The Vanishing Foreign Correspondent

By Fred Hiatt
Monday, January 29, 2007

When my wife and I worked as foreign correspondents for The Post in Tokyo 20 years ago, we befriended and competed against a host of other American reporters, including two talented writers from the Boston Globe, Colin Nickerson (still a Globe foreign correspondent) and Tom Ashbrook (now a star of public radio).

The reporting corps had diverse views on the central questions of the time, and even on what the central questions were, and the reports we sent home reflected that. Readers benefited from the diversity and competition.

I thought of this last week when the Globe, now owned by the New York Times Co., announced that it would close its remaining three overseas bureaus, which no longer include Tokyo, to conserve resources for coverage of local news.

The announcement punctuates what seems to be an accelerating trend. Journalist Jill Carroll, studying foreign news coverage for a report published by the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University last fall, found that the number of U.S. newspaper foreign correspondents declined from 188 in 2002 to 141 last year. (If you include the Wall Street Journal, which publishes editions in Europe and Asia, the decline was from 304 to 249.)

I find it disheartening that a fine newspaper such as the Globe would feel compelled to diminish itself in this way. But maybe that's the nostalgia of a dinosaur. After all, there are some very smart business people who see no harm in newspapers cutting back on foreign reporting.

Jack Welch, for example, the former chairman of General Electric Co. who has expressed interest in buying the Globe, said earlier this month on CNBC, "I'm not sure local papers need to cover Iraq, need to cover global events. They can be real local papers. And franchise, purchase from people very willing to sell you their wire services that will give you coverage."

Brian Tierney, who bought the Philadelphia Inquirer last year, expressed similar views in a November interview with The Post's Howard Kurtz. "We don't need a Jerusalem bureau," he said. "What we need are more people in the South Jersey bureau."

"I don't see us sending 25 people to do me-too coverage of Katrina," Tierney went on to say. "I can get what's going on in Iraq online. What I can't get is what's happening in this region."

There's no doubt that wire reporters from the Associated Press and elsewhere perform a courageous and indispensable service in Iraq and around the world, as they have for generations. And thanks to the Internet, those determined to follow, say, Japan have easy access to far more information than when I was filing reports from Tokyo. They can regularly consume English-language editions of Japan's top-notch newspapers, then move on to the Web sites of think tanks that analyze Japanese politics, and those of universities, and beyond.

On the other hand, what Tierney dismisses as "me-too coverage" often allowed for a depth and variety of reporting, analysis and interpretation beyond what wire services and foreign media provide. Foreign bureaus helped regional newspapers attract talented reporters, who in turn returned to their home newsrooms with a sense of the world that worked to readers' benefit.

And evidence suggests that newspapers aren't replacing their own reporting with an equal amount of copy from elsewhere. After Sept. 11, there was nearly universal acknowledgment that Americans would be better off if we knew more about the world. Yet by 2004 the percentage of articles related to foreign affairs that American newspapers published on their front pages had dropped to "the lowest total in any year we have ever studied," according to a report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism and Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute. (It was 14 percent, down from 21 percent in 2003 and 27 percent in both 1987 and 1977.)

Maybe the old model just can't work anymore. Though The Washington Post has managed to maintain its stable of 20-plus foreign correspondents, no newspaper, including The Post, is insulated from the pressure of Internet competition for advertising dollars. Nor are the television networks, which have cut way back on their foreign bureaus as well.

Yet in an era when clan structures in Somalia or separatist movements in the Philippines may have a direct bearing on U.S. national security -- when the people who run multinational companies such as GE regularly complain that Americans don't understand the world -- we should all worry about who, if anyone, will report from abroad.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company