US media can't cover the news if they don't cover the world
It used to be that the state of the economy determined the outcome of national elections in the United States.
"The economy, stupid," was the memorable injunction from political adviser James Carville to Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign team.
But now it is international affairs that dominate. It was foreign affairs – notably Iraq – that overshadowed the presidential debates of 2004. With the economy chugging along quite nicely, it is foreign affairs – notably Iraq – that will probably loom over the 2008 campaign, too.
It is ironic in this era of globalization, as international affairs rise to the top of the agenda, that some media companies are forsaking the responsibility to inform readers, listeners, and viewers of what is happening in the world, and analyze what it means.
Faced with declining circulation, rising costs, and competition from the Web, some large newspapers are closing foreign bureaus and slashing budgets for travel. Recently, The Boston Globe announced that it would close its last three foreign bureaus – in Berlin, Bogotá, and Jerusalem – after three decades of reporting from staff members based overseas.
The Baltimore Sun is closing its bureaus in South Africa and Russia after closing its bureaus in Britain and China earlier.
In the television news field, CNN is maintaining its position abroad, but the other major networks have long since been closing foreign bureaus and withdrawing resident correspondents. Instead, they resort to "parachute journalism," which means dispatching US-based reporters for short spells abroad when important news breaks. The downside of this is that the reporters parachuted in do not have the background, sources, or cultural sensitivities of correspondents who would have been stationed in their respective areas of coverage for extended periods.
All this disturbs columnist and editorial page editor Fred Hiatt, who laments in his newspaper, The Washington Post, what he fears may be the "vanishing foreign correspondent." Formerly stationed in Tokyo, he recognizes that wire reporters from the Associated Press and elsewhere do noble work but says that they generally cannot provide the variety of reporting, analysis, and interpretation beyond the wire services' menu.
After 9/11, writes Mr. Hiatt, there was nearly universal acknowledgment that Americans would be better off if they knew more about the world. But a survey by Monitor correspondent Jill Carroll, studying foreign news coverage at Harvard's Shorenstein Center, found that the number of US newspaper foreign correspondents declined from 188 in 2002 to 141 last year.
In a period of smaller profits, newspapers have been adopting various measures to cut costs and recapture lost circulation. Some have been creating supplementary new print products to boost the budgets of the core newspapers. The Wall Street Journal, following in the path of many other newspapers, is printing on narrower pages, saving millions of dollars annually in newspaper costs.
Some are looking to their Web pages, which have generally been operating on an experimental basis for some years, but which have now begun to gain traction as advertisers perceive their promise. The Wall Street Journal is shifting the coverage of breaking news to its website, while directing longer, in-depth stories to the print newspaper. The Los Angeles Times has announced plans to do much the same thing, moving spot-news to the 24-hour-cycle Web page, while assigning stories and analysis to the print paper.
Times editor James O'Shea indicated that the decision is in part motivated by declining advertising in the print paper. Automobile advertising in his paper will be down $47 million this year compared with 2004 figures, and only half that loss will be recovered with new online ads. "If we don't reverse these revenue trends," he told assembled staff members, "we will not be able to cost effectively provide the news – the daily bread of democracy. The stakes are high."
Newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal have substantial foreign staffs, the cost of which is substantially higher than operating costs for US-based reporters.
Will the foreign bureaus be tempting targets for cost-cutters? Brian Tierney, who bought The Philadelphia Inquirer last year, told The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz: "We don't need a Jerusalem bureau. What we need are more people in the south Jersey bureau." [Editor's note: The original version misspelled Mr. Kurtz's last name.]
Hiatt ponders whether his concerns about the future of foreign correspondence are just "the nostalgia of a dinosaur." Let us hope not. A troubled world needs a steady flow of information about the challenges – and how to resolve them.
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, was a foreign correspondent for the paper in Africa and Asia.