October of this year, the site had 1,278,000 unique visitors, Balboni says.
produces a wide-ranging daily foreign report of relatively short stories
written each month by 100 to 120 reporters who have planted themselves around
the globe and support themselves with freelance gigs. None of the writers will
get rich working for the Boston-based enterprise, which pays them $250 for
stories of 600 to 800 words. The 50 or 60 reporters who are on contract to
write at least one story a week also receive shares of stock in the privately
owned company. Larger projects and video reports command higher prices, Balboni says. Despite the low pay, he says, there are more
journalists who want to write for the Web site than it can accommodate.
"Most of the people writing for
us are seasoned journalists," Balboni says,
reaffirming Schidlovsky's experience. "They are
committed to being in a place for a substantial period of time."
Unlike the nonprofit outfits, GlobalPost earns most of its money through advertising. It
also syndicates its content to newspapers, Web sites, radio stations and
television networks in the United States and abroad, Balboni
says. A third source of revenue is membership, which costs $2.95 a month or
$29.95 a year. Though most parts of globalpost.com can be accessed at no cost,
the nearly 600 readers who have signed up to be members are privy to additional
content. They also get to vote, once a week, on a story they'd like to read.
The top vote-getter then is ordered up from a GlobalPost
Balboni views his as an all-purpose site, with news and features that touch on most of
the big stories going on in the world. He boasts that he has readers not only
in the United States, but in almost every country in the world.
Says Balboni, "We can present a fantastic smorgasbord of reporting that is interesting and
important but that is not on the agenda of AP."
Jon Sawyer is not enamored of the smorgasbord approach. Smorgasbords, after all, are speedy, inexpensive and,
well, their fare generally cools quickly.
Tall and graying, Sawyer sits with his back to a window six floors above Massachusetts Avenue in Washington's
chic Dupont Circle neighborhood. He is surrounded by mementos of his years on
the road, photos and knickknacks from the glory days of late 20th century
American journalism. Yet he is not living in the past, pining for what he (and
many others) refer to as "the golden era." His computer screen is evidence of
his adroit transition to the 21st century.
Sawyer adjusts his mouse and clicks to proudly display project after project financed by the Pulitzer Center
on Crisis Reporting, which in nearly five years has amassed an annual budget
upward of $1.7 million. The center produces 50 to 60 projects a year, far fewer
than GlobalPost. That's OK with Sawyer. His are
stories that dig deeply into the kind of issues generally ignored by the
mainstream media: a child bride's struggles in Sudan, birth control in rural
India, Maoist insurgents in Nepal, disappearing wetlands in China. "We're not
interested in covering things that are going to get covered" by other outlets,
It's an impressive display. Yet the center didn't work out the way Sawyer planned. "Unfortunately, the pace of
retreat from media outlets was astounding," he says. "When I started the
Pulitzer Center, the Post-Dispatch, the Inquirer, the big regional papers were
what I thought would be my big platform. For the most part I was wrong. They no
longer have foreign editors. There's no budget for freelancers. There's no
space in the papers."
Like Schidlovsky at the IRP, Sawyer had to alter his approach. Rather than partner with regional
papers, he works more often with more nationally focused outlets, including the
Washington Post, The Atlantic, PBS' "NewsHour." He
offers travel grants directly to journalists and works with them to place their
stories. The grants typically run from $3,000 to $10,000 but are sometimes
substantially larger. More than three-quarters of the reporters he finances are
freelancers, Sawyer says.
That "new reality" most of the journalists he backs don't have regular paychecks has prompted
Sawyer to find ways to give them small stipends and to help them market their
work. The reporters come up with ideas and submit brief proposals that contain
budget estimates, placement plans and descriptions about the long-term value of
each project. That last point is critical: Sawyer wants stories that have a
The Pulitzer Center also expects reporters to blog from the field while working on their projects. The
blogs keep the Web site fresh and also give the center's staff ammunition to
place upcoming projects in traditional media outlets. That, after all, is the
goal. Sawyer wants projects that will be published and reproduced far beyond
the center's Web site. So he and his full-time staff of nine (plus four
interns) peddle the stories, primarily to newspapers and television outlets,
which typically pay the reporters small amounts for their work.
The center expands its reach with an educational component, something Sawyer describes as part marketing,
part journalism, part consciousness raising in the sense that it enhances
students' awareness of and interest in critical global issues. The Global
Gateway program sends journalists to classrooms across the country to discuss
their Pulitzer Center projects with middle school, high school and university
students. In some cases, the journalists mentor students who are working on
video projects of their own. In others, they help teachers draw links between
global and local issues. The goal is to build a larger audience for
international news, now and for the future, and to provide the reporters with
additional income in the form of honoraria.
