Underwritten or undercut?

Nonprofit funding can't solve our foreign-coverage problem
July 1, 2013

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.

* * *

Sign up for CJR's daily email

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.)

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?”

* * *

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.”

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.

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.