Vanishing Foreign Coverage? The Web is the Answer

In this past Sunday’s Washington Post, Pamela Constable, a veteran foreign reporter, became the latest in a string of op-ed writers to lament the the “Demise of the Foreign Correspondent.” Constable made a compelling case for the necessity of foreign coverage:

Today, Americans’ need to understand the struggles of distant peoples is greater than ever. Our troops are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, countries that we did not know enough about when we invaded them and that we are still trying to fathom. We have been victimized by foreign terrorists, yet we still cannot imagine why anyone would hate us. Our economy is intimately linked to global markets, our population is nearly 20 percent foreign-born, and our lives are directly affected by borderless scourges such as global warming and AIDS. Knowing about the world is not a luxury; it is an urgent necessity.

But instead of stepping up coverage of international affairs, American newspapers and television networks are steadily cutting back. The Globe, which stunned the journalism world last month by announcing that it would shut down its last three foreign bureaus, is the most recent example.

Last month, Fred Hiatt of the Washington Post initiated the recent spate of op-eds on this subject with a very similar piece, similarly titled “The Vanishing Foreign Correspondent.” John Hughes of the Christian Science Monitor followed up on Feb. 7 with “U.S. Media Can’t Cover News if They Don’t Cover the World.”

All of these pieces identified a real and important problem. The solutions they proposed, or rather implied (these pieces never really got past the lamenting stage), however, struck me as oddly myopic and unimaginative. All three writers are former foreign correspondents for their respective newspapers, and all three displayed an almost atavistic longing for the world as it was when they were up-and-coming journos.

Specifically, the permanent, expensive foreign bureau seemed to be their lodestar, and they all three portrayed the print newspaper as the only oasis of journalistic quality and virtue in a world that’s being degraded by wire services and the Internet.

Here’s Constable, for example:

In an effort to cut costs, newspapers are replacing bureaus — which require staffs and cars and family housing — with mobile, trouble-shooting individual correspondents. The erstwhile bureau chief in New Delhi or Cairo, chatting with diplomats over rum punches on the veranda, is now an eager kid with a laptop and an Arabic phrase book in her backpack. Freelancers can help cover more remote or incremental stories, and newswire agencies can cover breaking news in global hot spots — but neither is enough.

. . .

Don’t we learn more about Islam from Anthony Shadid’s wide-ranging Post interviews with thoughtful Muslims in Egypt and Turkey than from images of the latest bombing in Baghdad? Don’t we identify more with Sharon LaFraniere’s New York Times portraits of village customs in Malawi and Mozambique than with dry reports about the grim toll of AIDS across Africa? If newspapers stop covering the world, I fear we will end up with a microscopic elite reading Foreign Affairs and a numbed nation watching terrorist bombings flash briefly among a barrage of commentary, crawls and celebrity gossip.

On the same theme, Hiatt says foreign bureaus “allowed for a depth and variety of reporting, analysis and interpretation beyond what wire services and foreign media provide. Foreign bureaus helped regional newspapers attract talented reporters, who in turn returned to their home newsrooms with a sense of the world that worked to readers’ benefit.”

But in a world of cellular and satellite phones, email and the Internet, can’t a journalist outfit his hotel room with much of what in the past could only be provided at the bureau? Is it worth paying $250,000 a year — what Constable estimates is the minimum cost for supporting a foreign bureau — to house that old telex machine?

And there is of course nothing magical about the print newspaper format that makes it uniquely suited for distributing quality journalism. These veterans — I won’t be so disrespectful as to say dinosaurs — dismiss the Internet a bit too casually, with familiar allusions to the shrillness of blogs and the Internet’s penchant for the quick and the shallow.

But isn’t it strange for those who have dedicated their lives to a business and a craft that’s essentially about communication to dismiss so readily the instrument of the greatest communications revolution the world has ever seen?

This dismissal is especially strange given the economic conditions that Hiatt et. al. recognize are at the root of the “vanishing foreign correspondent.” If an economist set out to imagine a miracle technology that could best address the business challenges faced by newspapers (distribution, printing costs, the challenge of capturing the interest of the next generation, etc.), he would reinvent the Web.

What’s more, the Internet is in its infancy. Perhaps new media organizations haven’t yet solved the problem of replacing the kind of thoughtful coverage that used to be provided by the myriad foreign correspondents employed by newspapers. But they’re working on it, and getting there fast. We like to think our humble operation is helping to lead that charge.

As I wrote in an email to Hiatt, and in a letter to the Monitor editor (scroll down), we’re finding that, though the bureaus may have vanished, the foreign correspondents really haven’t gone anywhere. I’m not just talking about the “eager kid with a laptop and an Arabic phrase book in her backpack,” as Constable put it. Many experienced foreign reporters have embraced the Web as a new outlet for their work, and see in it great promise for providing the new business model that will continue to sustain their reinvented careers.

Finally, I have no doubt in my mind that nimble, Web-based operations stand a better chance of finding and identifying the “eager kid” that will be the next great foreign correspondent than any newspaper does. I know enough great young foreign-focused journalists who can’t get their foot in the door at major newspapers to realize it’s not just changing industry economics that’s hurting newspapers. It’s also their unwillingness to adjust hiring and promotion practices to a new world.

In an atmosphere of free-agents and hyper-mobility in the job market, the most talented young journalists aren’t willing to pay their dues at the metro desk for a decade before being sent abroad. They’re already over there, learning about their chosen beat, honing their reporting and writing chops and, yes, publishing their work — on the Web.