The Pulitzer Center, born five years ago out of one man's desire to salvage the kind of international
reporting that his newspaper used to pursue, has financed the projects of 180
journalists and worked to place them in outlets all over the country. It is but
one response to the "new reality," one way to try to bridge the foreign news gap.
"Things are lost," Sawyer says, "and things are gained."
A common refrain among editors whose papers have cut foreign reporting is that not only is it outrageously
expensive, it can, thanks largely to the Internet, be found
elsewhere. In other words, not all that much is lost.
"There are still a lot of places where you can read that kind of coverage," says Arnie
Robbins, editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, whose paper seldom sends
reporters overseas anymore -- just as Sawyer foresaw. "You can read it all
online. So even though there are fewer voices out there, it's more
But in the next breath, Robbins
points to one of the flaws in that line of thinking: "Many editors would
say -- I would say -- we're concerned about the lack of voices in foreign
coverage. When you have fewer voices, you're concerned not about the accuracy,
but the context."
It's true that anyone eager to
read anything about nearly anyplace in the world can do so online. If your
local paper doesn't carry enough foreign news to satisfy you, you can read the
New York Times, either in the flesh or on the Web. Or the Washington Post, or
the Los Angeles Times or the Wall Street Journal or one of several specialized
publications, such as Foreign Policy. You can peruse GlobalPost.com or
Pulitzercenter.org or Internationalreportingproject.org. You can go to the Web
sites of countless international policy foundations and nonprofits,
international institutes and university programs and read what their experts
are up to. And you can read oh-so-many foreign newspapers, conveniently
translated into English by high-tech wizardry. Foreign news really does abound.
If you look for it.
But how many people do that?
W. Joseph Campbell, a former
foreign correspondent who teaches international journalism and media at
American University, says many people don't go the extra length to seek out
foreign news if it's not in front of them, either on the front page of their
newspaper or on the nightly TV newscast. They take the easy route; they go
"If you really are enthralled
by, fascinated by, a particular topic internationally, it's easier than ever to
find good, solid reporting," Campbell says. However, he continues, "You're more
likely to find a serendipitous story, one you weren't looking for but find
compelling, in a newspaper than online."
In other words, people who are
especially engaged by another country or steeped in an international issue can
and will find lots of stuff about it if they look online. The casual newspaper
reader or television viewer, on the other hand, the person who doesn't Google
Phnom Penh or Nairobi or nuclear nonproliferation, is less likely to trip
across a story that catches his or her eye, less likely than before to
accidentally discover something new and interesting about a place. Less likely
to come upon that old-fashioned yarn.
And there are consequences.
The Internet, says Leslie H.
Gelb, president emeritus and board senior fellow of the Council on Foreign
Relations, is "no substitute" for solid, in-country reporting by experienced,
unbiased journalists. Foreign reporting, he says, is essential to an informed
electorate as well as to the development of
"You can say, 'What the devil
difference does it make?' The difference that it makes is that the United
States is still the most important country in the world," says Gelb, formerly a
reporter and editor for the New York Times and a senior official for the State
and Defense departments. "Even China will say that America is the leader on any
international issue. The interested public in America absolutely has to have
reliable information about what's going on in all those countries. Otherwise,
our leaders do dumb things, and the American people never know about it. It's
just that important.
"Just look at getting into Iraq
or into Afghanistan," he says. "There were very few people who knew these
countries who could tell us what it would be like once the boots were on the
ground there, what we would be running into. We developed that capacity after
the fact...You need reporters on the ground who know those places who can do the
reporting. It's very unlikely to come from papers in those countries. That's
not their tradition, particularly in Asia."
Stephen Hess, senior fellow
emeritus at the Brookings Institution, is of the same mind. It is a "great
tragedy," he says, when news outlets close their foreign bureaus. Even the
organizations that still send reporters overseas often concentrate almost
exclusively on war coverage. "Take away places where Americans are fighting,
and it's even more pathetic a picture," Hess says.
Indeed, an AJR report in the
summer of 2002 revealed that, after the terrorist attacks of the previous year,
newspapers beefed up their foreign coverage, sent more reporters abroad and
devoted more space to international stories than at any time since the Cold
"The two stories dominating the
foreign report, Afghanistan and the Middle East, are certainly filled with
bombs and disaster. Those two stories are eating most of the space allotted for
foreign news, even if that space has increased somewhat since the attacks on
the World Trade Center and the Pentagon," Stephen Seplow
wrote more than eight years ago (see "Closer to Home," July/August 2002).
