Fair enough. But we are left with a piecework model that covers part of what foreign coverage costs, but does not help foster a system that can sustain quality foreign correspondence over time. To be sure, freelancers working through these nonprofits produce some exemplary work. Photojournalist Micah Albert, for instance, my co-grantee on a recent Pulitzer Center-supported project in Kenya, just was awarded the prestigious World Press Photo of the Year for Contemporary Issues for his work on that assignment. But most young reporters can’t support themselves with this model, and they aren’t getting the mentoring that can help them develop as correspondents.
Samuel Loewenberg, a veteran correspondent who has reported from Africa, Latin America, and Europe with the help of Pulitzer Center grants, says the foundation-supported model has become crucial to his work, but that it’s not a replacement for all the cuts. “We have lost so many editors and reporters who brought such a depth of knowledge and level of craft to foreign reporting,” he says. “I did some of my best stories for regional papers, but those days are over.”
The staffers at the IRP and Pulitzer Center are aware of these limitations. “The issue that needs to be resolved is how can we keep this model sustainable and ensure journalistic standards?” says John Schidlovsky, the founding director of the IRP and former foreign correspondent for The Baltimore Sun.
Tom Hundley, the Pulitzer Center’s senior editor and a former foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, is more blunt: “This great mass of freelancers who are depending on grants from us and working on pitiful fees from brand-name outlets—I mean, this just isn’t going to work.”
The answer of how to ensure the future of high-quality foreign coverage is not easy or obvious. Sawyer says his organization is part of a transition, but isn’t sure to what. “The role that we can play is trying out models, to see what might work,” he says. “I understand the temptation to say that these efforts are insufficient, that they do not replace the jobs lost by staff cutbacks or guarantee a sustainable income for freelancers. If we had more dollars we could definitely do more. But it’s worth recognizing what has been achieved.”
Sawyer, Schidlovsky, and their colleagues note that stories on systemic global issues have never been profitable; they are a public service, but not likely to generate ad sales or subscribers by themselves. In other words, they argue, foreign news has always been subsidized in some way.
The concern, though, is not the loss of foreign news, but the loss of US foreign correspondence as a profession—people whose full-time job it is to bring us that news. The subsidy model, for all the good it is doing in the short term, may make it harder to rebuild a system that supports that kind of commitment to foreign news.