In the Foothills of Change

Foreign coverage seems doomed, but it's only just begun

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.

Victor Lawson’s foreign service at the Chicago Daily News, which was eventually syndicated to more than a hundred newspapers, set the stage for the next era. When a Pulitzer Prize was established for foreign correspondence in 1929, Paul Scott Mowrer of the Daily News won it, with reports that read like analytical diplomatic cables. By this time, foreign correspondence had entered a golden age. Large numbers of knowledgeable journalists covered the world for newspapers, magazines, and the upstart medium of radio. They remained largely independent of the home office and, thanks to international goodwill toward Americans, were well received wherever they roamed. The news—two world wars, Communist revolutions, the emergence of global interdependence—was of towering significance. The celebrity and expertise of correspondents were never greater.

The transition from one period to the next never took place with one door slamming shut and another opening wide. Each was gradual, carrying forward vestiges of the past. And so it was with the emergence of the corporate correspondent, whose employer often owned many media outlets—not to mention other, nonjournalistic businesses—and answered to Wall Street. Satellite telephones and the Internet eventually put these correspondents in closer touch with their editors back home. It also made them less colorful and less independent, at a time when they were also perceived, like journalists generally, as less credible.

Which brings us to the present, an era that is only beginning to take shape but has a clear, defining feature: many types of foreign correspondents operating at once. Seasoned reporters representing major news outlets still exist, of course. But many new species of foreign newsgathering and distribution are appearing, most of them carrying some DNA of the past. We might call this era a confederacy of correspondents.

Coverage at The New York Times remains formidable. The McClatchy Company, which purchased most of Knight Ridder in June 2006, kept Knight Ridder’s foreign correspondents attached to its Washington bureau—even as McClatchy’s own stock price dropped in the wake of the purchase. After Rupert Murdoch acquired The Wall Street Journal, the number of front-page stories on foreign topics jumped; pages of foreign news were added inside. The Associated Press recently increased the number of bureaus abroad, which now total 102 in ninety-seven countries. Even the celebrity-focused Vanity Fair, recognizing that foreign news confers respectability, recently hired a foreign correspondent to help it get “meat.”

But again, the traditional American foreign correspondent no longer strides the stage alone. Here are some of the additional players:

Foreign foreign correspondents, meaning those foreign nationals who work for American news organizations. While this type is not entirely new, it is much more common today. A survey I conducted with my colleague Denis Wu in 2000 found that 69 percent of foreign correspondents for American news organizations were not Americans. Some of these reporters start out as fixers, who help reporters and can move around more freely in dangerous places. The Baghdad bureau chief for McClatchy referred to them as “journalists in their own right” and “the backbone of our coverage.”

Local foreign correspondents, who cover the world from their hometowns. This seeming contradiction in terms has come about because of burgeoning global interdependence. A 2004 survey by the Radio and Television News Directors Foundation found that two-thirds of local broadcasters said they integrated world and local news into their shows. “We’re in a new era now, in which the ambiguity in what is international and what is not international is very great,” said Don Oberdorfer, a veteran Washington Post foreign correspondent, at a recent journalism conference.

Parachute foreign correspondents, who are sent on short-term assignments abroad. The term is often used pejoratively to describe the phenomenon of permanent reporters being replaced by less expensive, less experienced interlopers. Yet it also describes a more positive development. Local media that could never afford full-time correspondents now send reporters on ad-hoc assignments abroad. Major news media use the technique to augment coverage—the Chicago Tribune, for instance, sent a music critic to Latin America, and an expert on religion to help a permanent correspondent cover the election of a new pope.

Premium foreign correspondents, who work for services that charge fees for specialized, in-depth reporting. The antecedent is Reuters, which started out in the mid-nineteenth century as a news service for financiers. Modern versions include Bloomberg News and Dow Jones Newswires, as well as Reuters’ own “gated” premium service.

In-house foreign correspondents, who gather timely, accurate industry news exclusively for their corporate employers. These reporters operate in a gray zone between journalism, marketing, and corporate communications. At British Petroleum, for example, editors produce the so-called BP News, a daily summary of BP-related stories from around the world. Federal Express has a similar video operation called FedEx-TV.

Citizen foreign correspondents, whose work is facilitated by new technology. Just as amateur, casual correspondents wrote letters for Benjamin Franklin’s Gazette, these on-the-scene witnesses kept Twitter humming—to the tune of one message per second with the word “Mumbai”—when terrorists struck that Indian city late last year. Peter Maass, a contributor to The New York Times Magazine, said this about Salam Pax, the young Iraqi architect who posted dispatches on his Web site during the U.S. invasion: “Better than the army of foreign correspondents in the country.”

Foreign local correspondents, such as an Indian journalist reporting in India for a New Delhi newspaper whose stories are read or watched via the Internet or satellite from Indianapolis. Indian emigrants are an obvious audience for these reports; but for those who cannot speak Hindi, specialized software is available to translate.

None of these new forms is perfect. Editors who hire foreign nationals—often because they’re cheaper—feel less obliged to use their copy. Local foreign correspondents give their audiences a better sense of their ties to the world, but often lack deep understanding of global trends. And for every blogger with the insight of Salam Pax, hundreds have the credentials of Joe Wurzelbacher, a.k.a. Joe the Plumber, who was sent to cover the recent conflict in Gaza by the conservative Web-based Pajamas Media.

For many critics, this confederacy marks a sharp break with the time when the foreign correspondent was king. That bygone day is perhaps best captured in a romantic entry from the Chicago Tribune’s 1928 encyclopedia for readers: “If to this business of getting out a great daily newspaper there still clings any of the aura of romance which once surrounded all newspapers and all newspapermen, it is the foreign correspondents who get the greater share of it.”

In fact, American foreign reporting has been no more perfect throughout its relatively short history than it has been static. Correspondents failed to anticipate World War I, and weren’t quick to grasp what was going wrong in Vietnam. Colonel Robert McCormick, who oversaw the Tribune in 1928, made a roving correspondent out of a reporter who spoke nothing but English. “I don’t want my fine young American boys ruined by these damn foreigners,” McCormick explained. And when Victor Lawson began the Chicago Daily News experiment in foreign newsgathering, one of his first ideas was a column from London called “Queer Sprigs of Gentility.”

The continual experimentation needed to make the most of these new forms, as well as the old ones, will require a shift in the way we think about foreign coverage. Start with bureaus. The idea of placing correspondents in one location, where they develop expertise, has advantages. But there was never enough money to station a correspondent in every place where there was news.

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.

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. 

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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.