One approach is exemplified by The Christian Science Monitor, which was supported mostly by its mother church throughout the last century and fielded an excellent foreign service. This nonprofit model, once considered an anomaly, now manifests itself in various ways. The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, funded by members of the Pulitzer family as well as others, supports overseas travel by freelance and staff reporters who want to cover overlooked stories. The Ford Foundation underwrites environmental reporting abroad, and the German Marshall Fund has performed a similar service for NPR’s European coverage. In addition, NPR expanded its foreign bureaus after a $235 million bequest by Joan Kroc in 2003.
There is scope, too, for government help. Uncle Sam already supports the news with reduced postal rates and exemptions from regulations on unfair trade practices that allow troubled newspapers to share facilities. One approach for foreign news would be to create tax breaks to offset the expense of correspondents or bureaus, similar to tax incentives for locating factories in underserved urban areas. Another would be tax credits—say, $2,500 a year—to encourage individuals to purchase premium-service news. If government can support schools, why not news, which is essential to voter education?
Finally, anyone who looks carefully will see that some of the most promising experimentation involves a fusion of the new and old. Many of the most heavily trafficked (not to mention most-trusted) Web sites belong to traditional outlets like The New York Times. In a joint venture with Microsoft, the AP has created “an ad-supported video network,” delivering its own streaming content via a Microsoft online player. Salam Pax, the Iraqi blogger, became a columnist for the ink-on-paper edition of the Guardian in London, even as he produced an old-fashioned book, The Clandestine Diary of an Ordinary Iraqi. Bloomberg News now syndicates its reports to newspapers, magazines, and radio stations, and publishes a magazine. Like Reuters a century and a half ago, it has begun to push beyond its initial customer base in the world of finance.
Another experiment that launched this year is GlobalPost, which makes full use of the confederacy of correspondents. The Boston-based enterprise delivers foreign articles, photographs, video, and audio over the Web by drawing on the services of contract correspondents around the world. Some of these “super stringers” are Americans, some are not. The brainchild of cable-television entrepreneur Philip S. Balboni and Charles M. Sennott, a former Boston Globe foreign correspondent, GlobalPost expects to generate income from three sources: advertising on its Web site, a specialized premium service to individuals willing to pay $199 a year, and syndication to traditional news media. The editorial focus is on news that helps Americans “measure the impact of international events on their lives in an increasingly interconnected world.”
The current round of experimentation has the potential to restore gloried aspects of the past. If consumers become accustomed to paying for foreign news, and if foundations embrace their responsibility to subsidize it, the quality of reporting may well go beyond what was possible when we relied on advertisers—whose interest in the journalism is more limited—to pay for newsgathering. And these heightened expectations will attract more reporters like Paul Scott Mowrer, who wrote in a 1920 memorandum, “It is better to give a first-class service to those who can appreciate it than to aim to please all, and succeed in pleasing none.”
Seasoned correspondents working for brand-name media will become better at sifting through the work of amateur correspondents, many of whom enjoy a level of freedom not seen since the golden years between the world wars. In those days, before editors could call at any moment of the day or night, correspondents explored parts of the world not well understood by Americans—or even, sometimes, by policymakers. Done well, this kind of reporting promises to bring news that might otherwise never surface. Even The New York Times, after all, can field only so many correspondents.
As we recalibrate how we think about foreign correspondence, we may find that we do better than ever, even when it comes to the raw numbers. The past has been fraught with constant lamentation (except in wartime) about the decline in the number of correspondents. But the total decline in the last decade is less than the number of correspondents put in the field by Bloomberg News alone, which has 1,284 journalists and editors outside the United States in about 105 bureaus.