Some Creative Efforts to Take Back Foreign News

International news -- who needs it? The American public, that's who.

It’s nearly five and a half years since the 9/11 attacks, which was supposed to be the day America woke up to world news and started paying attention. Surveying international news coverage here in the States however, it doesn’t look like much has changed.

With more and more American newspapers and broadcast news outlets shuttering their foreign bureaus, it stands to reason that what little we’re getting is bound to shrink even further. In fact, one-time foreign correspondent Jill Carroll, studying coverage of foreign news at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, reports that the overall number of foreign correspondents working for American newspapers fell from 188 in 2002 to 141 in 2006. And that’s with two wars raging in Iraq and Afghanistan, increasing tensions with Iran, the growing power of the Chinese economic machine, an increasingly volatile Pakistan, a deteriorating relationship with oil-rich Venezuela…and the list goes on.

Nowhere was the American public’s ignorance of international issues more on display than in a recent piece by the New York Observer’s George Gurley, who set out to question a group of people about a foreign story they should know well — the war in Iraq — at a Manhattan club. One brain-dead club patron called the war, an “unpleasantry of life,” while another geographically mixed-up waste of space, not engaged enough to realize he was putting a city in the wrong country, felt bad for the Iraqis who can’t to clubbing: “Do you think the Iraqis, little villagers in Kandahar, are doing this?…None of them are. And that’s the sad, awful truth.”

There is something sad about all of this, and it has nothing to do with the inability of Afghanis in Kandahar to partake of bottle service.

Given the cutbacks in foreign coverage, and the level of ignorance many Americans regularly display of foreign affairs, we were heartened to read in the Guardian this morning that the Reuters news service is gearing up to launch a new, African-based news service. Reuters Africa will significantly expand the news organization’s coverage of the continent, and will include a continent-wide network of bloggers and offer video feeds.

This is great news. While we’re at war in the Middle East, and while Iran and Pakistan continue to make headlines, Africa has been given short shrift by many news organizations, (though not all, McClatchy, the New York Times, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor and a few other print and broadcast outlets do file great stories from the continent, and have brave, dedicated reporters doing so on a regular basis).

From the burgeoning terrorist threat in the Sahal region to local conflicts spilling over borders, like from Sudan into Chad and the Central African Republic, to a growing Islamist insurgency in Somalia, there is plenty to report that is of strategic interest to the United States. Couple all that with massive Chinese investment on the continent and the American military standing up a brand new AFRICOM command, and there are more than enough stories to keep a bunch of reporters busy — and about which the American public should be informed. Like we said, the reporters on the ground are doing a good job, but we’re happy that Reuters is stepping up to the plate in adding even more coverage.

We recently noticed another story dealing with the lack of international coverage, in Editor & Publisher. E&P flagged the story of something called Project Syndicate, a non-profit that offers op-eds written by “current and former heads of state, economists, activists, novelists, and other ‘thought leaders’” to newspapers around the world, and which is trying to make headway in the U.S. Thus far, the Syndicate’s pieces are published in 287 newspapers in 116 countries, but it hasn’t caught on here.

Only three U.S.-based newspapers and a Web site subscribe: two Spanish language newspapers and one Chinese language newspaper, and the liberal The San Diego Union Tribune is the only English-language newspaper to subscribe.

Project Syndicate is hardly a cure-all, and the big dailies already publish many of the people that the Syndicate distributes, so it’s not like the service will change the face of the news business. But it’s still an intriguing idea, and one that many smaller newspapers should look to as a way to diversity their op-ed pages and offer their readers a wider, global perspective.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.