Why do we need multiple American newspapers with foreign bureaus?
May 11, 2009 7:19 PM   Subscribe

Why do we need multiple American newspapers with foreign bureaus?

I listened to an NPR talk show today where a speaker lamented the state of U.S. newspapers and how the ones that weren't shutting down were cutting staff drastically and that several papers like the Boston Globe (and others) didn't even have foreign bureaus or correspondents any more.

In the midst of my commiserating, a little voice in my head asked: Well, how many U.S. newspapers need foreign bureaus, anyway?

I'm a voracious reader but I don't know beans about the business of news, and so I'm looking for pragmatic reasons for why it is important for multiple U.S. papers to maintain foreign staff or dedicated foreign correspondents. I understand the principle that single-source reporting is suspect, that corroboration is important, that multiple points of view and the talents of individual investigative reporters improve the quality tremendously... no arguments there.

But there seems to be so much information out there already -- good information, crappy information, edited information, unedited whack-jobs, you name it. What really is the point of having several U.S. papers covering the same events in the same places?

I find myself wondering whether the death of foreign bureaus at many major U.S. papers isn't in reality a Darwinian evolutionary process, whereby redundant or inefficient services are being eliminated, and that this may not be a bad thing in the long run. The aforementioned Boston Globe, for example -- what unique value did the Boston Globe's international bureau reporting add, compared to other U.S. papers, or the BBC, or regional news coverage? What would be the bad consequences if only a few big U.S. papers kept their foreign bureaus and became the go-to places for the American point of view, while the smaller papers licensed that information from them? Don't papers purchase content from each other all the time, anyway?

I suspect I'm missing an obvious truth here, but I can't seem to find an explanation that goes into more depth than simply "more is better" -- more coverage, more opinions, more U.S. reporters providing a U.S. angle on foreign events. And I'm not arguing that the U.S. ignore foreign events, by any means. I'm just trying to get beyond the hand-wringing to understand the pragmatic arguments.
posted by woot to Media & Arts (23 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
At the risk of saying something obvious, when you're listening to a journalist talk about this situation, you're probably listening to someone who has seen friends or colleagues lose their jobs because of it.
posted by box at 7:24 PM on May 11, 2009

More is better. While one big bureau could conceivably cover the range of stories that several small ones could, they would all carry one agenda/bias/POV. People need to hear all sides of an opinion to form a decent opinion on issues. Many people forget this, and blindly follow whatever one group says all the time, but since each media source has a bias, the true picture can't be seen without a) many different viewpoints, or b) Your own first person experience.

Unless you go to Iraq and see what's going on for yourself, its best that both Fox and MSNBC are there so you can see both sides of the story.
posted by papayaninja at 7:30 PM on May 11, 2009

1) Because if you don't have a foreign bureau, you're no better than any crummy paper that picks up the AP wire.

2) Because there is a Pulitzer for International coverage.

3) Because a lot of excellent journalists are foreigners, or want to work overseas.

4) Because it gives your current reporters a dream posting to aspire to.

5) Because they've always had one.

6) Because it makes it easier to create good localized editions, like the IHT or the WSJ Asia/Europe.

7) Because the same logic could be used for any reporting outside of their local area, and the reason they're a major paper is because they report on more than just the local area.
posted by smackfu at 7:33 PM on May 11, 2009

The aforementioned Boston Globe, for example -- what unique value did the Boston Globe's international bureau reporting add, compared to other U.S. papers, or the BBC, or regional news coverage?

IANAJ(ournalist), but I'd guess one thing these regional papers add is, in theory, a local perspective. So if something big happens in Paris that involves a Boston native, or a company with headquarters in Boston, the Boston Globe reporter will give the story a unique Boston slant and perspective.

Granted, that perspective will be somewhat parochial, and I suspect that is one of the reasons these foreign bureaus are first on the block these days - most news readers' perspectives have gotten less geographically-defined in the internet era.
posted by lunasol at 7:33 PM on May 11, 2009

Best answer: Would you be comfortable with only one official reporter at any major world press conference or on the scene at any enormous event, like an earthquake or bombing? Would one person be able to get the full story? Would they be able to track down every lead offered?

What would be the bad consequences if only a few big U.S. papers kept their foreign bureaus and became the go-to places for the American point of view, while the smaller papers licensed that information from them?

This happens now. All news outlets have many fewer foreign correspondents than they used to. They are already sharing much content and smaller papers are already carrying AP, Reuters, New York Times, Globe or LA Times content.

