Some months ago, while exploring files in the nearly empty, ink-blackened basement of the old New York Times building on West Forty-third Street in Manhattan, I came across a 1968 memorandum from Seymour Topping. The longtime foreign correspondent had just been put in charge of foreign news, and his memo outlined the changes he planned.
The emphasis on getting spot news first, Topping argued, was outmoded. This he chalked up to the “special challenge” of electronic journalism, with around-the-clock radio news and what he perceived as the glimmerings of real-time television coverage. “Foreign news dispatches on news agency printers,” he noted, are “shown on TV screens at about the same time those dispatches come into the wireroom.”
He also insisted that it no longer made sense for the Times to view itself exclusively as the paper of record, simply reproducing arcane diplomatic documents. “For much of the detail of the daily developments, which we formerly reported,” Topping wrote, “the historian will go in the future to the computer-regulated data bank rather than specifically to The New York Times.” This observation—made when computers were large, clunky machines owned by institutions, not individuals—was so far ahead of its time that someone had scribbled “?” in the margin of the file copy.
The Times under Topping became, as he directed, “less preoccupied with the daily official rhetoric of the capitals. . . . Our report should reflect more fully the social, cultural, intellectual, scientific and technological revolutions, which, more than the political, are transforming the world society.” Soon Topping’s title was changed from the traditional “foreign news editor” to the more commanding “foreign editor,” which it remains to the present day. His competence and steady hand later elevated him to managing editor. But the significance of that moment in the paper’s history transcends Topping’s insights.
Owners, editors, and correspondents have constantly tinkered with notions of what foreign news should be, how it should be covered, and by whom. The Chicago Daily News created the first great newspaper foreign service, a model for systematic expert reporting by American correspondents. Owner-editor Victor Lawson, one of the greatest newspaper geniuses of all time, began the service on the heels of the Spanish-American War as “largely an experiment.”
Understanding the evolution of this experiment, marked by trial and error, matters especially today. The edifice of foreign newsgathering appears to be disintegrating, rather like a massive building demolished by internal detonation—in this case, the exploding economic model for mass media. Respected foreign services run by The Baltimore Sun, Newsday, The Boston Globe, and The Philadelphia Inquirer have been obliterated. By late last year, none of the three broadcast networks stationed full-time correspondents in Iraq, a war zone with 130,000 American troops. Among weekly newsmagazines, the most telling trajectory is that of U.S. News & World Report. Over the years, the “W” in World on the masthead became progressively smaller. By November 2008, when the magazine announced that it would cease publishing a weekly ink-on-paper edition, it had eliminated all permanent foreign correspondents.
Still, looking at these changes against the backdrop of history tells us that all is not lost. Modern foreign correspondence is younger than professional baseball and psychoanalysis. We are merely in the foothills of change.
Tthe history of foreign correspondence falls into eras. Beginning in colonial times, printers of newspapers relied quite literally on foreign correspondence—that is, unpaid letter writers with news to share. They were equally dependent on stealing stories from foreign journals, which they rushed to collect from arriving ships. This led to a historical curiosity: although there were no editors, let alone reporters, newspapers carried a greater percentage of foreign news than at any time since. It was not unusual for foreign topics to take up the entire front page of Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette.
In the second period, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, special correspondents emerged. There was George Wilkins Kendall of the New Orleans Picayune, who covered the 1846 Mexican War with a novel sense of urgency; Henry Stanley, who in the era’s relentless effort to “make” news found Dr. David Livingstone in East Africa for the New York Herald; and George Smalley, who, after setting up a permanent London bureau for the New York Tribune, became famous for organizing coverage of major events by teams of reporters.