"Those caveats aside, there does seem to be a new acceptance of the notion that
what happens abroad affects local readers as residents of the world's most
important country. It deserves good play. And more space should be devoted to
"How long will this last?" Seplow asked. "The general consensus: The appetite for
foreign news will remain hearty for some time; it will slowly dissipate, but it
is not likely to become anemic again in the foreseeable future."
In hindsight, those post-9/11
years appear to have been a blip.
Just six years after that story
appeared in AJR, the Project for Excellence in Journalism reported in July 2008
that international news was "rapidly losing ground at rates greater than any
other topic area." According to the PEJ report, "The Changing Newsroom," 64
percent of newsroom executives said that in the previous three years, their
papers had reduced the amount of space apportioned to foreign news. And 46
percent said they set aside fewer resources to cover foreign stories. Just 10
percent considered foreign coverage "very essential," the report said.
During the Cold War, newspapers
and television stations saw a distinct need to cover foreign news, particularly
from the Soviet Union and Europe, Hess says. When the Iron Curtain ceased to
exist about two decades ago, "that was a good excuse for cutting back," he
Airtime on the three major
networks illustrates the shift. In 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell, ABC,
CBS and NBC devoted a combined 4,828 minutes to international news, according
to a tally by the Tyndall Report, which monitors network broadcasts. By 2000,
after more than a decade of steady decline, the three networks aired only 2,127
minutes of international news during newscasts that totaled between 14,500 and
16,000 minutes, the Tyndall Report says.
Foreign coverage by the
networks increased with the terrorist attacks in 2001, and reached a peak in
2006, with 3,059 minutes of international news. Last year, despite the United
States' involvement in two wars, the networks allotted only 2,070 minutes to
foreign news -- less than they had during the relative calm of 2000.
During the first 10 months of
2010, coverage has increased somewhat, to 2,247 minutes. Andrew Tyndall,
publisher of the report that bears his name, attributes the uptick this year to
two events: the Haitian earthquake and the rescue of
Not only are the networks
devoting less time to foreign news, the reports they do air emanate less often
from their bureaus and more frequently from reporters who parachute in to cover
specific stories. This doesn't bother Tyndall, who attributes the shift to
improved technology and travel, which make it easier for reporters both to move
around the globe and to transmit stories than in decades past.
"If you're going to cover
Haiti, does it matter if you're sending someone from the Mexico City bureau or
from Miami?" Tyndall asks. "You send them down to Chile, does it really matter
what airport they left from to get there? Even in the heyday of foreign news
coverage, there were vast areas of the world where they didn't have a bureau."
For the past few years, NBC has
dedicated more time to international news than its competitors. In 2009, for
instance, NBC's newscasts included 722 minutes of international news, compared
with 664 and 686 for ABC and CBS, respectively, Tyndall reports. Still, that's
a far cry from the 1,490 minutes of international news that NBC aired in 1989.
Alexandra Wallace, an NBC News
senior vice president, says things started to change about four years ago, for
two reasons: the ad market softened and technology allowed reporters "to do
more with less."
"I hate to use such a
business-y term, but we right-sized our organization," Wallace says.
She acknowledges that the
right-sizing has come at a time when Americans' involvement in foreign countries
has increased, not only because the nation is caught up in two wars, but
because of the global economy and the Internet. "I think the population is
engaged in the rest of the world in a way that it probably wasn't before," she
says. "This generation is absolutely global. Their Facebook
friends are in Dubai."
But how much does NBC report on
Dubai? If you search several NBC Web sites, you might come up with a clip on
the world's tallest building, which opened there in early in 2010. You'd be
hard-pressed to learn much else about the emirate.
No matter how much editors and
producers say they value foreign news, statistics show that they don't value it
enough to bestow the kind of time or space to it that they did in the past. The
Tyndall Report illustrates the decline among television networks. An AJR
analysis of eight regional newspapers shows a similar drop in that medium.
Consider: On seven days in 1985, the Cincinnati Enquirer, Dallas Morning News,
Fresno Bee, Philadelphia Inquirer, Providence Journal, St. Louis Post-Dispatch,
Tampa Tribune and Portland's Oregonian collectively published 689 foreign
stories, editorials and op-eds. On seven days this year, the same papers printed
just 321 such pieces. In 1985, 102 of the stories -- almost 15
percent -- were staff-written; this year, only 14 or 4.3
percent of them were.
