Isolate at Your Own Peril

Journalists and media critics must increase their global expertise

CAIRO—Even if you deeply love journalism and you’re good at it, you might not be able to find a gainful journalism job in Des Moines or Dallas. Maybe ever. And loading up on new digital production skills and moving to Atlanta or Anaheim might not help, either.

Even in Cairo, arguably the media center of the Arab world, I tell my students that they may have to go elsewhere to get the media job they want. They may have to go more global, I say, and to do so they’ll need more global skills.

We’ve known for a while now that journalism is in a somewhat scary state of change, and that to secure paychecks for ourselves we have to do certain things: Exhibit the sharpest command of language, obtain considerable digital media skills, and show a solid grasp of statistics.

Now, I believe, we are seeing another requisite: international expertise. Look around and ask yourself, “What are the news organizations that seem to have staying power over the next twenty-five years?” Your answer, like mine, probably doesn’t include your local print paper or network affiliate, but rather the world’s most global news organizations, such as The Economist, The New York Times, BBC, Al-Jazeera, NPR, Agence France-Presse, and Reuters.

As international economies and political systems become more interconnected, journalists’ need to gain international expertise will only become more pressing and, if met, rewarded. A firm majority of people alive are not yet Internet users, and many have never used a computer.

As developing countries like Indonesia, Nigeria, India, and Brazil become more Internet-connected and their literacy rates rise—as well as, we would hope, their fiscal standard of living—online consumption of global news will skyrocket. Does a budding journalist need to learn Pashto, backpack across Central Asia, and earn a master’s degree in international relations to get a job at the BBC? Perhaps not, but I can tell you that this ascendant reporter would be far more likely to get hired in the more prestigious reaches of the field.

A highly entertained misperception of modern journalism is that international news is on the way out, because many American newspapers, like the withering Washington Post and Baltimore Sun, have wiped out their foreign bureaus or have gone hyperlocal in attempts to survive. But what we’ll see in the coming decades, rather, is an explosion in international news consumption and greater ability of global news outlets to attract advertising revenue. If The New York Times does things right, in fifteen years I don’t see why they couldn’t boast 10 million unique monthly visitors in India alone.

Even the biggest “domestic” U.S. news stories of summer 2010—the BP spill, the ongoing unemployment crisis, and, much less consequential, the Islamic center near Ground Zero—are decidedly global stories. Editors and producers wanting the most comprehensive coverage of these issues would do best to assign reporters with knowledge of international markets and geopolitics.

What does this mean for CJR?

Journalism educators and journalism watchdogs, CJR included, need to become more global, too. This is why the “Borders & Bylines” column was created. As new CJR publisher Cathryn Cronin Cranston told Mike Hoyt in a recent interview, an immediate method of securing more revenue is to “expand CJR’s international presence.” Journalism is going global like everything else, and the publications and organizations that monitor the trade must as well.

CJR does, of course, currently offer analysis of international reporting. I’m reminded of a strong examination of vibrant print newspapers in Kenya from earlier this year, and I’ve been contributing international commentaries over the last seven months. But CJR’s content could be a bit more global, and when I proposed a column devoted exclusively to international journalism trends, the editors graciously accepted.

In the coming months and hopefully long beyond, I’ll be filing monthly columns—sometimes more—from places like Cairo, Kuwait, Tunisia, the United States, and others; scrutinizing, criticizing, and sometimes praising international press institutions, individual reporters and editors, and the governments under which they operate. Much of my writing focuses on matters of free speech in the developing world, as this is the world I live in, and I’m turned screeching-kettle hot when journalists and their work are restricted or harmed. In all of my dispatches, though, I will try to bring more on the world’s journalism to CJR readers.

There’s so much out there beyond the borders and the bylines. Thanks for setting out with me.

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Justin D. Martin is a journalism professor at Northwestern University in Qatar. Follow him on Twitter: @Justin_D_Martin