all is not well on the borders …

by Henry Farrell on February 13, 2007

As “Brad”:: mentioned a couple of days ago, “Ethan Zuckerman”: has an interesting and worrying factlet on his blog.

Having tea with my friend Abe McLaughlin this afternoon, he mentioned that, of the two hundred fifty foreign correspondents, one hundred are employed by the Wall Street Journal. I wondered about the geographical distribution of that hundred and the other reporters – would we find a huge concentration of journalists in Iraq and Israel? Would we find any in Africa other than in Cairo and Jo’burg?

The problem, it seems to me, isn’t only about geographic distribution of interest; it’s about the kinds of issues that these correspondents are likely to write stories about. As conventional newspapers cut down on their overseas reporting, it’s ever more necessary to turn to specialized newspapers such as the _Wall Street Journal_ and the _Financial Times_ to get solid, detailed coverage of what’s happening outside the US. But even if these are both genuinely great newspapers (the WSJ’s news reportage, as opposed to its editorial pages, is excellent), they tend necessarily to focus on issues that US and UK businesspeople are interested in, and subtly to spin their stories accordingly. This means that plenty of stories that would be of interest to non-business people don’t get reported on at all well in the major English language press, and that when they do get reported, their coverage often subtly reflects the priorities of a pretty specific and limited set of social interests. Nor are the blogosphere and related forms of information gathering at all a perfect solution for this problem. Even if blogs like “Abu Aardvark”: provide insight into the Arab media that you don’t get from the mainstream press, Ethan’s research on ‘global attention profiles’ suggests that the blogosphere is actually worse in some respects than mainstream media in drawing attention to under-reported parts of the world (elite bloggers tend to do a little better, but not much). I suspect (but don’t have any smoking gun evidence to prove this) that the same kinds of distortion characterize issue coverage too.



Matt 02.13.07 at 5:35 pm

Another option is the Christian Science Monitor. I was lucky enough to have a free subscription to their ‘world’ edition, which is a bit cut down from their regular edition, for about a year and a half and found it to be terrific- as good of quality as the Financial Times but w/o, or at least with less, of the subtle bias you mention above. It’s really a great paper.


EthanZ 02.13.07 at 6:24 pm

Amusingly enough, Matt, Abe McLaughlin – the guy I was having tea with – just stepped down as CSMonitor’s Africa correspondent. He and I became friends when he was based in Jo’burg, covering stories all over the continent. He’d and I would certainly agree that CSM is one of the most remarkable journalistic organizations left in the US…


SeaBird 02.13.07 at 6:57 pm

Interesting info re: the distribution of reporters. I agree with your assessment that the WSJ and FT are two of the very few good newspapers (well, news sources in general). They actually report the news instead of try to create it. These papers, plus Reuters’ web site, and a bit of NPR in the car – are the only places I get my news these days.



Matt Kuzma 02.13.07 at 7:35 pm

This, of course, also completely disregards the foreign correspondents for non-paper news sources. While most of the television news is pretty shoddy these days, things like NPR still have some international reporting.


magistra 02.13.07 at 7:44 pm

The Guardian, according to its web site has just under thirty foreign correspondents. They manage three in Africa, though only two in South America and (apparently) none in Australia. Their world dispatches (though somewhat intermittently appearing) have some quite good stuff – a kind of print version of the BBC’s famous ‘From Our Own Correspondent’.


Seth Finkelstein 02.13.07 at 9:40 pm

Yup. If the entire system is geared to serving entertainers (elite bloggers), or businessmen, you get the sort of coverage they like.

If there’s no support for public interest – just what interests the public – it doesn’t get coverage.

One can say it’s hindsight, but I think this seems kind of obvious. At least to anyone who heard it all before. It’s a tribute to the way blogging has been marketed by demagogues and hucksters, that the reality has to be so frequently rediscovered.

We’ll know this cycle has gotten into academe when Cass Sunstein writes a book about it. Looks like that’s still a few years in the future.


P O'Neill 02.13.07 at 10:38 pm

The language constraint doesn’t help. There is excellent coverage of Francophone Africa in the french media that is relatively accessible with a little effort in the US — but it’s all below the radar screen because of the language. NPR has that single roving correspondent in West Africa who does an amazing job popping up wherever the big story is but it’s hard for one person to communicate the breadth and depth of issues in that region.


Doug 02.13.07 at 11:10 pm

On the other hand, bureaus are pretty darn expensive. Even stringers aren’t all that cheap, plus they’re tough to manage, in that your paper is probably not their top priority, and they tend to turn over more rapidly, as they get better gigs than stringing or get out of the business entirely.

Couple of f’rinstances. Some years back, the Detroit paper wanted to set up a bureau in Germany, mainly to report on the automotive business. A good fit, something you would expect a metropolitan daily from a city with a strong economic interest to tackle. Sending a staff person to do this job would have cost on the order of a quarter million a year. That’s a little rough on the bottom line. Does the Houston paper have a bureau in Saudi, or somewhere else crucial to the oil business? If not, there’s probably an economic reason why.

When I worked for an English-language paper in Budapest, one of our writers was also the correspondent for one of the UK papers. Lovely person, but had to juggle numerous things to make ends meet, and that was as someone young and single. If she had had family responsibilities, it would not have worked.

The leading German papers (SZ and FAZ) do have decent networks of correspondent. The FAZ, for instance, had three in Moscow for many years. But those papers cost on the order of EUR 1.50 for a daily edition and are almost entirely supported by their subscriptions and newsstand sales. That model does not work in the US.

I don’t have a vision of what does work, but I thought some experience from the field might be of interest.

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