Not long ago, some 20 news organizations decided which foreign news stories should be covered for the American audience. These outlets, from The New York Times and major television networks to regional dailies like The Miami Herald and The Boston Globe, had bureaus around the world and layers of experienced reporters and editors. Today, two nonprofits—the International Reporting Project (IRP) and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting—are brokering many of these decisions. Together, they employ only a dozen people, yet they have considerable authority over the changing field of US foreign correspondence.

This is a problem, and one that masquerades as a solution to the US media’s retreat from foreign coverage. About a third of the foreign correspondents employed by American media outlets in 2003 have been cut. The New York Times currently has only three reporters to cover the entire continent of Africa; The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and The Wall Street Journal each have two; USA Today no longer has any.

What has taken their place is a scattering of freelancers, with varying degrees of journalistic seasoning, who go off to cover global crises with little or no institutional support. For them, the IRP and the Pulitzer Center are often the funders of first, and last, resort. Since it was founded in 1998, IRP has paid for the foreign reporting of more than 420 journalists. The Pulitzer Center, which started in 2006, spent nearly $1 million on story assignments in 2012 alone, resulting in the publication of 250 articles or broadcasts by more than 100 journalists. Each receives the bulk of its funding from donors like the Bill & Melinda Gates, Henry Luce, and Robert R. McCormick foundations.

Both organizations were created to support foreign coverage by regional dailies, under the assumption that big national outlets would continue to have the resources to do their own foreign reporting. Many of the regional papers, however, have shown little interest in generating original international coverage. National outlets still want foreign news, but have eliminated many of their correspondents. As a result, 75 percent of the IRP and Pulitzer Center’s 2012 grantees were freelancers who produced stories for a slew of national outlets, including the Times, the Christian Science Monitor, The Wall Street Journal, PBS NewsHour, and The Washington Post. “The impact of what we do is vastly greater than what I dreamed it would have been six or seven years ago,” says Jon Sawyer, the Pulitzer Center’s founding director. “So that’s a good thing. But what that reflects is the deeper transformation, the crisis, for the industry as a whole.”

In many ways, the rise of nonprofit funding has been a godsend for American journalism. It sustains coverage that would not otherwise be paid for. This has been particularly true for domestic accountability journalism, such as ProPublica’s work. When it comes to foreign coverage, though, the subsidy model is, despite the best of intentions, more problematic. It helps perpetuate the low wages paid to reporters, can skew the notion of what’s newsworthy, and exacerbates the problem of coverage that is disconnected from the public it is meant to serve.

* * *

The founders of the Pulitzer Center and IRP say their organizations serve a vital role as journalistic buffers between reporters and the foundations that fund their work. Maintaining this autonomy is crucial, they say, during their competitive selection processes. IRP funded 55 reporting projects in 2012, but it received about 600 applications. The Pulitzer Center commissioned 85 projects last year, less than a quarter of its application pool.

While the topical interests of their funders (sanitation, gender issues, food security, maternal mortality, etc.) are reflected in many of the grants they award, Sawyer says that this is a little misleading: “Nearly half of our annual revenue is totally unrestricted. We have the ability to fund projects of merit, on whatever topic.”

Still, the staff at IRP and the Pulitzer Center don’t play the same role as independent news editors. They aren’t governed by the interests of a general readership, and they can’t provide the vetting of stories that occurs in a major newsroom. And when small selection committees—four people at IRP and about three at the Pulitzer Center—decide which foreign stories are newsworthy, there is a risk of coverage becoming even more narrow.
On the other hand, for those who say traditional foreign coverage has favored stories of war and pestilence, the increasing influence of nonprofits—and the foundations behind them—provides a counterweight. There are more stories on health, water, and sanitation in the press today, and not because editors are calling for them, says freelancer Jina Moore, days before traveling to Rwanda on an IRP grant. (Moore, who contributes to CJR, has received three other grants from the Pulitzer Center.)

David Conrad is a freelance journalist and doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication. Some of his foreign assignments have been underwritten by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.