"Some of it is hard to
measure," says American University's Campbell, "but it's a real loss."
There are three approaches to
foreign reporting: Don't do it (use the wires), do it sporadically (parachute
in) or do it all the time (maintain bureaus).
is an avid all-the-timer.
Gutman was based in Bonn, Germany, as Newsday's European bureau chief in 1992 when,
during a trip to the former Yugoslavia, he first heard the term "ethnic
cleansing." He spent months in the region ferreting out a story that would
horrify the world: Bosnian Serbs had set up a network of concentration camps,
where they imprisoned, beat, starved and murdered Muslims. With the endorsement
of top state officials, whole villages were deported and women systematically
raped. Gutman's work in 1992 and 1993 prompted the closure of some of the worst camps, and the
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees credited him with saving 5,000 to
"If Newsday had not let me
follow my nose in the Balkans, I'm sure that the ethnic cleansing, genocide,
would have been reported, but who knows when, how, to what degree and to what
extent it would have been a clear-cut story instead of 'on the one hand, on the
other hand,' " Gutman says now.
Working in a bureau and getting
to know a country or a region of the world enable reporters to pick up on
things that outsiders -- even seasoned journalists (and former foreign
correspondents) -- who parachute in for days or weeks would be much less
likely to learn, he says. When you cover city hall or the police department or
county courts, you go there day in and day out, get to know the terrain, learn
the issues, develop sources, become a presence. Covering a piece of the world
is like covering any other beat, writ large. You have to do basic,
shoe-leather reporting. You have to get to know the place, the people, the
Unfortunately, Gutman says, very few newspapers spend the time or money to
get to know the world anymore. They have downsized so much that if they have
foreign bureaus at all, they tend to be in war zones, places where the story is
obvious and, to a great extent, dictated by government actions. Fewer reporters
from fewer news outlets have time to get off the beaten path, to do what Gutman did when he followed his nose and uncovered
"It's so sad," he says.
"American journalism, it seems to me, when applied to the world, has done
exceptionally good work, and it's vital for the American public and for the
democracy. And to be pulling back as we are having to is more than hurting,
it's really tragic."
Newsday, which Tribune Co. sold
to Cablevision in 2008, no longer has foreign correspondents. Top editors did
not return repeated phone calls for this story, and a spokesman said no editor
was available for comment. The paper won four Pulitzer Prizes for international
reporting between 1985 and 2005. One, in 1993, went to Gutman.
now serves as foreign editor for McClatchy, working from its Washington bureau.
In the four years since he accepted that job, his budget has been halved.
"We've had to shrink almost every year," he says.
Gone are McClatchy bureaus in
Jerusalem, Berlin, Nairobi, Moscow, Tokyo and Rio de Janeiro. "Baghdad went
from being a very expensive and major operation to a pared-down operation" in
which McClatchy this year shared a correspondent with the Christian Science
Monitor, Gutman says. (The partnership ends January
1.) There was some good news: McClatchy opened bureaus in Kabul and Mexico City
and has maintained those in Beijing and Cairo. The chain uses stringers to
cover Jerusalem and Islamabad.
"I'm excited for what we still
have. I'm depressed for what we've lost," Gutman
says. "Literally, you don't want to lose anything. You need to be everywhere.
We're not covering Europe or Russia right now, which is egregious. It's not as
important a story to America right now as Mexico or Afghanistan, but big things
"What we've done is reduce
ourselves, in a sense, to a series of war bureaus as kind of an irreducible
minimum, plus Beijing," he says. "If you have to do a triage, those are places
you cannot leave. But there's all the rest of the news that we're not covering
the way that we'd like to."
Although he admires some of the
stories produced by organizations like the Pulitzer Center and the
International Reporting Project, Gutman doesn't think
they adequately fill the void. To really sense what's going on in a region, to
catch the nuance and notice trends, you have to be in-country, he avers.
"Some of the projects coming
out of there are absolutely first class," Gutman
says. "But they are projects. You wouldn't be able to spot the shift in
Pakistan policy in the tribal areas based on a three-month project. And that's
the test. What are the turning points?...You have to follow your nose."
sees it, there are two major impediments to foreign coverage: money and
interest. Maintaining a bureau costs hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in
correspondents' salaries, rent and supplies, money for local staff and $4,000
or $5,000 a month in travel expenses, he says. Even if you can afford the
upfront expenditure, you face a significant problem on the back end, as
newspaper editors shun foreign news in favor of local stories.
