In trying to figure out the future of foreign newsgathering, let’s start with this unpleasant truth: Few people really care much about news from abroad. They tell pollsters that they do, of course, but they are fibbing. They know that they should care—after all, everyone knows foreign news is important—or they are embarrassed to admit that events overseas just don’t seem that urgent when they are rushing to gulp down news.
Nor does serious international news sell. Just ask newsmagazine editors: When a foreign news story goes on the cover, newsstand sales head down. Or ask online publishers of international news about the stories people decide to click on. GlobalPost’s cofounder Charles Sennott shared with a New York Times Magazine reporter that two of the most popular stories during his Web site’s first year of operation were about a racy cartoon in India and cat costumes designed in Tokyo.
I do not raise these unhappy truths to suggest we must resign ourselves to news media that ignore the rest of the world. Thinking realistically about foreign news can help us fashion good solutions. So can a little historical perspective showing why finding new ways to do this has become so urgent.
The mass media system that piled up profits for owners in the 20th century served foreign news relatively well. A handful of prestige media with public-spirited owners and relatively elite customers—the New York Herald Tribune, The New York Times, and the Chicago Daily News, and CBS, when it was described as the Tiffany network—excelled at foreign news. Others gave their audiences less, but still something, largely by drawing on wire services. This helped them attract a mass audience, which pulled in advertisers.
This system is sputtering. Foreign correspondence as a standalone business proposition is at a huge disadvantage. It is one of the most expensive kinds of reporting to do, and because of its relatively small audience, advertisers generally are not keen to finance it. The obvious conclusion: We need new ways to subsidize foreign news coverage.
The Christian Science Monitor, with its long tradition of outstanding foreign reporting, points us in one direction. The mother church sustained the paper for decades and still does as the Monitor has moved online. This philanthropic approach is spreading. A good example of the nonprofit model is the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. After selling all their news properties in 2005, Pulitzer family members gave more than $1 million to Jon Sawyer, a former St. Louis Post-Dispatch Washington bureau chief, to start the independent center, which now has multiple donors to help it support journalists as they cover overlooked foreign stories.
One sign of the viability of such a strategy is that old-line news organizations air and publish these stories. Traditional media organizations, however, are often unwilling to pay much for the material they use. There also is the worry that foundations will lose interest as they generally like to move from one intriguing idea to another.
Another way to subsidize foreign news is to charge the consumer more for the reporting than a news organization does. This works especially well with financial news, and it’s a model that The Wall Street Journal adopted early in the digital news era. Bloomberg News, which also charges for some of its financial news, has 105 bureaus overseas, staffed by close to 1,300 reporters, editors, TV technicians, and support staff.
Government support also can help. This is not as heretical as it sounds. For more than two centuries the federal government has supported the news through reduced postal rates and exemptions from unfair trade practices. In the future it could, among other things, grant tax breaks to offset the expense of foreign correspondents or foreign bureaus in the way it provides incentives to encourage private investment.
We are also seeing creative ways to reduce costs. One way is to use technology more efficiently, bypassing costly presses that use expensive newsprint. Another is to make more use of indigenous correspondents, as Global Voices Online does by harnessing the work of bloggers. Yet another is to rely on non-news organizations, such as Human Rights Watch, which chase down facts to make their cases. Former journalists often do this work.
Finally, correspondents are becoming more entrepreneurial. Consider the approach used by former Washington Post correspondent Doug Struck, now a journalism professor. He raised funds for a foreign story idea, starting with the Deer Creek Foundation in St. Louis, then worked on an ad hoc basis with The Christian Science Monitor and the New England Center for Investigative Reporting brought on board journalism students, a source of reporting that has become more important for newsgathering of all kinds. As we are reminded by Kevin Sites, who chased news about conflicts with a technology-laden kit in tow for Yahoo! News and is reporting again from Afghanistan, “freelance operators like me are the rule, not the exception.”
What is clear in this experimentation is that foreign news coverage and correspondents no longer conform to a single elite model such as dominated the profession in the last century. Given the dedication and daring of innovators, new methods for gathering and delivering foreign news will continue to emerge.
As we think of the proliferation in the types of foreign correspondents, let’s keep in mind the entrance of another actor, the scholar. It is a great pity that so few political scientists have seriously studied news in general, let alone foreign news. Fortunately this is changing, one reason being the wild and woolly—and not well-understood—media that new technologies are enabling. Matthew A. Baum’s essay on how audiences respond to foreign news is an excellent example of the analysis being done more often these days. Such scholarship can improve the quality of coverage and suggest ways to engage readers. Freelance journalist Monica Campbell shows, too, how partnerships between journalists and academics can work as she reported from Mexico on the drug wars for a conference hosted by Harvard University’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.
While there are limits on public interest in foreign news, I agree with former BBC news editor Maria Balinska that one of the best ways to enlarge audiences for foreign news is to show how events abroad connect with our own lives. But which approaches will work well remains to be seen. As we’ve learned by now, no model lasts forever. Foreign news always has been a work—really a struggle—in progress. Yet, what has counted most are the extraordinary efforts of those journalists who courageously gather news at great personal risk, as the inspiring stories of Fatima Tlisova and Anne Nivat attest.
John Maxwell Hamilton, former dean of the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University, is LSU’s executive vice chancellor and provost. He reported at home and abroad for ABC Radio, The Christian Science Monitor, and others. His latest book, “Journalism’s Roving Eye: A History of American Foreign Reporting,” received the Goldsmith Book Prize this year.