NEW YORK, 2014—Back in 2009, the future of international reporting looked bleak indeed. Several big U.S. newspapers had shut down their foreign bureaus altogether. The American TV networks had basically shrunk their international presence to London. Covering the Iraq war had nearly bankrupted foreign-news budgets, and by then, the American public had lost interest in the Iraq war. Or indeed in foreign news at all, a lot of the time. It was tough being the most expensive and least read story in the queue. Like a faded diva in a ratty mink stole (“Oh, this old thing? I bought it on assignment covering Brezhnev”), foreign correspondents slunk from the stage, costly and unwanted.
Yet even then you could have spied a few positive trends. First, the basic cost of international fact-gathering and distribution had fallen precipitously. Cameras and recorders were absurdly cheap and the means of transmission cheaper still. (Marx might have called it a revolution in the means of production.) Then, too, it was finally dawning on everyone that the United States was rapidly growing more international by almost every measure: the percentage of American businesses with interests overseas (and what was “American” business anymore anyway?), the percentage of the American population born in another country, the percentage of Starbucks customers buying the “World Music” CD at the cash register. You still couldn’t sell People magazine at the newsstand with Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni on the cover, maybe, but international news was locating an audience. Why were the BBC and The Economist moving into a market here if one didn’t exist?
A disproportionate number of media executives back in 2009 had been foreign correspondents in their glory days, of course, but even they had to admit that those days hadn’t necessarily been all that glorious. No one could quite remember Walter Cronkite’s last story about Burundi, back in the days when the American media were supposedly doing such a boffo job covering the world. And everyone had to admit that it was a lot easier finding out something about Burundi in 2009 than it had been back in, say, 1963. A lot of world news went uncovered, and unread, even in the glory days.
Fortunately, foreign correspondents were not alone. Alongside them on beats from Chechnya to Congo to the mountains of Nepal, an army of human-rights investigators, academic researchers, aid workers, and country experts of various kinds were also out there gathering facts. They didn’t get interviews with the prime minister very often, and they didn’t always feel it necessary to quote the brigade commander insisting his men had nothing to do with that massacre in that village. But sometimes they had more expertise than the journalists who stole their insights, lifted their research, and quoted them in paragraph seventeen. The Internet, meanwhile, changed the game.
For thirty years, Human Rights Watch had been sending its researchers on missions around the world to investigate and report on issues of serious human-rights abuse. Those researchers had been churning out worthy reports couched in dense legalese—more like case files, intended for a specialist audience (the National Security Council expert on Central Asia, say, or the UN peacekeeping staff) than reportage meant for the general public. But HRW started giving the press a run for its money in 2009, hiring experienced journalists for a new multimedia unit whose job it was, essentially, to report on the work of HRW. By early 2009, some sixty thousand pages were being viewed on the organization’s Web site every day. That traffic compelled HRW to speak in terms the public could understand. If the journalists weren’t going to cover those stories, then HRW, like other nongovernmental organizations, would have to do so itself. The organization had dozens of investigators covering more than seventy countries—more than the foreign correspondent corps of either The New York Times or The Washington Post. It lacked the journalistic muscle to turn its research into digestible information products—until grants from private donors gave it the means to attract experienced professionals from an industry that no longer valued them.