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Foreign News At A Crisis Point

News of the world is becoming palpably more relevant to the day-to-day experiences of American readers, and it is rapidly disappearing.
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Every couple of months, some irritatingly clever blogger reprises a tired argument, invariably cast as a courageous insight, that the breakdown in traditional media is a superb historical development. It goes something like this: Yes, the whole layoffs and bureau closings thing has been wrenching for journalists, but everyone else has been treated like kids with a piñata at a birthday party. Classified ads are free, and a buffet of journalistic content gets served up gratis to anyone connected to the Internet.

On its face, this notion sounds pleasingly logical. The web destroyed the monopolistic grip that local newspapers previously held over display advertising. Everyone knows that monopolies are bad for consumers. The journalism once financed by those monopolistic revenues has been replaced and supplemented by new sources beyond local markets, as the web transcends the old limits of geography. What's not to love?

But this tidy contention fails to grapple with the reality that, at least so far, two important baskets of coverage have fallen away as the old models have been taken apart by the web: local news and foreign coverage.

Local news reporting involves a lot of inglorious work of little interest to anyone outside the locality. Here the public interest -- the need for watchdog journalism and basic coverage of local events -- stands far removed from the ability of existing business models to fill the void.

Foreign news is exceedingly expensive, sometimes dangerous and of typically scant interest to a broad readership -- that is, until it suddenly becomes crucial in the face of disaster, conflict or the like. The most compelling foreign reporting requires language skills, story-telling acumen, patience and institutional memory. These cost a publisher money, with little expectation of easily monetized returns. Tech companies and financial services companies salivate over the prospect of sponsoring coverage about innovation and entrepreneurs. They tend to be less enthusiastic about associating their brands with stories about children killed by chemical weapons or earthquakes swallowing towns.

Those of us who make our living producing web-based journalism need to acknowledge this basic truth: Despite the obvious and abundant promises of the web, and despite the inarguable fact that the digital future is now irretrievably the present, foreign news is at a crisis point.

Back in 2003, American Journalism Review produced a census of foreign correspondents then employed by newspapers based in the United States, and found 307 full-time people. When AJR repeated the exercise in the summer of 2011, the count had dropped to 234. And even that number was significantly inflated by the inclusion of contract writers who had replaced full-time staffers.

In the intervening eight years, 20 American news organizations had entirely eliminated their foreign bureaus.

The same AJR survey zeroed in on a representative sampling of American papers from across the country and found that the space devoted to foreign news had shrunk by 53 percent over the previous quarter-century.

All of this decline was playing out at a time when the U.S. was embroiled in two overseas wars, with hundreds of thousands of Americans deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was happening as domestic politics grappled with the merits and consequences of a global war on terror, as a Great Recession was blamed in part on global imbalances in savings, and as world leaders debated a global trade treaty and pacts aimed at addressing climate change. It unfolded as American workers heard increasingly that their wages and job security were under assault by competition from counterparts on the other side of oceans.

In short, news of the world is becoming palpably more relevant to the day-to-day experiences of American readers, and it is rapidly disappearing.

Yet the same forces that have assailed print media, eroding foreign news along the way, may be fashioning a useful response. Several nonprofit outlets have popped up to finance foreign reporting, and a for-profit outfit, GlobalPost, has dispatched a team of 18 senior correspondents into the field, supplemented by dozens of stringers and freelancers.

More recently, Quartz and BuzzFeed have dispatched correspondents abroad. Here at The Huffington Post, we are assembling our own team of foreign correspondents for a new global news site we will be launching with the Berggruen Institute. Our new Middle East bureau chief will soon to be deployed to Beirut, with another correspondent on the way elsewhere in the region, and a third planned for China. We are pursuing myriad partnerships aimed at broadening our lens on the world by bringing in fresh voices and perspectives from multiple shores.

We are intent on forging fresh platforms for user-generated content: testimonials, snapshots and video clips from readers documenting issues in need of attention. Too often these sorts of efforts wind up feeling marginal or even patronizing: "Dear peasant, here's your chance to speak to the pros about what's happening in your tiny little corner of the world." We see user-generated content as a genuine reporting tool, one that operates on the premise that we can only be in so many places at once. Crowd-sourcing is a fundamental advantage of the web, so why not embrace it as a means of piecing together a broader and more textured understanding of events?

We all know the power of Twitter, Facebook and other forms of social media to connect readers in one place with images and impressions from situations unfolding far away. We know the force of social media during the Arab Spring, as activists convened and reacted to changing circumstances. We get that YouTube and Vine and Instagram have become key components of the informational plumbing. Facts and insights reside on social media, waiting to be harvested by the digitally literate contemporary correspondent.

And yet those of us who have been engaged in foreign reporting for many years will confess to unease over many of the developments unfolding online, even as we recognize the trends are as unstoppable as globalization or the weather. Too often it seems as if professional foreign correspondents, the people paid to use their expertise while serving as informational filters, are being replaced by citizen journalists who function largely as funnels, pouring insight along with speculation, propaganda and other white noise into the mix.

We can celebrate the democratization of media, the breakdown of monopolies, the rise of innovative means of telling stories, and the inclusion of a diversity of voices, and still ask whether the results are making us better informed. Indeed, we have a professional responsibility to continually ask that question while seeking to engineer new models that can channel the web in the interest of better informing readers.

Here is an inescapable fact that must be at the center of any conversation about the next iteration of foreign news: There is simply no substitute for professional foreign correspondents willing to venture far afield, often risking their lives while fully devoting themselves to the most difficult stories. You can substitute some of this work through crowd-sourcing and social media, but those are really powerful supplements to the old-fashioned craft.

There is no replacement for skilled storytellers who speak and understand the languages in which they operate and who write natively in the language of their intended audience, grasping what facts need to be explained and what historical and cultural context is required to make sense of the tale. These are rare skills.

There is no substitute for being on the ground, absorbing the realities that cannot be gleaned by phone or via Skype. Authenticity and nuance are powerful, and they require hanging around, seeing what happens down that road, knocking on that door, listening to people speak about matters beyond those they were prompted to address.

The deepest reporting involves actual human connections, which unfold not on schedule but through luck, sensitivity, patience and happenstance. There is no substitute for the contacts the foreign correspondent cultivates or the emotional understanding achieved by being there and going back again, navigating the same pitfalls as the subjects, sharing physical space and having conversations that go on longer than needed merely to grab a handy quote to jam in a story.

There is no substitute for the stories generated by a writer who has lived in a place, absorbing the texture of everyday life, and is thus able to detect subtle changes in custom, tone, fashion and faith. These ideas will generally trump those that occur to people who sit behind desks for their living.

Web journalism and the demise of the old print model is a done deal. No one can put it back together, and no one ought to try. Nor should we romanticize the old days: Long before anyone had heard of a browser, we got plenty of stories wrong and missed many others. Bad information seeped in. Americans tended to be parochial.

We need to embrace the present and gear for the future. These are days in which newsrooms simply must be entrepreneurial and creative in pursuit of new means of reporting and paying for it. That makes this a particularly interesting time to be doing the work, but it also requires forthright attention to a central demand: We need to put back what the Internet has taken away. We need to turn the void into something fresh and compelling. We need to re-examine and update how we gather information and how we engage readers, while retaining the core values of serious-minded journalism.

This will not be easy. The resulting models are far from obvious. But the alternative -- accepting ignorance and parochialism -- is simply not an option.

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