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The disappearing foreign bureau

David Hiller

Publisher, Los Angeles Times

David Hiller

We're going to continue to have a major foreign reporting coverage. We're one of the best at it currently. But one of the things we may emphasize, for example, is the unique role that Los Angeles has as the gateway to the Pacific Rim. That's a part of the story that's different here for the West Coast and for Los Angeles than, say, it might be for an East Coast paper.

But you know the concern: The Times has bureaus all over the world. It's one of the few papers that gathers information that way.

Yeah. My plan and expectation is that being a world-class provider of foreign and national news is going to continue to be one of the hallmarks of the L.A. Times.

But with fewer people?

Well, I don't know whether it's going to be with fewer people or not. There you go again, to say being focused on the numbers of people and not on the quality of the coverage.

But who does coverage? I mean, people do coverage.

Well, people do coverage. Yeah, people do coverage.

So that's why the focus is on how many reporters do you have working a particular story. ...

Yeah. Well, you said it well. My priority wouldn't be to have as many people as I can. My priority would be to do the best possible job for our readers and online users in foreign and national, and we're going to continue to do that. …

You don't see cutting back on the international bureaus in the coming years?

Well, we're not giving up any commitment to our foreign and national news, which is very, very important to our coverage. I don't have a specific view on levels or locations of bureaus or levels of personnel after the six weeks or so that I've been here. ...

 
Ted Koppel

Former anchor, Nightline

Ted Koppel

Now, the fact of the matter is, when there's a war going on, by God, you'll see the networks there, and they spend millions of dollars making sure that you get it morning, noon and night, and get it live to boot. But as soon as the fighting's over, they're gone; there is no correspondent left there; there is no camera crew left there. They retreat to London again and wait for the next crisis to occur so they can hop on a jet and cover that crisis.

We used to have tens of foreign correspondents. Now the networks tend to have five or six. And as smart as these young men and women are, they can't be everywhere all the time, and they can't be in one place long enough to develop the kinds of contacts that you need to have and the kind of background that you need to have to provide context for the stories that they're going to be covering. That's changed, and I think that's changed forever. …

The L.A. Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, they can have one person sitting in Moscow; they can have one person sitting in Kinshasa, [Congo]; they can have one person sitting in Tokyo. And that one person can cover the news for them. The networks need a correspondent; they need a camera crew, need a producer. ... It's just that much more expensive.

Basically, what happened at the networks over these past 10 years is that bean counters came to them and came to the presidents of the news division and said: "Tell me something: How often does your Moscow bureau get a piece on the air? How many times does it show up on World News Tonight? How many times does it show up on Good Morning America? How many times does it show up on Nightline and 20/20 and ... all the other programs?"

Then they would do a count, and they would divide that count into the bottom line of what it cost to maintain that bureau in Moscow over the course of a year. Then they would come to the conclusion that each piece had cost $79,426.12, and they said, "How do you justify that?" ... Once you accept the notion that a news division has to be judged by the same standards -- the same economic standards, business standards -- as any other part of your corporation, you're lost. You can't. …

They're spending millions keeping [journalists] in Iraq these days. ... Can you justify that? Not on an economic, not on a business-model basis you can't. You can only justify it if you see news as being something that we do on behalf of the American public, and giving you that permits us then to put on Desperate Housewives or Fear Factor or whatever the hell the stuff is you're putting on the air that makes a ton of money for you.

 
James O'Shea

Editor, Los Angeles Times

James O'Shea

Today the Los Angeles Times competes with The New York Times on most major national and international stories, so the fear is that it will disappear from that regular competition on all major national and international stories and that it's one of the only other general-interest newspapers in the country that does that.

I don't know of anybody that's advocating that we will disappear from the national or foreign scene. ... But I think you also have to cover Southern California. If you don't cover your own backyard, you are going to lose a lot of readers. You have to cover it; any newspaper has to do that.

But your predecessors would say exactly the same thing. They would say, "We do a better job of covering the region and the state, but we also have to have this national and international presence, and we're in danger of not being able to do that."

Well, I agree with them on that issue. Do we have to have exactly the same number of people we have today covering that area? I don't know that. I don't think that is necessarily true. You may have to adjust a little bit. ... Maybe some people have to change their beats, work a little harder, but it doesn't mean you quit covering Washington. ... And that doesn't mean I'm going to give up covering the war in Baghdad. We have to cover the war; people want that. It's our obligation to cover that. ... But I also believe you have to be in Sacramento covering the State House. ...

How many people does the Chicago Tribune have in Washington, D.C.?

I would say probably somewhere between 15 and 20. I don't know exactly anymore. I think at one point we had about 19 people in Washington.

And the Los Angeles Times has?

Probably double that.

So the fear is that you won't have the same kind of in-depth coverage because you'll be redeploying resources here into the state?

Well, that may be the fear. ... Let's say I have 40 reporters in Washington and suddenly I decide I'm going to have 35. Does that really mean that I'm going to lose depth? I doubt it. I covered Washington for 10 years. I know a little bit about how to do it, and it's not related to the number of people you've got there; it's related to the quality of people you've got there and what kind of story they're after. ...

I've been in print, and I was in television and back in print, but what I lived through in the television industry was, in the 1980s, a technology change: Cable came along, digital cable, major corporate ownership that swallowed up the various networks, and stockholder pressure. Result: Once large and vigorous newsgathering organizations closed their bureaus and relied on other sources of information and today don't do very much newsgathering. And now something similar to that, a similar pressure, seems to be happening in the newspaper business, which is sort of the last line of defense of newsgathering. ...

Some of the pressures are similar, and you are seeing in some sectors dramatic cutbacks, but I don't think you can say you're seeing that at the Los Angeles Times. I don't think you can say you're seeing that at the Chicago Tribune. When I went to the Chicago Tribune in the '90s to become the associate managing editor for foreign and national news, I had I forget how many bureaus. Five to 10 years later, when I became the deputy managing editor, I still had all those bureaus. All those bureaus exist today. So nobody's really cut back on foreign news. I think at the Los Angeles Times the same thing is true. ...

But I don't see the major kind of cutbacks that I think you did see in television. I just don't know enough about television, but it seemed to me that television had another medium that they go to -- entertainment -- and they could get revenue off of that. Newspapers really don't have anywhere to go if they aren't news. If you start backing out of the news business and closing down and not telling people what's going on in the world, you aren't going to be very successful.

But isn't there a pressure on newspapers to go or feature other areas that are, in a sense, more entertaining, because they are losing advertising; you are losing subscribers? So, for example, it's a natural that the Los Angeles Times does more in-depth coverage of Hollywood.

But I think that's good; I think Hollywood was undercovered [by the Times] in the first place. But I don't think anybody's sitting there and saying, "Let's go cover Hollywood so we can get more revenue." I think people are saying, "Let's go cover Hollywood because we aren't doing a good enough job covering Hollywood." And if we're doing our job right, somebody else can probably get revenue on that, but my decisions can't be driven by where we're going to get revenue. My decisions have to be driven by, where are we going to get readership?

So you don't see a big threat to the newspaper industry, and the Los Angeles Times in particular?

There is a threat that if we don't expand online, and if we don't cover our region better, then we become irrelevant to people here. ... Are there pressures? Of course there are pressures. There are cost pressures all over the place, and that's because of natural economic forces that are beyond your and my control. But I don't think that means we're doomed. ...

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posted feb. 13, 2007; last updated feb. 27, 2007

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