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Reporter’s Notebook: Newsrooms Grapple With Keeping Overseas Reporting Afloat

BY Margaret Warner  September 11, 2009 at 10:30 PM EDT

Council on Foreign Relations conference on sustaining international journalism in the digital age

It was a star-studded cast of television news executives sitting on stage at the Council of Foreign Relations yesterday, star-studded that is, if you go for media gabfests: the three network news presidents of ABC, CBS and NBC (plus sister cable news network, MSNBC), and the president of CNN. Grilling them before a couple of hundred foreign affairs and media aficionados was New Yorker media writer Ken Auletta. Looming over them: a larger-than-life black and white photo of venerated American newsman and foreign correspondent Edward R. Murrow.

“After 9-11, the American people said, ‘ How come we didn’t know more about Islam and al-Qaida?’” Auletta reminded them. Ignorance was the agreed-upon answer: The American people had been starved for news of events and trends overseas. The post-9/11 soul-searching unearthed ablizzard of statistics showing a sharp fall-off in U.S. news coverage about the rest of the world after the Cold War. And international reporting surged.

Yet today, Auletta said, the networks’ international coverage has sunk back to pre-9/11 lows. He cited some new Pew Center statistics: In 2007, NBC devoted 19.8 percent of its coverage to foreign stories; so far in 2007, it’s just 13 percent. CBS, at 10 percent in ’07, was up to a rousing 13.7 percent this year. ABC: down from 19.6 percent in 2007 to 12.9 percent this year;even CNN, slid from 26.2 percent to 14.8 percent. (View Margaret Warner’s sideline interview with Auletta.) “Why?” he asked the execs.

“By the numbers is not necessarily the way I view it,” said NBC/MSNBC President Steve Capus. “Ilook at the quality, and there’s great work being done out there.” CBS President Sean McManus echoed the point: “It’s the quality, not the quantity, of what you’re doing.”

Yet if there’s another terrorist attack launched against the U.S. by al-Qaida– incubated in Yemen where the terrorist group is resurgent — is there any doubt that most Americans will ask, “What or where is Yemen?”

The big focus at this week’s Edward R. Murrow Fellowship’s 60th anniversary celebration was how to preserve serious international coverage in the digital age as mainstream media struggles with declining revenues and an audience migrating to the Web. There were no answers — just agreement on two things: There is still quality overseas reporting being done by American journalists, but the old model of foreign correspondent — a reporter living in a country for years, learning the language and culture, the political players and tensions — is going the way of the teletype machine.

The lineup on the panel I moderated on reporting from closed societies was telling: Three of the four panelists were prize-winning former Washington Post foreign correspondents. Pulitzer Prize winner Caryle Murphy, after years in the Arab world for the Post, is now practicing her craft as a freelancer in Saudi Arabia. Pulitzer winner David Remnick, who spent years immersed in a collapsing Soviet Union, edits The New Yorker magazine. Daniel Southerland, who wrote much of the Post’s award-winning coverage of the Tiananmen Square crackdown in China, now runs the field staff for the government-funded Radio Free Asia. They’re among myriad Post foreign correspondents who have moved on. The paper’s overseas-based staff has dropped from more than two dozen, to 14 today.

What’s risen in place of permanently based overseas reporters is the “parachute journalist. “These are veterans of international coverage who can be deployed from anywhere on the globe when crisis hits. CBS President McManus boasted that within 26 hours of the outbreak of the Israel-Hezbollah conflict in Lebanon, CBS got nine correspondents to the Middle East. “The response to a crisis, it’s remarkable,” he said. But his correspondents weren’t on the ground beforehand to anticipate and warn of the impending crisis.

ABC’s David Westin said his network has been able to send a cadre of young reporters to multiple locations overseas, armed with digital cameras to file mostly for the network’s Web site, for well under what it cost to maintain ABC’s famed late 1970′s Paris bureau under Pierre Salinger. It boasted 17 full-timers, he said, plus a chef and wine cellar. NBC’s Capus made no apologies for deciding “to invest in actual coverage” not infrastructure. “I’d rather write a check to someone covering the news than to the landlord of a building.”

