The end of an era?
By Reena Vadehra Posted Jan 1 2007
If the last few years have indicated anything, it is that cutbacks and downsizing are becoming a norm in journalism. According to The American Association of Newspaper Editors (ASNE), there was a 4.1% decline in newspaper staff from 2001 to 2005.
Papers also face buyouts, including Knight Ridder, which sold its 32 papers including the Philadelphia Inquirer, in March of last year. But more than layoffs and budget cuts threaten the foreign sections of news publications.
In December 2005, the Philadelphia Inquirer closed its Rome bureau and is left with just two foreign correspondents. In the midst of a major war, the Boston Globe closed its Baghdad bureau, which was unstaffed for several months.
In January of last year, two major newsweeklies shifted away from traditional sources of international journalism. Businessweek closed its international editions with the hope of redirect its foreign readers online. Time magazine, known for its large staffing worldwide, cut bureau chiefs in Beijing, Seoul, Jerusalem and Moscow. In 2005, Time also closed its bureaus in Sydney and South Africa.
The Tribune Company, owner of the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun and Newsday, has undergone the greatest revamping and is currently deciding whether to sell some or all of its papers and television stations.
In October 2005, the Baltimore Sun closed its London and Beijing bureaus. In July of last year, the Baltimore Sun announced that it would close the three remaining foreign bureaus – Moscow, Johannesburg and Jerusalem – over the next year and a half. Sister newspaper Newsday has closed its Beijing and Mexico City bureaus and will close the Beirut and Islamabad bureaus in upcoming months. Smaller and medium sized Tribune papers, such as The Baltimore Sun and Newsday, will rely on foreign reporting from the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune.
These kinds of changes are not new. Whenever newspapers face economic downfall, foreign bureaus are the first to go for obvious reasons – they are expensive to maintain. During the early 1990s, when the country faced an economic recession, major cuts in both foreign and domestic reporting were made by news publications across the country. As the nation grew out of the recession, media budgets and staff increased. It seems like simple economics, however, there is a vital difference today. The nation is not facing a major economic recession, yet cutbacks abound.
Reasons vary for why these changes have been made – from rising newsprint prices and declining circulation to demands for higher profit. According to the 2006 State of the News Media report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, the battle between the journalism idealists who argue for more quality reports at no expense (including the old, romantic notion of the foreign bureau and correspondent) and the accountants who argue for profitability is over. The accountants have won.
“I wish there were an identifiable and strong correlation between quality journalism – and newspaper sales,” Knight Ridder spokesman Polk Laffoon IV said in the report. “It isn’t . . . that simple.”
Certainly, the Internet is perceived to make a huge impact as well. The new technology is thought of as a threat to paper publications and is often cited as a reason for more cutbacks.
But statistics say otherwise. According to Borrell Associates, a media research firm, the websites of newspapers collect $2 billion a year in advertising revenue. This is a mere fraction compared to the $48 billion ad revenue raked in for print publications each year. Despite the fact that a website is much cheaper to maintain than a newspaper, the 2006 State of the News Media report still depicts the Internet as less of a threat.
“If the online revenues at newspapers continue to grow at the current rate – an improbable 33% a year – they won’t reach levels equivalent with print until 2017 (assuming print grows just 3% a year),” the 2006 State of the News Media report states. “Realistically, even with lower delivery costs online, it will be years before the Internet rivals old media economics, if it ever does.”
Newspapers and newsmagazines aren’t dying just yet. They do, however, understand the new climate and are transforming themselves to compete with new technologies. The news media are taking heed, because as Internet usage grows throughout the world, there is still a danger that reliance on newspapers may diminish even further.
“I think newspapers will have a place in our culture for the immediate future, but that place will steadily diminish over the years as more Americans have access to and expertise with the Internet,” says Bill Gentile, a professor of journalism at American University.
If anything, the current era of cutbacks signify a metamorphosis of traditional media in the new globalized and corporatized technological age. And with this metamorphosis of decreasing budgets comes new methods of reporting international news effectively but cheaply.
The foreign bureau may disappear but the foreign correspondent lingers on. Instead of staffing multiple bureaus overseas, news publications rely on single correspondents to cover countries and/or regions abroad. There is also a reliance on stringers, contracted staff who may work for multiple publications without benefits.
Monica Campbell, a freelance journalist based in Mexico City, works for four news publications in the United States. Armed with Spanish language skills, contacts in Mexico and experience in Latin American news coverage, Campbell made the move to Mexico City three years ago when she got an itch for on-the-ground reporting.
“With fewer staffers on the ground, freelancers are still around and can provide coverage with fewer strings attached, i.e. staff salaries and benefits,” Campbell says. “That might not seem entirely positive, but it’s the freelancer who has chosen to put herself in that position.”
For foreign-based journalists, it is not just the closure of foreign bureaus that is a concern but the amount of coverage devoted to foreign news in the United States. According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism, 27 percent of front page news in newspapers was devoted to foreign news in 1977. In 2004, that number dropped to 14 percent. Similarly, newsweeklies devoted 20 – 25 percent of their pages to international news from 1980 to 1990. Today, that percentage averages to about 15-17 percent.
“The problem here is not just that there seems to be less reporting going on, but that editors in the United States choose not to run foreign news in their papers, magazines or radio/TV broadcasts,” Gentile says. “Their assumption is that Americans are not interested, which is only partly true.”
If news publications in the United States downsize the number of pages devoted to global news stories, then foreign correspondents and stringers may have a harder time trying to sell a story. In addition, there is a greater reliance on breaking news rather than in-depth, background articles.
“The downside is that a decision has been made by a newspaper or magazine’s higher-ups to cut coverage from your part of the world. And that makes selling your story that much harder,” Campbell says.
“I’ve been a freelancer for more than three years and only this year have I, for the first time, been advised to keep the number of days I work on a story to a minimum because of budget cutbacks.”
Another method for saving money is parachuting journalists abroad. Parachuting involves sending nationally-based reporters to foreign countries as breaking news happens. The danger is that such journalists may lack the context and in-depth cultural knowledge needed to cover news in another country.
Campbell agrees. “Bad examples see journalists rush in without knowing of the language and clinging to English-speaking locals, analysts and the like. They lack the historical context and miss valuable references and comparisons that can only be made by studying or living in the country. So bring on the clichés and stereotypes. And too bad for the readers who may know little about the story, which is why they’re reading it, and get served a piece filled with slapdash conclusions.”
Eliza Barclay, a fellow foreign stringer in Mexico City, saw the negative effects of parachute journalism during the July elections.
“Obviously those people’s coverage was not as strong as some the foreign-based people because their knowledge was shallower and it was a complicated situation,” Barclay says referring to journalists parachuted to Mexico City.
“Yet I’ve also worked with parachutists who defy the negative image and bring a fresh eye to the story,” Campbell says. “And even if they don’t speak the language …, they get it. They spot the importance of the story in a universal sense and can tease out what’s important. That’s refreshing.”
“There’s nothing wrong with parachutists if they’re genuinely interested in the story and don’t move in on it with a seen-it-all, rushed attitude. Unfortunately, the reality of today’s fast-paced news means that’s rarely the case.
In the end, the foreign correspondent will still remain, though now faced with the improbability of being sent abroad as paid staff, competition with unknowledgeable parachute journalists, and the burden of disinterested editors and news publications pre-occupied with the bottom line – profitability.