One of the differences betweeen papers, though, is how willing they are to grubstake a given story (whether school collapses in China's earthquake were a result of shoddy construction...whether the use of power by Israel in the recent Gaza invasion was excessive, and how the various political factions justified it). One paper may establish a significant time and funding budget for one story or area, and thus get really good at, say, women's issues in the Middle East. Another paper might develop a strength on EU issues. No one outlet will be equally strong in all areas, nor will they cover all stories equally well to equal depth.

So the question "are there inefficiencies" might be answered yes, but far fewer inefficiencies than perhaps there used to be. The real threat is that there are fewer and fewer feet on the ground all the time, and it might be best if we ensure that we don't actually get down to three. Or two. Or just one print, and one broadcast. You get the idea.

Also, yes, there is lots of information "available," but let's think about what that is. If it's just "available" it's probably being put out in processed form by a government or action group. All of those will have an agenda. Journalism, ideally, is more than rewriting information that has been "made available." IT requires corroboration with what's happening on the ground. It requires peeling back the bureaucratic or political layers to determine what the underlying story is. It requires asking to see what's in that back room that they just tried to whisk you by or to drive you through the part of the camp where the rape victims are. That kind of thing. I think we imagine that there is plenty of great information out there and that we no longer need the investigative, filtering, or analytical functions of journalists. However, I find it pretty sobering to imagine all of us depending only on information scrubbed, polished, and delivered to our door by institutions who have a specific image and message to convey, and one that may not begin with a sense of the public interest.

Incidentally, the question doesn't have much to do with technology. The inefficiency argument could have been made by 1900. But each outlet was a privately owned organization with a unique voice and a specific market. You might not have written the news for Boston the same way you would for Kansas City. Reporters from different regions can focus on and adapt story approaches to meet the unique interests of their regional readership and their reader demographics. In the days when ad revenue was what paid for papers - that is, in all time until recently - competition and independent enterprise, getting the scoop and all, made the most financial sense. So it's not that separate bureaus have suddenly become redundant; they were always redundant, but they were redundant in a market where competition and customization made more sense.

Covering the World - American Journalism Review
The End of the Foreign Bureau Era - Committee of Concerned Journalists

Certainly journalism is changing and it remains to be seen what models we will settle on. I am just quite wary of economic justifications for getting rid of journalists. That would ultimately cost us a lot more in lost security and freedom of information than any gains in saved salary. In an age spewing more information all the time, and more spurious and selective information at that, in a very fast-moving news cycle, we are going to need them more than ever.
posted by Miko at 7:49 PM on May 11, 2009 [5 favorites]

It's harder for a potential future Orwellian government to control the flow of information from the outside to its citizens if there are only a small number of routes for international news to reach Americans. I count free international press among the most precious of liberties, and I think it's good that international reporting is redundant so that it is sure to remain robust.

Other than that, I think you enumerated several excellent reasons yourself.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 7:51 PM on May 11, 2009

Competition has at least some tendency to keep papers honest. A single foreign bureau could just ignore awkward or inconvenient events. But at some point, at least in theory, the desire to get a competitive advantage by scooping your competitor will beat the desire to sweep shit under the rug.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:52 PM on May 11, 2009

Best answer: With all due respect, I'm not sure the question is entirely coherent.

If your question is: "is it necessary for the business model of news organizations to have foreign correspondents?"...then the answer is NO.

If your question is: "does the overall quality of news tend to suffer for a given news organization if it no longer has foreign correspondents?"...then the answer is YES.

The question you seem to be asking is neither of these, but some hybrid of the two.

Your inquiry might make more sense if it considered that the business of running a news organization is a somewhat different question than the question of the quality of the news or the value that the news brings to a functioning society.

In a strict capitalist paradigm, all that matters is the business model, and if news organizations have outmoded business models than the market attrition will take care of the "problem" itself.

But news organizations are not just widget-makers: they also, theoretically at least, are seen as providing a certain functional role for society as a whole: by, again theoretically, keeping the public informed. That's the dream anyway.

If one puts aside the value question, and just focuses on the business model, then theoretically news organizations don't have to have ANY reporters or even generate anything like news--so long as they are making money. They could just become PR agencies or propaganda arms for the PR of political and corporate operatives. Which, sadly, is what some of them are.
posted by ornate insect at 7:54 PM on May 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

The parochial angle is one thing.

