Are The Washington Post's foreign bureaus next to get cut?
Sunday, December 13, 2009
The Post recently announced plans to close its remaining domestic bureaus in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Are the foreign bureaus next?
For a money-losing newspaper with a "for and about Washington" focus, expensive overseas bureaus would seem endangered. If The Post can't afford correspondents in its own country, how can it justify them around the globe? Recently, the paper has quietly decided that bureaus will go dark in Johannesburg, Rio de Janeiro and Berlin. Some Post staffers fear the beginning of the end of a storied commitment to foreign news.
Top editors insist it isn't. There's good reason to believe them. Readership data show strong demand for foreign news. And Washington has a large and literate international community.
"I wouldn't have come here if I didn't believe that the paper was committed to it," said Foreign Editor Douglas Jehl, who came on board in August from the New York Times to supervise the foreign operation, including its 13 bureaus. Executive Editor Marcus W. Brauchli said, "I don't see us reducing that staff."
But the focus of coverage is changing, geographically and conceptually.
"We're making some hard choices and we're not covering all parts of the world equally," said Jehl. "We're throwing more resources into those parts of the world that we think matter most."
A bureau is opening in Islamabad to expand Afghanistan-Pakistan coverage that had been provided by a sole Kabul-based reporter. Next year, a bureau will open in Beirut to increase coverage of the Arab world. Bureaus remain in Baghdad, London, Paris, Jerusalem, Beijing, Tokyo, New Delhi, Moscow, Nairobi, Mexico City, Kabul and Bogota. Reinforcements from Washington will continue to be assigned temporarily to overseas hot spots.
Jehl said readers will see fewer Post bylines on routine news stories already provided by wire services, fewer "touristic" features, less "stenographic" coverage and more emphasis on brevity.
"There were too many long stories in the past," said Jehl. "Too many stories took too long to unwind." He wants coverage that is "urgent and delivered at a length that is digestible, and in a form that's digestible." He added: "We're spending less time writing enormous, lengthy projects aimed at prize juries and fellow journalists."
Foreign coverage is expensive. Brauchli will say only that it costs The Post "somewhere between" $5 million and $10 million annually. With salaries, travel, war zone insurance, relocation expenses, cost-of-living adjustments, security personnel and local support staff, the total cost is probably near the high end of that estimate. At the peak of the Iraq war, yearly expenses for The Post's Baghdad bureau were roughly $1.5 million. The Post has sent more than 80 staffers to cover the war. For foreign coverage, it can draw on about 90 staffers who, combined, are fluent or conversational in 30 languages.
Post newspaper readership surveys in recent years have shown high interest in the world news pages. It is less than for the front page and the Metro section, but about equal to the Style section and comfortably more than in Sports, the opinion pages and Business. On The Post's Web site, the order of interest is somewhat different, and world news tends to rank behind those other sections.
Many of these readers are part of Washington's unique international constituency. Hundreds of thousands work for the State Department, the intelligence agencies, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Pentagon, the diplomatic corps, and groups and corporations with global interests. A Brookings Institution report this year said the region has more than a million foreign-born residents.
The challenge is providing coverage that fits The Post's "for and about Washington" mantra. Jehl said this doesn't mean going hyper-local, such as covering local members of Congress on foreign fact-finding trips. Rather, it means focusing on "issues that matter most" in Washington. "It's not all about conflicts" like Iraq or Afghanistan, he said. It's also about economic or military matters in China or India that have special resonance with The Post's foreign news consumers.
Many newspapers have sharply reduced or abandoned foreign coverage, prompting a myth that it's becoming extinct. In reality, it's evolving -- and thriving. Much of the coverage is now specialized. Bloomberg News, which began providing financial news in 1990 with a six-person staff, currently employs 1,500 people in 145 bureaus worldwide. And news organizations are sharing correspondents (The Post does this with NPR in Bogota) or have "bartered" to swap stories from parts of the world where one or the other needs coverage.
Jehl expects further modest budget belt-tightening through 2011. If The Post's financial fortunes worsen, of course, everything will be on the table. But for now, foreign coverage seems safe.
Andrew Alexander can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.