This debate isn’t new. In the early 1980′s, NBC anchorman John Chancellor was already bemoaning the ascendancy of the “fireman” over the permanently stationed foreign correspondent. The crucial difference between now and then is that in the early 1980s, foreign coverage was fighting for its fair share of an expanding pie, as the networks and major newspapers raked in ever larger revenues. Now foreign reporting fights for a share of a sharply dwindling one. And often it loses. In the past two years, the Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe and Baltimore Sun all shut down their foreign staffs.

There are just four major papers left with their own staff correspondents overseas — The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post. NPR and Bloomberg News have a large presence as well. But they represent a fraction of the reportorial eyes and ears that American media used to have in the field. Everyone else, and even some of these correspondents, find the parachute model is essential. (So does The NewsHour’s overseas reporting unit, which has sent me to report from the Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Russia, Iran, China and elsewhere over the past three years.)

Even those still in the field have to find a way to generate more financial support from their online presence. Nicholas Lemann, dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, said no one has cracked the code. “Almost no one is making money on online journalism,” except outlets like the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times who charge readers for it. Online advertising just isn’t generating enough revenue. Carla Robbins, the deputy editorial page editor of the New York Times, said all newspapers — even the Times, whose Web site with its 20 million visitors monthly visitors is considered a wild success — is struggling with that question. And not just for foreign coverage. “The bigger question is how we’re going to sustain all good journalism in the future.” (Watch Warner’s interview with Robbins.)

One possible solution is the “micropayment” model of iTunes, where people pay per article. Can foreign reporting be sustained that way? That may be a tough slog, warned Newsweek’s longtime Paris bureau chief and Middle East correspondent Christopher Dickey. “Thirty years ago there was a presumption that people had a duty to read about foreign policy and we in the news business had a duty to cover things,” he said. That sense of mission — not audience demand — is what sustained foreign coverage in most publications. The uncomfortable reality is, he said, “What the American people want from the rest of the world is to forget about it. … That’s a hell of a thing to say here at the Council on Foreign Relations, but in fact it has a really important impact on the way we do business, especially as things evolve.”

And who’s going to fill the gap for regional papers and the Web? Charles Sennott, co-founder of the online new organization GlobalPost, is offering one alternative. His seven-month-old GlobalPost has some 70 part-time freelancers in 50 countries, producing online pieces and videos that Sennott hopes to support through online advertising, syndication and subscription. He pays his reporters a modest monthly stipend and $250 a story. It’s not enough to live on, he cheerfully admitted, but he believes good reporters will do it for because they have “a passion for foreign reporting. … The great work of foreign reporting has always come from people who were paid modestly.” The new foreign correspondent, he said, is “an entrepreneur” writing for several different sites and outlets.

Columbia Journalism School dean Lemann cautioned, “There may not be a business model for overseas journalism” if it has to support itself. “It’s not seen as the cash cow that drives the whole business of journalism. So we should entertain the notion that pure market forces will not in themselves support the kind of overseas reporting that our society needs. If so, that shouldn’t be an impenetrable barrier.” (See Lemann’s ideas in a video interview with Warner.)

Lemann foresees the new landscape will have three tiers. At the top: a small group of global news brands that will maintain foreign reporting staffs though even they will be “lighter on the ground.” (“The chef will have to do a piece,” quipped WNYC radio host John Hockenberry). Next, a group of “specialty brands” for which subscribers will pay. And finally, said Lemann, “a giant shaggy unorganized world of freelancers and superstringers and book writers who piece it together and find ways to do foreign correspondence.”

The good news, said Lemann, is that among young students at Columbia Journalism School there’s “a growing fascination with being foreign correspondents.”

The question is can these eager aspiring overseas reporters support themselves long enough to gain the seasoning they need to become good ones? And how will they find a substantial audience?

In opening the conference, Council president Richard Haass said international reporting is key if Americans are to make informed decisions about relating to the world. “The world is not Las Vegas,” said Haass. “What happens there does not stay there. Instead, it comes here and it affects life here.” But in the uncertain new media world ahead, will anyone tell us it’s coming? (Watch Warner’s interview with Haass.)