The lamentable impact of closing foreign bureaus
Dick Polman, Inquirer National Political Columnist
Today I merely want to recommend that you read this piece by Trudy Rubin, the Inquirer columnist who defies the lamentable downsizing of newspaper ambition by continuing to travel the world and opine on international news.
At a recent forum in Illinois - the topic was Pakistan - she was asked a classic question by a high school student: "If Pakistan is so dangerous, why don't we read anything about it?"
That tells you plenty. He could certainly get news about Pakistan by checking the New York Times and Washington Post websites (for now anyway, because who knows how long both papers will continue to fund bureaus there), but the broader point is that he's growing up at a time when financially beleaguered newspapers and magazines have generally retreated from posting reporters abroad.
For instance, the biggest paper in this kid's own state, the Chicago Tribune, has been closing foreign bureaus. The Baltimore Sun has closed four. The Boston Globe used to have five, now it has none. Newsday used to have six bureaus, now it has none. The Philadelphia Inquirer used to have six bureaus (including London, where I once worked), now it has none. By every measure, Americans are getting less news of the world than ever before; in one think-tank survey, the share of front-page newspaper articles devoted to foreign affairs dropped from 27 percent in 1987 to 14 percent in 2004.
Note that reference to 2004, which demonstrates that the slide did not begin with the current financial crisis. Many editors - in TV as well - have long concluded that Americans don't care much about foreign news (unless, naturally, the news affects Americans, or the folks abroad are talking about something that is happening in America), so therefore there is little urgency to provide it. The result, however, is that more Americans know increasingly less about the foreign cultures and developments that could ultimately shape their lives.
But the technological revolution has accelerated this trend. The Internet continues to suck the life out of newspapers, drawing away advertising and eyeballs, and one of the most perverse results is that, at a time when the globe seems smaller than ever, Americans will get less professional coverage than ever.
And I stress the word professional. There isn't the remotest possibility, in the foreseeable future, that the web will take up the slack and let loose a cadre of seasoned foreign correspondents. There are currently various schemes to pay slave wages to stringers, but that's no substitute for trained pros earning money commensurate with their skills and answering to rigorous pain-in-the-ass editors back home. With each incremental diminishing of the newspaper industry, there are fewer people who can report and explain the world with the nuanced complexity that the events and issues demand.
Rubin, in her column, writes: "We don't know who will provide the rich foreign coverage
we need at a time when the world is entering more dangerous times than most of us have ever known." Indeed. The critics of newspapers, on the right and left, who root for the death of the industry may discover, sooner rather than later, that there is a steep price to be paid for assuming that quality news comes free. Unless one's definition of quality is a foreign stringer who is so atwitter about his big story that he tweets about it via Twitter ("Whoa. Dude. Bathroom break").
Put simply, you get what you pay for.