A Feb. 18 Outlook article on the decline in the number of foreign correspondents for U.S. newspapers said that only four American papers still maintain significant numbers of correspondents. The article should have included the Chicago Tribune, the Christian Science Monitor, USA Today and McClatchy newspapers among those still maintaining foreign bureaus. The article also incorrectly said that the Baltimore Sun has no foreign correspondents. It has three.
NO NEWS IS BAD NEWS
Demise of the Foreign Correspondent
When I think back on the most momentous events of my professional life, they include scenes of both devastation and deliverance. The boulevards of Manila, flooded with peaceful demonstrators chanting for Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos to abandon power. The slums of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where a joyful, gyrating mob of slum-dwellers is celebrating the election of populist priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide as president. The highlands of Guatemala or Peru, where grave sites conceal the victims of atrocity.
If the Boston Globe had not sent me abroad as a foreign correspondent in 1983, and allowed me to spend a decade in Latin America and other regions of the world, I would never have been able to witness these historic changes -- and bring them alive to readers back home. Even then, the Globe was one of only a handful of American newspapers willing to invest in the luxury of its own foreign staff, and I was keenly aware of how privileged I was to do all this while drawing a steady paycheck.
Today, Americans' need to understand the struggles of distant peoples is greater than ever. Our troops are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, countries that we did not know enough about when we invaded them and that we are still trying to fathom. We have been victimized by foreign terrorists, yet we still cannot imagine why anyone would hate us. Our economy is intimately linked to global markets, our population is nearly 20 percent foreign-born, and our lives are directly affected by borderless scourges such as global warming and AIDS. Knowing about the world is not a luxury; it is an urgent necessity.
But instead of stepping up coverage of international affairs, American newspapers and television networks are steadily cutting back. The Globe, which stunned the journalism world last month by announcing that it would shut down its last three foreign bureaus, is the most recent example.
Between 2002 and 2006, the number of foreign-based newspaper correspondents shrank from 188 to 141 (excluding the Wall Street Journal, which publishes Asian and European editions). The Baltimore Sun, which had correspondents from Mexico to Beijing when I went to work there in 1978, now has none. Newsday, which once had half a dozen foreign bureaus, is about to shut down its last one, in Pakistan. Only four U.S. papers -- the Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and The Washington Post -- still keep a stable of foreign correspondents.
It takes a lot of money to maintain an office in a foreign capital. A typical newspaper bureau overseas costs at least $250,000 a year, according to foreign editors, and a large, security-conscious news operation in a city such as Baghdad can hemorrhage four times that.
But today many readers are switching to other information sources -- including Web sites and even blogs -- that have left newspapers struggling to survive. Many family-owned papers have been acquired by corporations that see foreign coverage as an indulgence they can't afford.
In an effort to cut costs, newspapers are replacing bureaus -- which require staffs and cars and family housing -- with mobile, trouble-shooting individual correspondents. The erstwhile bureau chief in New Delhi or Cairo, chatting with diplomats over rum punches on the veranda, is now an eager kid with a laptop and an Arabic phrase book in her backpack. Freelancers can help cover more remote or incremental stories, and newswire agencies can cover breaking news in global hot spots -- but neither is enough.
Television, meanwhile, continues to bring us instant images of the latest Baghdad market bombing or flimsy refugee shacks in Sudan's Darfur region, but its coverage of the world is increasingly selective as well as superficial.
Although more than 80 percent of the public obtains most of its foreign and national news from TV, the major networks are also closing down foreign bureaus, concentrating their resources on a few big stories such as Iraq.
In the 1980s, American TV networks each maintained about 15 foreign bureaus; today they have six or fewer. ABC has shut down its offices in Moscow, Paris and Tokyo; NBC closed bureaus in Beijing, Cairo and Johannesburg. Aside from a one-person ABC bureau in Nairobi, there are no network bureaus left at all in Africa, India or South America -- regions that are home to more than 2 billion people.
In a speech at Columbia University last week, veteran TV news anchor Walter Cronkite warned that pressure by media companies to generate increasing profits is threatening our nation's values and freedom by leaving people less informed. In today's complicated world, "the need for high-quality reporting is greater than ever," he said. "It's not just the journalist's job at risk here. It's American democracy."