More importantly, covering, say, Italy, is a massive undertaking. A Rome buro alone would produce stories about politics and art and food and crime and travel. Not to mention the Vatican, a whole separate beat. Right now, the major American newspapers have less than 10 people (probably less than 5) permanently stationed there to cover all those things. Twenty years ago, the foreign correspondents club near the Corso in Rome was packed with scoundrels and geniuses and drunks from every large and medium paper in the US. Now there is no one.

The reason you want more than one buro is a/bodies (the more people competing for stories, the better quality news you will get) and b/variety (the more people looking for stories, the more quirky and interesting stories they will find to tell you.) The likelihood of you reading an interesting feature about some new archeological discovery, or an expose of Berlusconi's latest shenanigans, or even a variety of views of breaking news like an earthquake in Abruzzo, is vastly curtailed.
posted by CunningLinguist at 7:56 PM on May 11, 2009 [4 favorites]

A lot of that kind of thing was about prestige, for the papers. 40 years ago a paper that had its own White House reporter, and its own London bureau, and it's own Paris bureau, was seen as being bigger, better, more important, more credible than one which did not. It had joined the big leagues, compared to the other paper in the same town which didn't have those things.

So why did the Globe, in particular, have a foreign bureau? Because the Herald didn't, and that made the Globe look better than the Herald. (Or because the Herald also had them, and the Globe didn't want to look worse by comparison.)

They were trophies, really. Luxuries, indulgences. As you say, these days they're too expensive and not really worth it.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:14 PM on May 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

You see that kind of trophy competition in other areas, too. Once some TV station got a helicopter, everyone had to have one.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:22 PM on May 11, 2009

I don't have a lot of information on the topic, but I know quite a few freelancers. I don't think there's anything terrible about a smaller newspaper closing its small full-time office. Breaking news is usually provided by wires. Longer, in depth, articles are easily sourced (and sometimes better written) by freelancers.
posted by FuManchu at 8:27 PM on May 11, 2009

Breaking news is usually provided by wires.

But you understand that these "wires" are aggregations of content written by writers on the payrolls of various papers and outlets which are AP affiliates, along with those employed by the wire services themselves? With fewer foreign reporters on news outlet payrolls, you also have fewer wire stories.
posted by Miko at 8:33 PM on May 11, 2009

With fewer foreign reporters on news outlet payrolls, you also have fewer wire stories.

True to some extent. But even now, the correspondents I've met are usually thrilled by getting their story out first on the wire. They are largely going after the same items, and are trying to be there first (I've met two who've said that thrill is why they've stayed in that line of work). They often derive their stories from the local breaking news, anyhow. I don't think that's necessarily where Boston Globe or Christian Science Monitor want to be putting resources.
posted by FuManchu at 8:39 PM on May 11, 2009

My local paper, the Houston Chronicle, collaborates with the San Antonio Express-News to provide their own joint reporting from Mexico. Both are owned by Hearst. I read these stories, and I also read the New York Times online every day and Google News a few times a week, the Washington Post and LA Times once or twice a week. The Chronicle and Express-News usually provide more, more complete, and more interesting coverage of what's happening in Mexico than the other US sources do.

Do newspapers in Seattle, Detroit, or Buffalo do the same with Canada? Does the newspaper in Miami do that with the Caribbean? I don't know. We are concerned and connected with our neighbors, and we pay special attention to them. You're not likely to see a Chronicle reporter in Afghanistan. You may see one in Oaxaca or Guanajuato.
posted by Robert Angelo at 8:48 PM on May 11, 2009

They often derive their stories from the local breaking news, anyhow

Do you mean "local breaking news" or "local news reporting?" There is a difference. The news is what is happening. The reporting is what might be cribbed by another journalist.

The Globe or Monitor do want to put different resources in than wire reporters. That's why they're on a different payroll - they're going to be looking for depth, analysis, or enterprise. However, the wire services don't deal only in "breaking" news, the kind that needs to be reported fastest. They also circulate the kinds of analytical stories those Globe and Monitor writers write, and in fact depend on them to add range to the content offered so it's not just another teletype. Wire services source not just news, but features, photos, sports reporting, political reporting, audio, video, profiles, and so on. So correspondents who cover the unpredictable sudden events are only a portion of the wire's stable of reporters.
posted by Miko at 8:57 PM on May 11, 2009

In the context of this post, as others have suggested, foreign bureaux separate papers that want to be seen as peers to Le Monde or the Times [of London] or the F.A.Z. from those which are basically local papers. The problem comes when the big paper groups (Gannett; McClatchy, formerly Knight Ridder, etc.) get squeezed and hand over coverage to the wires.

The side question, I suppose, is whether the US is moving from its somewhat idiosyncratic model of "city-name papers" towards something like the British situation, in which there's a very clear distinction (and market divide) between national papers and local ones.

