A fund sunsets after serving generations of overseas correspondents

The Overseas Press Club, via Wikimedia Commons.

There is no day that doesn’t bring news of another problem in the world of mainstream media. Ever at our backs we hear time’s winged chariot drawing near.

So let me tell you a story of a small triumph.

In November, 1942, not yet a year after America’s entry into World War II, the press was beginning to ride high. Between the World Wars, the reputation of the press was defined mostly by its excesses. Scoundrels at best, liars and cheats in their darker moments, a broad swath of journalists were regarded—and regarded themselves—as the Front Page incarnate.

But the war changed things. The Newspaper Guild made working as a reporter—a real reporter, not the pundits who dotted the scene—at least somewhat attractive to serious people; and the war itself was serious business. The era of wonderful nonsense was over, and we were part of a great collective effort to set the world aright. The war made journalism respectable.

And in that November, the recently formed Overseas Press Club, flush with new members, decided to form a Correspondents’ Fund to help “deserving men and women who have served the American press, radio, newsreels and allied American services of public information in foreign lands.”

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They kicked off the fundraising just before Christmas with a gala showing of the new Noel Coward film, In Which We Serve, about a British destroyer and its crew. Patriotism ran high, the money came in, and correspondents here began to see good works done overseas.

In that smaller sphere, mostly centered on Europe, “the combined familiarity with the world of its members probably equals that of…the Department of State,” as one writer said.

Ten years later, when they wanted to expand the good work and make its finances more secure, the directors of the OPC decided on another fundraiser—this time led by Clare Booth Luce, Edward R. Murrow, and John Daly—with the purpose of buying a building to house the OPC and paying the rent to the Correspondents’ Fund.

It worked. They raised about $1,250,000 in today’s dollars, but the problems started coming in. The goodwill of the fund was overshadowed by the financial problems of the club. They were often at odds; the club kept forgetting the rent. Ultimately, like many couples with goodwill and bad management, they split. The fund sold the building for $850,000 and set out on its own to give away money to people who needed it.

That’s the arrangement that lasted for 45 years until the end of April.

The changes that swept the news business, swept the Correspondents’ Fund. The world got larger, but the money stayed roughly constant. The fund began giving money in India, in Pakistan, in Burma, in South America, in Asia—places that were hardly on the map for the founders. Money for students to report overseas was drying up; the fund provided some. Newsreels morphed into TV, money for drivers, for the minders, the finders, the translators, the essential underpinnings that bureaus used to provide when there used to be bureaus overseas—the fund found something for everyone.  It was small, it was nimble, it was always there.

But costs and inflation went up, and the dollar amount of aid going out wasn’t as helpful as it used to be. So three years ago, the board decided to spend all of it for those things that were traditionally in our purview: those who need help; those who do the helping; those in danger; and those who teach and learn.

It has been a wonderful ride. Our ranks have changed but our concern has not. Our very last grant, this year, was to a refugee Iraqi journalist sent to us by the Committee to Protect Journalists. His father was killed by terrorists, his family was thrown out of their home, he has been threatened for writing about corruption in the government and he needed a small grant while he looked for work here. We tided him over.

We have given almost 75 years of service in a good cause. The OPC is thriving; where once there were no groups helping journalists, now there are many. They all need money, but they always did. We’ve given young people a taste of what might be and that’s a value with future dividends.  And we did what we were tasked to do three generations ago.

That’s a good thing.

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Richard C. Wald is the Fred Friendly Professor of Media and Society, Emeritus, at Columbia Journalism School. He is the former managing editor of the New York Herald Tribune, president of NBC News, senior vice president of ABC News, and executive vice president of Whitney Communications.