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.

In 1894, Charles A. Dana, the editor of the New York Sun, who early in his career was a pioneering correspondent on Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, commented on the “comparatively new” profession of journalism. “The most essential part of this great mechanism,” said Dana, “is not the mechanism itself; it is the intelligence, the brains, and the sense of truth and honor that reside in the men who conduct it and make it a vehicle of usefulness or, it may be, of mischief.” This, at least, remains unchanged. 

 

John Maxwell Hamilton is the dean of the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University and the author of the forthcoming Journalism's Roving Eye: A History of American Foreign Reporting.