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.)

And nonprofits arguably do more than traditional news outlets to engage the public with global stories. For instance, they sponsor speakers at schools and universities across the country; last year, the Pulitzer Center organized more than 250 public events.

But a broader and more independent foreign news agenda is crucial. “There is only so much foreign news editors want, and only so many articles on, say, Burundi, that a paper will publish,” says Moore. “So I worry that the topics foundations push might crowd out other stories. I also worry that, if most of the reporting that this model produces is focused on suffering people in need of ‘intervention,’ then you have a very distorted picture of a place.”

Similarly, a news agenda driven by journalists on the foreign beat, developing expertise over time, is preferable to one in which freelancers parachute in with the clock ticking. Savvy freelancers may follow the region closely online, and do additional reporting that isn’t part of their grant, but as Alan Boswell, a McClatchy correspondent who covers East Africa, put it: “They often come in with a plan of what they are going to find, and then they usually leave having found that. That is a bit antithetical to what I consider reporting.”

Boswell, whose reporting has been subsidized by the California-based foundation Humanity United (which also funds both IRP and the Pulitzer Center), understands that there is no easy solution. “But there is a reason why editors aren’t jumping for ngo stories, and it is the same reason why nobody wakes up and reads the World Food Program’s Web articles,” he says. “For me, it all boils down to, Who are we writing for?”

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in 1995, paris-based freelancer Deborah Baldwin bemoaned the freelancer’s difficulties in living without health insurance or free office supplies. “But to make things worse,” she wrote in the American Journalism Review, “many magazines and newspapers haven’t raised their rates in 15 years; the San Francisco Chronicle, for example, pays its Paris correspondent, Alix Christie, $200 per story.”

Eighteen years later, little has changed. Despite the digital age’s new opportunities for publishing foreign news (GlobalPost, the websites of Foreign Policy and The Atlantic), most US outlets, including the Chronicle, pay about $250 for a foreign piece. The IRP and Pulitzer Center cover the logistical costs for their grantees—flights, accommodations, visas, etc.—but it’s up to the news outlets that buy the work to pay the journalist a fee. In fact, the Pulitzer Center’s Jon Sawyer says he doesn’t consider his organization a subsidiary body: “We view ourselves as a news organization, working to get coverage of global systemic issues and engage the public in those issues. We work to place the pieces in the biggest outlets, but our primary motivation isn’t to subsidize those outlets or the freelancers.”

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.