"Foreign is not everybody's top
priority," Gutman says. "I like to be competitive on
the daily coverage. In a number of our papers, something we regard as a
first-class foreign story could be a brief. But other papers devote significant
space to stories we feel are important."
Fortunately for Gutman and his correspondents, the people who run McClatchy
still value what they do, even if some individual editors at the chain's 30
daily newspapers don't. And, in an ironic twist, Gutman
says, his reporters' stories often receive better play in non-McClatchy papers
that subscribe to the McClatchy-Tribune News Service. "We do offer an
alternative to the [New York] Times' coverage, which tends to be long and
exhaustive, and AP's, which is shorter, tighter and tends to be re-led [with
new tops] and often fact-laden. We try to be well-written," he says.
In days gone by, a number of
newspapers and chains provided alternatives to the wires and the New York
Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times. Now, you can
count them on one hand. "We've lost those extra voices," Gutman
says. "So we're losing the fabric of coverage."
For a long time, the Baltimore
Sun was revered for its national and foreign reporting. Nothing was off limits
to its journalists, recalls Robert Ruby, the paper's last foreign editor. "It
regarded its readers as adults and as people who were interested in the world.
And the world extended beyond Baltimore, it extended beyond Maryland, it extended
beyond the U.S. There was this very untypical belief that the Sun could tell
the story for its readers better than anyone else could on a given day. And if
the story was in Moscow, so be it. If the story was in Annapolis, so be it.
That was the DNA of the paper. The economic model for much of the 20th century
could support that idea."
Ruby left the paper in 2006 and
now directs communications for the Revenue Watch Institute, a New York-based
nonprofit that "promotes the responsible management of oil, gas and mineral
resources." (Initially, the organization was financed by the Open Society
Institute.) Ruby says things started changing at the Sun when Tribune Co.
bought its parent company, Times Mirror, in 2000.
"There's a smaller newshole. What goes into the newshole
in almost every case is shorter than it used to be," he says. "If one really
thinks that all news can be homogenized, then the argument that it doesn't
matter who writes it would be correct. I don't happen to believe that. If you
accept the argument that you only need one person covering a story, then having
different voices doesn't matter. But I don't buy that either.. I think we would all agree that there
are many different stories to write about, say, the White House on any given
day. There are many ways of writing about what Congress does. Certainly, it's
reasonable to believe that we're losing something, readers are losing
something, intelligence is losing something, if we only have one or two or
three voices coming from Moscow or Jerusalem or Lima."
When it shuttered its last
foreign bureau, in Jerusalem, in 2006, the Philadelphia Inquirer closed the
door on an era in which its reporters felt that, at home or abroad, nothing was
impossible. If they had a good idea, they pursued it. And it paid off in a
paper rich with stories -- important, interesting and, very often,
prize-winning -- that you just couldn't find anywhere else. (Disclosure: I
worked at the Inquirer during
Vernon Loeb was an Inquirer
foreign correspondent based in the Philippines from 1989 to 1992, when the
paper had six foreign bureaus. Now the deputy managing editor for news, he
oversees a newsroom staff that plummeted in size from 680 during the fat and
happy years "back in the day," Loeb says, to 280 today. Its recent
trajectory is one for the ages: corporate-mandated cutbacks, higher profit
margins, new owners, bankruptcy, buyouts, layoffs, empty desks, more new
owners, much uncertainty. The paper is now in the hands of creditors of the
local group that acquired the Inquirer from McClatchy in 2006.
To hear Loeb tell it, the
Inquirer still has grand aspirations, but it lacks the resources to accomplish
them all. So it scales back, strives to be the best at less, concentrates on
local news and covers the world in spurts.
"For foreign news, we mainly
use the wires, and we send our own reporters out pretty robustly when there are
stories that really speak powerfully to Philadelphia in some fashion or that
are of such magnitude that it almost cries out to send somebody," he says.
Haiti cried out. In the
aftermath of the earthquake in January, the Inquirer sent two reporters to the
Caribbean country. Feature writer Melissa Dribben
traveled with Philadelphia-area medical professionals who volunteered to aid
victims. She ended up producing a series of stories about a Haitian-American
nurse practitioner who left his home in Florida to join the relief effort.
Former Jerusalem correspondent Michael Matza flew to
Haiti with doctors from a Camden, New Jersey, hospital and also wrote about a
woman whose arm was amputated by a surgeon from the University of Pennsylvania.
