desks abroad

(San Francisco Call, 28 July 1908)

Nicolas Kristof points out that only four American newspapers still have foreign desks; Matthew Yglesias doesn’t think that’s such a bad thing:

I think a better way to think about the web’s impact would be something like this. How many foreign desks was a typical American actually able to read back in 1978? For most people, I think, the answer was one or two. Today only four American papers maintain a foreign desk but it’s easy as pie to read any or all of them. And of course you can also read foreign coverage in British papers or read The Times of India‘s coverage of explosions on Bangalore.

I think the foreign coverage of professional journalists can only be very partially replaced by citizen journalism. But it’s really easy to see how it can be replaced by other professional journalists. As newspapers, television networks, and radio networks all increasing move in a digital direction it seems to me that we can easily imagine a world in which there are 15 or so different global brands offering substantive general-interest global news coverage in the English language and everyone with a broadband connection is able to access all fifteen of them.

In comments, Mckingford takes issue with that argument (click through for the whole comment, which includes a Canada-Sudan-US story as an example):

I think this misstates the problem, because it assumes that they all report on the same thing. It may well used to be the case that there were a dozen papers (as opposed to the current 4) with a China bureau. This certainly increased the odds that at any given time, some papers were writing stories out of Beijing, others out of Shanghai, with others in some remote region reporting on, say, a mine disaster. After all, it isn’t as if there is only *1* story at any given time that may be of interest to domestic readers. With consolidation, the odds are increasingly likely that the foreign bureaux of the respective papers are chasing the same story.

And it is a similar mistake to assume that increased access to foreign papers replaces the function of these lost foreign bureaux. A story has different implications for local readers of the “Times of India” than it does for an American (which isn’t to say that the perspective of the “Times of India” may not be important or interesting).

I’m pretty much with Mckingford on this one. More reporters for more papers would mean more possibilities for more stories or greater depth for certain stories. In practice, it’s true that a lot of papers end up replicating each others’ bigger stories, but even then they often get some different details, have different sources, or (efforts at objectivity notwithstanding) see the story from different angles. (Those differences also often provide material for news aggregators, like bloggers.)

On the domestic audience side, different parts of the country have different relationships with the rest of the world, so the lack of foreign bureaus means that potential stories not deemed relevant to the audiences of the four major papers simply will not be covered for some local audiences. I suspect papers will continue to occasionally send out reporters on assignment get these types of stories – that Call report advertised above was probably produced that way, and smaller current papers have sent embedded or non-embedded reporters to Iraq and Afghanistan, for instance – but that’s not the same thing as having people who know a region more intimately because they live there and it’s their “beat.”

Of course, if people aren’t reading those smaller papers in large enough numbers to justify the expense of the foreign desks, there’s not much we can do but express regret at what’s being lost. But I do think that something really is being lost.

Minor side note: I remember as a kid reading stories from the wire services, the Los Angeles Times, and the New York Times in the San Francisco Chronicle. I assume that almost all of the Chronicle‘s print world coverage is provided this way now, although there is apparently still something called the “Chronicle Foreign Service.”