Picking up on Chocolate Pickle's point: the foreign bureau is associated with a time of slower, costlier, more difficult travel and communication. You can see some of that in the anachronistic I visa that is required of journalists entering the US: it was created in an era when "our man in Washington" travelled to the US by steamer, and doesn't really make sense when a London-based journalist can fly out to New York or LA for an interview over a weekend.

One other tangential point: Paul Krugman once noted that the ad income from a single edition of t Magazine is enough to keep a foreign bureau running for a year.
posted by holgate at 9:07 PM on May 11, 2009

You can see some of that in the anachronistic I visa that is required of journalists entering the US: it was created in an era when "our man in Washington" travelled to the US by steamer, and doesn't really make sense when a London-based journalist can fly out to New York or LA for an interview over a weekend

I see...so journalism is as easy as hopping on a plane with a tape recorder in your briefcase?

How would you get that interview if you weren't plugged into a local network of contacts that you'd cultivated over years or decades? How would you know who's worth interviewing if you're not there on the ground, with your finger constantly on the pulse of daily events? How would you know how to interpret that interview without the context of local culture and history?

Technology is enabling, but not to the extent that you think it is.
posted by randomstriker at 11:31 PM on May 11, 2009

Response by poster: Thank you for your thoughtful responses, and especially those who took my (indeed, ornate insect) incoherent question and found fragments of coherency to answer!

It seems to me that you can look at this situation in two ways:

A) Journalism is art -- the pursuit of a multifaceted "truth" unique to each reporter -- and therefore the more that art is applied to events, the more valuable products (nuanced coverage, insight, perspectives) are generated. More is inherently better.

B) Journalism is business -- the conveyance of information as a product in exchange for exposure to advertising -- and therefore the value of foreign coverage must be balanced against the costs of the product. The market dictates how much more is needed.

What I'm seeing in the recession is the supremacy of the business model over the art model. I suspect that after a period of instability (and, yes, diminishment of the art), a new business model will evolve that re-balances costs-vs-revenue and allows the art to re-emerge. (This is of course the big question and just as soon as I figure that one out I'm going to call up the papers and let them know so they can get right on it.)

So while we're waiting, and on the assumption that the papers are going to be making business-driven decisions to survive, I was looking for the business-driven reasons for why multiple papers *need* expensive unique foreign bureaux for coverage of the same events. And the answer seems to be that in the current business-driven climate, they don't, which may explain why the coverage is falling away.

Thanks again for your patience with a rambling and incoherent question. I appreciate your points of view and the time you've taken to articulate your insights in response to what was, in retrospect, a pretty naive question.
posted by woot at 4:24 AM on May 12, 2009

I'm all for one foreign bureau for all news media as long as it doesn't have some stupid right-wing main-stream media slant. So, any "reporter" affiliated with Fox News is out. Yeah, you get my point.

Your analysis seems to overlook the fact that the business model can easily co-exist with the "art" model. There exist plenty of newspapers that can meld the two perfectly well. Especially in the glut of recession, the best journalists will always rise to the top and get jobs where the mediocre will be on the streets writing copy for job seeker ads.
posted by JJ86 at 5:53 AM on May 12, 2009

Why do most major cities have two or more supermarkets? Because no major supermarket company is going to close down its stores (so long as they're profitable) on the theory that their competitors have it covered.
posted by decathecting at 6:46 AM on May 12, 2009

There was another, entirely different, reason for having those foreign bureaus. They represented plum assignments for reporters who did good work. Assignment to the London bureau, or the Paris bureau, could be used to reward reporters who were particularly diligent at home, and the opportunity to be assigned to London or Paris could be held out as an incentive for other employees.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:53 AM on May 12, 2009

I see...so journalism is as easy as hopping on a plane with a tape recorder in your briefcase?

Certain kinds of journalism are, yeah, which is why I said NY/LA and not New Orleans or Dubuque. If you're interviewing a film star or a novelist, then you don't need a fixer or translator or set of carefully-cultivated on-the-ground relationships. You need to be friendly enough with the publicists, and that's not something which requires "our man/woman in..." credentials and capabilities these days.

My point was simply that US visa law was crafted in a time when the cost and difficulty of overseas travel meant that all foreign correspondents were abroad for extended periods; furthermore, that journalistic postings can be seen in the context of a much wider culture of "overseas agents" bestowed considerable autonomy by their superiors.
posted by holgate at 12:25 PM on May 12, 2009

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