Friday, February 23, 2007

Where have all the journalists gone?

In an article in last weekend's WaPo Outlook, Pamela Constable, a foreign correspondent with an impressive track record, lamented a growing trend in U.S. journalism: Media outlets are systematically scaling back on quality foreign reporting and replacing it with captions and snapshots that only tell part of the story.

Constable describes it as "a false economy and a grave mistake." And from what I observe in the news, I wholeheartedly agree.

According to Constable’s tally, you can literally count on two hands the number of U.S. newspapers with foreign bureaus: The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, the Christian Science Monitor, USA Today and the McClatchy newspapers (owner of the Sacramento Bee, The Miami Herald and The Kansas City Star, just to name a few). To add insult to injury, the number of foreign reporters has diminished from 188 to 141 since 2002. Hardly a good showing.

Ironically enough, as U.S. media scales back its international coverage, America and Americans are becoming increasingly globally engaged. Thanks to the global war on terror and improvements in the quality and accessibility of technology, we have the opportunity to know more about the world now than ever before.

Too bad U.S. media isn’t contributing much on this front. Constable notes that this is partly due to the fact that mainstream news outlets are beginning to suffer as more and more people are turning to blogs, web sites, and other alternative sources for news and information.

But really, doesn’t it seem counterintuitive to scale back quality coverage in the face of waning profit margins? I understand that overseas bureaus are costly – Constable estimates a minimum $250,000 a year – but if media tycoons need to trim the fat, why would they start with one of their most important appendages?

The problem is that what we are being offered instead is hardly a viable substitute. Rather than sending reporters to work on the ground, investigate breaking news and produce critical, solid reporting, we are being given a photo here and a caption there, and even those are increasingly selective. It’s like, after eating filet mignon for your whole life, you're suddenly forced to survive on Big Macs. Constable is right to call this “flimsy” and “superficial,” not to mention completely unhealthy.

Here's the bottom line: International engagement is critical for our country and our countrymen, and media outlets should be first in leading the way. Cutting international coverage is not the way to recover losses and regain an audience. I just wonder how grim their profits will get before the news industry realizes it, too.

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