Both reporters returned to the island later in the year and, all told, spent
four weeks there, Loeb says.
The Inquirer also sent a
reporter to Afghanistan for a month to embed with troops alongside a local
doctor. And it sent Dribben to Hungary after a
sightseeing boat capsized in the Delaware River, drowning two students from the
small Hungarian town of Mosonmagyaróvár.
"We still have foreign
ambitions, and we still do foreign reporting, but it's much more episodic,"
Loeb says. "Our readers now get more news from the New York Times and the
Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. Do the readers notice that? I don't even
"When we had our own bureaus
and could tailor our own coverage, it probably made a difference. Foreign
reporting was more a part of the fabric of the paper," he says, choosing the
same term as Gutman.
"By the same token, look, we're
living in the real world here."
The real world of bankruptcy,
of struggling to survive.
The "new reality."
Local. Local. Local.
"Our bread and butter is local
and regional coverage," Loeb says. "It's not foreign and national coverage. I
don't think that's probably going to change anytime soon, as much as I'd love
to open six foreign bureaus again. Most of the top editors here have been
national or foreign correspondents. We know how to cover the world and the
nation. We're going to do it when we can give our readers something special."
Though it no longer has foreign
bureaus and slashed its national staff from seven bureaus to a lone
Washington reporter who concentrates on projects, the Inquirer still saves
space on the front page each day for some foreign and national news, Loeb says.
In that way, it is different from many regional papers. "Most of our readers
get all their news from us," he says, tacitly rejecting the notion that
newspapers don't need to provide foreign news because it is available
elsewhere. "We are the indispensable news source for a lot of people, and they
count on us for foreign and national news."
Not so the Detroit News. In
March 2009, the News, which is owned by MediaNews Group, and its partner in a
joint operating agreement, the Gannett-owned Detroit Free Press, reduced home
delivery to three days a week to save money. A scaled-back version of the
papers is available at newsstands on other days. "The amount of newshole available for foreign news has been curtailed,"
says News Managing Editor Don Nauss.
The News relies on the
Associated Press for most of its foreign news and on Bloomberg for business
news from overseas. "We aren't aware of any significant complaints," Nauss says. "I don't think people in general look to us for
The News last had a foreign
correspondent in Germany in 2003. Detroit is an automobile town,
and the correspondent, Daniel Howes, focused on the
auto industry and the merger between Chrysler and Daimler. When Howes returned to Detroit, the bureau remained empty and
then closed. Editors considered opening a bureau in Japan or, alternately, in
Southern California, where a number of Asian automakers base their U.S. sales
offices. They did neither.
"That all kind of fell by the
wayside as our business changed," Nauss says. Daimler
sold Chrysler to an equity firm and the newspaper's resources tightened. "Some
of our ambitions had to be pared back...
"There's no question that
newspapers in the past 20 to
25 years have reduced their troops on the ground abroad,
and I'm sure that has some impact on our isolationist views of the world. But
we have to face the reality of what we can do monetarily."
The News will send reporters
overseas on occasion. In 2010, such parachuting was limited to Haiti, to cover
Michigan's response to the earthquake.
At the Post-Dispatch, in
another industrial Midwestern city, Arnie Robbins
made precisely the same decision and dispatched a reporter and a photographer
to document St. Louisans' relief work in Haiti.
Although he laments his paper's
diminished foreign coverage, Robbins says the tradeoff is worth it. Money and
space, both less abundant than they once were, now are given to hard-hitting
local stories, the kind that require digging, the kind that make a difference.
"It's about priorities. Our
priority is primarily local," Robbins says. "It's increasingly public service,
investigative reporting, high-impact enterprise, which takes time. If I had to
choose between that and overseas travel, I'd take local high-impact
Some papers, primarily those
that view themselves as national or international in scope, still spend a lot
of money on foreign coverage. The Wall Street Journal has 35 foreign bureaus;
the New York Times, 24. The Washington Post maintains 17 bureaus and the Los
Angeles Times, 13. Though each paper's international coverage remains strong,
each one has closed some bureaus during the past seven or eight years.
Then there's NPR, one of the
very few mainstream news outlets that has completely bucked the trend to trim.
In the past decade, its foreign bureaus have mushroomed from six to 17, and it
has part-time correspondents in two more, says Senior Foreign Editor Loren
Jenkins. The calculation was simple, Jenkins says: "It was perceived that this
was an area that needed coverage, and we were the people to do it."
