We didn’t set out to write a report on international news. We (the Media Standards Trust) set out to get a handle on what had really changed in newspapers – in terms of content – over the last few decades. There is so much (understandable) focus on the immediate, ongoing, news revolution that we wanted to take a step back, take the long view.
To do this we headed out to wonderful, wind swept Colindale, the British newspaper library stranded in the nether regions of the Northern line. Here we looked at national newspapers from the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and 2000s.
Two changes were particularly striking (apart from the ballooning number of pages and supplements):
- The fall in the extent and prominence of international reporting
- The fall in the extent of regional news
We left the regional news for now (that’s for a separate report), and decided to concentrate on international reporting – to see if our eyeballing of the papers was borne out by the figures.
Knowing we could not count every story in every paper since the mid 1970s (the library would have moved to Yorkshire before we were finished) we chose a sample of papers and years. We picked an average week in 1979, 1989, 1999 and 2009 – a week that wasn’t skewed by a big news story that dominated the press, like MPs’ expenses or the election – and four newspapers (Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, Daily Mail and the Mirror), and we started counting.
And we counted. And counted. We counted the number of international stories in the papers (being generous in our definition of international), and we counted the total number of stories in each paper – oh, and we made a note of the page number as well (e.g. 2 international stories on page 2 and 3 other news stories). In total we counted over 10,500 stories.
This way we could get an impression – and granted it is an impression – of how the extend and prominence of international news has changed.
The end result was pretty clear. International news in these four papers has declined in absolute and relative terms. In absolute terms, in other words in terms of the number of foreign news stories published, international coverage has dropped by almost 40%. In a working week in 1979 there were just over 500 international stories published in these four newspapers. By 2009 this had dropped to just over 300. The decline in international news as a proportion of each newspaper was even starker (because the papers have got bigger as international coverage has shrunk). So, in 1979 international news made up a fifth of each paper, on average. By 1989 this had fallen to 16%, by 1999 to 13% and by 2009 to 11%.
Having done all this counting we then wanted to see if these numbers correlated with the experience of foreign correspondents and editors. So we spent some time speaking to people from these and other news organisations. The numbers, they say, mapped quite closely to their own impressions. We then chatted to them about the reasons for the decline and discussed where they thought foreign reporting might be going.
We’ve captured some of their thoughts, and a few of our own, in the Media Standards Trust report published today: Shrinking World: the decline of international reporting in the British press (November 2010).
You can download it from this website or, if you’d like a print copy, give us a call (020 7727 5252).