Even in earlier eras, correspondents typically traveled quite a bit from their home base. Today’s correspondents are even more mobile, and can quickly reach a breaking story almost anywhere. The ease of travel has made it desirable to think of correspondents as issue experts as much as place experts. After September 11, 2001, for example, the Washington Post’s Berlin reporter ranged widely as a terrorism correspondent; its two London correspondents reported on the transnational issues of migration, religion, and global digitalization. (This, too, was foreseen by Seymour Topping: “[S]taffers who have specialized knowledge and experience will be moved with increasing frequency across bureau lines.”)
The trick now is to set up support networks for peripatetic correspondents. Broadcasters have begun placing reporters, camera staff, fixers, and producers at strategic locations around the world. abc took this further in 2008 by opening one-person bureaus in seven cities, including New Delhi, Jakarta, Dubai, and Nairobi. Most of the work of these bureaus is done for the network’s Web site, but they provide a newsgathering foundation when a big story breaks.
A second thing that needs rethinking is the for-profit model. This worked well enough when all news came in a few mass-media packages, such as a paper or nightly broadcast, which was underwritten by advertisers who wanted to reach as many people as possible. Readers and viewers who didn’t want foreign news got some anyway, along with the stuff they did want. But with the unbundling of news, the audience and the advertisers have migrated to whichever niches suit them best. Needless to say, this has imperiled all traditional news delivery. Yet foreign news is especially ill-served, because it is the most expensive to produce and has the smallest audience. To subsidize it, we must devise new strategies.
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.