It didn't hurt that while most
other media outlets were experiencing enormous revenue losses, NPR received an
infusion of money. There were two principal reasons. Its audience, which grew
consistently through the 1990s, shot up after September 11, 2001, when many
public radio stations around the country switched their focus from music to
news, says Ellen Weiss, NPR's senior vice president for news. That shift
translated into increased payments from member stations that air NPR programs
and more listener donations to the nonprofit, which relies heavily on the
largesse of its audience. To top it off, when she died in late 2003, Joan Kroc,
widow of McDonald's founder Ray A. Kroc, left NPR more than $200
million -- an amount that the Washington Post reported was more than twice
as large as the organization's operating budget at the time.
The combination allowed NPR to
add three foreign bureaus between 2003 and 2006 alone, during the same period
when regional newspapers were shuttering their overseas offices and bringing
their correspondents home.
Now, a full 30 percent of what
NPR broadcasts in reports from its correspondents and on-air interviews is
international in scope, Jenkins says. He and Weiss emphasize that, while it
covers Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, NPR also sends reporters to parts of the
globe that many news outlets ignore, places where the United States is not
involved in wars. Weiss is particularly proud of NPR's presence in sub-Saharan
Africain Dakar, Nairobi and Johannesburg. "While there is a lot of
conflict there," she says, "the purpose is to explain to people that Africa is
far more important and intricate than conflict and genocide."
Fewer than 10 blocks west of
NPR's headquarters in downtown Washington stands the bland, brick box of a building
that houses the city's dominant newspaper. Jenkins worked for the Washington
Post in 1983, when he won a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting for his
coverage of Israel's invasion of Beirut and its aftermath. He and Douglas Jehl, the Post's foreign editor, share a keenness for
and his colleagues at the Post have had to make the difficult decisions that
Jenkins and Weiss have not. The paper has closed some foreign bureaus and
opened others, for a net loss of three since 2003.
Like so many papers from coast
to coast, the Post has gone through a series of painful cutbacks and
compressions. A number of its best-known and most seasoned reporters have taken
advantage of repeated buyout offers. The capital's think tanks, foundations,
nonprofits and PR shops are littered with former Posties and
its staff is stretched thin. Nonetheless, Jehl
asserts that the paper is committed to foreign coverage, in part because it is
so closely linked to official Washington.
"It's expensive, but it's vital
to a paper that is for and about Washington, and I think we have a staff that
is large enough to provide insightful, penetrating, value-added coverage to the
parts of the world that matter most going forward," he says. "We certainly are
smaller than the [New York] Times and the [Wall Street] Journal. We're
certainly a lot smaller in terms of foreign coverage than Bloomberg, Reuters,
the BBC. It does mean we need to pick our shots. But I think we can and are
doing a terrific job covering the world through the prism of what matters most
to Washington, to American foreign policy and, in some ways, [to] the way the
Top Post editors opted to
maintain the bulk of their foreign bureaus even as they decided in late 2009 to
close the paper's remaining national bureaus in New York, Los Angeles and
Chicago. It previously had shut down bureaus in Miami, Austin and Denver.
Then-Post media writer Howard Kurtz, who this fall departed for The Daily
Beast, called the move "a significant retrenchment."
"The money-saving move, coming
on the heels of four rounds of early-retirement buyouts and the closing or
merging of several sections, is the clearest sign yet of the newspaper's
shrinking horizons in an era of diminished resources," Kurtz wrote in November
of last year. He quoted Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli
as saying that the paper could "effectively cover the rest of the country from
says the same claim could not be made about covering the world. It might save
money, but at great cost.
"We do feel, in terms of
foreign coverage, that you cannot replace the kinds of insight and sourcing and
understanding gained by living in a foreign country and immersing yourself in
that culture. The task of becoming a sophisticated observer and translator of
foreign countries is difficult," says Jehl, formerly
a correspondent in the New York Times' Cairo bureau. "You've got language,
you've got culture, you've got logistics, you have the enormous gulf between
what your readers know and the realities on the ground and the task of
interpreting and making sense of that."
acknowledges, there have been sacrifices.
"We recognize that with a staff
of our size, we couldn't cover all parts of the world equally, particularly
when the paper's mission is to cover Washington," he says. "We decided to leave
unfilled our bureaus in Rio and Johannesburg in order to throw more resources
at Afghanistan and Pakistan, to reopen a bureau in the Arab world outside of
Baghdad and to make sure we were covering China as vigorously as we can."
