International coverage on the wane – whose fault is it anyway?

Exotic location. More than a hint of danger. The exploration of the unknown. Not knowing whether your current journey will be your last.

Yes, it was difficult to get to the Free Word centre for their event on international reporting yesterday, given the tube strike in London. But it was an expedition well worth making as Richard Beeston (foreign editor of The Times), Brian Cathcart (professor in journalism, Kingston University) and Isabel Hilton (chairing, journalist and broadcaster) asked ‘Whatever happened to foreign coverage?’

It was taken as read that there had been a decline: where middle market newspapers (the Mail and the Express) had once sent a couple of correspondents to cover international stories, now only the FT, The Guardian and The Times (according to Beeston) invested seriously in international news – though it was ‘frustrating’ that readers often had to flick through the home news ghetto to get to the international section. Little international news makes it into the tabloids – and onto TV, especially in documentary form – without there being a British angle. But, argued Cathcart, taking a long view, there were cycles of enthusiasm in international news and we may be heading towards a trough at the moment. He felt there was less interest now than in (say) the early ‘90s, although he believed newspapers were more flexible in giving important international news more prominence, with the ‘home news ghetto not as hermetically sealed as it once was’. (Our own research suggests otherwise – more on that soon.)

There had also been a change in the nature of international coverage. Cathcart took Reuters as an example: while the news agency had, 25 years ago, been interested in ‘the gritty, factual stuff’ – the ‘what happened?’ – interpretation was now coming to the fore. At The Times, there was no longer a ‘church and state’ division between reporting and comment – experienced journalists, working in the field, could provide analysis and interpretation which, Beeston maintained, could add value. This shouldn’t be at the expense of reporting; Beeston wanted to ensure that, even in the era of 24 hour news (and a doubling of workload), each Times correspondent had at least five to six hours to actually go and talk to people on the ground. In other words, time to report.

But what drives these changes, and is the picture an entirely pessimistic one? Is the decline due (primarily) to the newspapers, the public, or something else?

Newspapers

Isabel Hilton posed the $64,000 question: what happens to information which costs a lot to deliver on the web, which international news does? International reporting is expensive, with costs including sending a reporter, setting up a bureau, finding support staff, and providing combat training and insurance – and the parlous state of news industry finances hardly bears repeating. And while the web does make more information available than ever before, Richard Beeston argued much of this was ‘derivative’ – one or two quotes being endlessly recycled, giving a false impression of their importance – and Hilton that, paradoxically, this growth was accompanied by international news becoming more of an elite interest. In other words, on the ground reporting costs money – comment is free but facts are expensive – and risks being drowned out by repetition, discussion and debate.

But there were some grounds for optimism. Newspapers could cover international news more cheaply, moving from bureaux with butlers to one-man bands with wifi. Indeed, Richard Beeston suggested, US papers may have seen a more precipitous decline in the number of foreign news bureaux because they didn’t do small scale, sending in chefs as well as correspondents. In Hilton’s phrase, news outlets ‘can be lighter of foot and still do a good job’. The ‘cottage industry’, said Cathcart, of ‘freelancers with a lot of ideas, a lot of initiative and a lot of contacts’ was always there and would continue to be; making a single journalist into a ‘brand’ might even be easier with social media. But, of course, ‘making money out of it is going to be bloody hard’.

Cathcart identified two contradictory trends which tended towards the half-full (at least while the thirsty throat of the money god could be kept away from the glass). On the one hand, brands still counted – The Guardian had built up a respected global brand quickly, which could help take people to content they trusted. But on the other, ‘subversive news’, ‘alternative views… from the inspired to the insane’, was back. Stifled by the domination of newspapers, the internet provided an outlet for these different views, which in earlier centuries would have been pamphlets and radical publications. New news organisations also sprang into life – Al Jazeera prompting the explosion of satellite across the Middle East – and readers could now access domestic news sources from the regions they were interested in (such as Danwei). Beeston admitted that ‘reading locally… keeps us on our toes’. These phenomena went beyond simply using ‘natives’ as stringers and journalists.

Public

Isabel Hilton wondered if the British view of ‘abroad’ had changed, to ‘abroad as a playground, abroad as consumption’ – something glamorous to be visited and consumed, and not understood. Cathcart felt that the ‘what happened?’ school of foreign reporting had been replaced by the ‘what does it mean for me?’ school – in an increasingly ‘globalised’ world, we become more concerned with what a world event means for our stocks, our holiday plans and members of our family rather than caring about the event itself. This ‘globalised’ world, then, appears to be globalised in terms of communication, not in terms of an international society of concern for ‘fellow citizens’, a global village of sealed houses.

The decline in international coverage might also have something to do with newspapers’ view of public expectations. Journalists, although they didn’t want to admit it, were fearful of the public, suggested Cathcart. ‘Part of the editor’s job is to second-guess the reader’, to produce the water-cooler debates for the next day, which might mitigate against foreign reporting. Beeston’s view was that he always wanted people to enjoy foreign stories: there should be a mix, good writing making a range of stories intelligent and/or amusing and adding value; you ‘have to have something that anyone can read’. Packaging ‘important’ stories could be tricky – it was ‘incredibly difficult’ to interest people in four car bombs a day in Iraq, without thinking up ‘new ways of telling that story’ – but the newspaper could make a decision to stick with a story that was important (keeping the Baghdad bureau open despite large expense) and tell it in intelligent (and even amusing) ways. Ultimately, as Cathcart put it, ‘People read what they want to read, and you can’t change that.’

Something else

While working in Beirut in the 1980s, Richard Beeston had often encountered the Hezbollah press team. They may have disliked Western journalists, but saw them as a ‘useful tool’. In Iraq today, Iraqi insurgents have their own channels – not only regional news organisations, but the ability to put out ‘news’ themselves. The internet has caused the disintermediation of news – anyone can be a publisher, and attempt to communicate directly with the public.

But this comparison illustrates another change – journalists used to be useful for communicating and for kidnapping, but conflicts over the last decade have included the deliberate killing of journalists, said Cathcart. The changing nature of war might, therefore, have an impact on coverage (more embedded correspondents, more stock video taken from official sources such as governments) – and the same might be said for the changing nature of events elsewhere.

Isabel Hilton concluded the evening by stating that there was still a need for a translation role between ‘the Other’ and the home audience, and that she had yet to see any evidence for a decline in public appetite for foreign news. But – as the internet revolutionises global communication and ravages traditional business models – who will it be doing the translating?