Just as some regional papers
choose to cover international stories that have particular resonance with their
readers, the Post concentrates much of its foreign coverage on issues and
countries pertinent to its audience. But there is a big difference. The Post's
stock in trade is not coverage of local stories, but of national ones. So its
international report tends to have foreign policy implications.
"We're providing readers
everywhere with a report that's framed around what matters most to a capital
and to a government that remains the most powerful and influential in the
world," Jehl says. "It's not like we're providing
localized coverage. I think we're providing coverage that reflects developments
that are most important out there."
He also dismisses heavy
reliance on the wires or other organizations, such as GlobalPost,
reasoning that his reporters put foreign developments in context for their
readers in a way that the rest do not.
And so, Jehl
says, the Post will continue to spend millions of dollars a year on foreign
bureaus. That said, the paper has saved money by directing most foreign
correspondents to close freestanding offices and work out of their homes, and
by hiring some reporters on a contract basis, which allows the Post to pay them
less and to withhold benefits.
"What we want to do is to
maintain our news coverage, maintain the ability of correspondents to travel
widely and to report intensively, and so we try to save money in other places,"
The Post's cuts have been
nothing compared with those undertaken by the Los Angeles Times, which closed
43 percent of its foreign bureaus when it went from 23 in 2003 to 13 today. The
downsizing is even more striking when you consider that the L.A. Times is
providing foreign coverage for all the Tribune Co. papers, several of which
also closed bureaus in the recent past.
In fact, just seven years ago,
other Tribune Co. newspapers -- the Baltimore Sun, Chicago Tribune, Orlando
Sentinel, Fort Lauderdale's Sun-Sentinel and Newsday (which the chain has since
sold) -- had 25 foreign bureaus among them. None of those papers has any
Although the rest of the chain
obliterated its bureaus, the L.A. Times' foreign
editor, Bruce Wallace, says the paper "has made a commitment" to foreign
reporting. "Foreign news is an integral part of the Los Angeles Times. It's
part of the corporate mission to do this kind of reporting. We get our stories
on the front page almost daily. Our A section opens with world news. The other
thing we're doing is our correspondents increasingly write for other parts of
the paper" on such subjects as the arts, entertainment, business and global
health. "It infuses all of the paper and the Web site with more of a global
feel, a global reach. It's stitched into the fabric of the paper," he says,
invoking the same language as Gutman and Loeb.
"What the company decided to
do," Wallace says, "is make the commitment to stay in the game. But they also
decided they couldn't replicate it throughout the company. That's not a bad
decision... I think the most important thing to realize is that world news is
not icing on the cake. It's not something to get rid of when you're thinking of
ways to save money."
Wallace says his staff might be
smaller, but it's still "robust" and large enough to produce a daily report
along with enterprise reporting. "You do need a staff of a certain size.
Otherwise you become a boutique operation. Which has been done," he says. "But
those operations didn't survive."
"Those operations" would
include the ones run by the L.A. Times' sister papers, most notably the Chicago
Tribune and Baltimore Sun, which in 2003 staffed 10 and five foreign bureaus,
respectively. Editors at the Sun declined interview requests. But at the chain's
flagship Chicago Tribune, Colin McMahon, the editor who compiles the foreign
news for most Tribune Co. papers, says he is satisfied both with Wallace's
foreign report and with his own paper's decision to plow money formerly spent
on foreign bureaus into local investigative and watchdog reporting.
"Before, we were a pseudo
national paper in the Midwest," McMahon says. "We're not that anymore. Now
we're a day-to-day watchdog paper. It's a stronger identity than we had
"What you don't get is that story
about a Chicagoan in Siberia. I think that that brings something to the report,
but it's not a make-or-break thing. Most readers want to know about the Chicago
City Hall and how it affects their lives.
"That's a great bit of
chocolate that we miss."
McMahon provided plenty of that
"chocolate" when he was in the field, with beautifully crafted stories that
gave Chicagoans a true taste of wherever he happened to be in the world. He
wrote vividly about a Jewish Autonomous Region in Russia that was bereft of
Jews; about the impact of Iraq's guerrilla war on one Baghdad neighborhood;
about the alarming, violent deaths of Mexican peasants who dared to oppose one
state's governor. He went to Pisco, Peru, to explore
the strained relations between Peru and Chile and used the grape brandy that
shares the port city's name as a symbol of the discord.
Some of the stories were
weighty, some less so. Each shed light on faraway lands and people and
cultures, on corners of the world that wouldn't otherwise be in the media