Closer to Home
Long relegated to the margins, foreign news has experienced a modest resurgence since September 11. But much of the coverage has focused on the war on terrorism
and the Middle East. Will the blackout return after the crises ebb?
By Stephen Seplow
Stephen Seplow, a longtime editor and reporter at the Philadelphia
Inquirer and a former news editor in Knight Ridder’s Washington bureau,
is a Philadelphia writer.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch's news meetings take place in a room with walls covered by a world map and an assortment of old news photos and cartoons. That hasn't changed for a long time. But what goes on at those meetings has.
On this day, April 1, Metro Editor Kathleen Best reports first and says she has nothing to offer for page one. But Tim Poor, the national editor (whose bailiwick includes foreign) has plenty, including a dispatch on Israel's continued offensive in the West Bank and a Washington bureau story explaining President Bush's Middle East policies. Both stories run out front the next day.
While the Post-Dispatch has, in its 124-year history, often had a broader outlook than many regional papers, in recent years it seemed that almost any decent local story could keep virtually any foreign news off of page one.
September 11 changed that--to some extent.
"All things being equal, we prefer local news," says Steve Parker, the news editor in charge of page one. "But we don't skew things now. Before September 11, we skewed heavily to local." Poor agrees. "What gets me is when a local story goes on page one just because it's local. We used to do that a lot; less now."
What's true of the Post-Dispatch seems true of papers across the
Many are putting more energy and resources into their foreign reports than at any time since the Cold War. Reporters are going abroad for short-term assignments when they didn't before; page-one editors are not grimacing when wire editors promote foreign stories for the front; and more space is being found for stories with international datelines.
When Peter Arnett first surveyed foreign coverage for the Project on the State of the American Newspaper more than three-and-a-half years ago, he stated: "I'll put it simply: International news coverage in most of America's mainstream papers has almost reached the vanishing point. Today, a foreign story that doesn't involve bombs, natural disasters or financial calamity has little chance of entering the American consciousness." (See "Goodbye, World," November 1998.)
In such times--the late 1990s, for example--most foreign stories plucked off the wire at most newspapers looked forward to an obscure life in an obscure column called "world report" or "world in brief."
The distressing irony, many editors discovered too late, is that what was going on in the Muslim world became the biggest local story most of us had ever seen, regardless of where we lived.
Now, says Keith Graham, world editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution--echoing the sentiments of many of his peers--top editors "have become more aware that foreign news is important, and that people need to be exposed to it."
But a word of caution: The changed attitude should not be overstated. Local news is still comfortably atop the food chain. Foreign is just not as far down.
Further, when editors send reporters abroad, it is often for stories that have some hometown connection; seldom is it just because a situation is inherently interesting.
And Arnett's observation about bombs, disaster and financial calamity is still largely valid. The two stories dominating the foreign report, Afghanistan and the Middle East, are certainly filled with bombs and disaster. Those two stories are eating most of the space allotted for foreign news, even if that space has increased somewhat since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Those caveats aside, there does seem to be a new acceptance of the notion that what happens abroad affects local readers as residents of the world's most important country. It deserves good play. And more space should be devoted to it.
How long will this last? The general consensus: The appetite for foreign news will remain hearty for some time; it will slowly dissipate, but it is not likely to become anemic again in the foreseeable future.
Edward Seaton, editor in chief of Kansas' Manhattan Mercury, was an aggressive champion of foreign coverage when he headed the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1998-99. "I think you'll find if you take the February papers this year as opposed to last year, you'll find more foreign news," he says. "It won't be as high next year, but not as low as a year ago."
To get a sense of how things have changed, I compared the editions of four newspapers during a week in March 2001 to a week in March of this year. All four--the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Kansas City Star, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Los Angeles Times--had more foreign news this year.
Mark Zieman, editor of the Kansas City Star, says, "I don't know when you go back" to reporting foreign news like the pre-9/11 days. "I sort of think you never will."
Martin Baron, editor of the Boston Globe, isn't so sure. "There's been a sincere effort to explain the roots and cause" of the conflict in the Middle East and of the Muslim hostility toward the West, says Baron, who left the editorship of the Miami Herald and took over the Globe six weeks before the World Trade Center was attacked (see "Taking Command," April). "But it's hard to judge if the industry is improving. These are high-profile events, and we'll always cover those. We saw during the gulf war a tremendous amount of attention and resources, and when the war was over, the attention faded. I'm certainly concerned that when these events fade--if they ever do--we won't be paying as much attention. We tend to be driven by crisis."
A recent survey of 218 editors, conducted for the Pew International Journalism Program by Dwight L. Morris & Associates in Virginia, reinforces such predictions. Some 95 percent of editors said reader interest in foreign news increased after September 11 (one wonders in what cave those other 5 percent dwell), and 78 percent said their newshole for foreign news had increased. But 64 percent expected their readers to gradually lose interest and 58 percent expected their foreign newshole to shrink back to previous levels. The survey also found that only 43 percent of editors thought they were doing an "excellent" or "good" job of satisfying reader interest in international news.
And some things haven't changed even now. It was true before, and it is still true, that very few papers have foreign bureaus, and most that do don't have very many. Foreign outposts are expensive; they can cost as much as $200,000 or more a year to maintain, not counting salaries and housing allowances. In fact, I could find no newspaper that has opened a foreign bureau since September 11.
At least one, though, the Star-Ledger in Newark, formed a two-person foreign staff that is based in New Jersey. Its mission: to travel the world to put together projects that won't be found anywhere else.
I reviewed three midsize regional papers--the Post-Dispatch, Star and Journal-Constitution--from the week of March 11-17, 2001, six months before 9/11. Like many papers of their size, they provided a basic diet of foreign news every day--about four to six columns covering the absolute essentials. But that report, for the most part, was a compendium of 8- to 12-inch stories that laid out the facts but offered little background, little flavor, little analysis. And they seldom strayed beyond yesterday's developments.
And to some extent, that hasn't changed. There's still not much foreign copy beyond the big stories, and there is little to illuminate the values and cultures of different countries – the very kind of stories that might explain the anger seething in the Muslim world.
Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who has long studied foreign coverage, observed just before the Middle East exploded: "Are there more stories about housing in Japan, transportation in Sweden or the Irish elections? The answer is no. Because the space for international news has been allotted to this one story [the war in Afghanistan] today--as it should be. It's a terribly important story.... The only question is: Will there be an increase in serious international news once the troops come home? Some people have made judgments that the answer is yes. They smoke something I don't smoke."
Still, as part of the general acceptance that foreign news deserves more respect than it got before September 11, papers are writing more "what does it mean" paragraphs into the stories they do run. Says Darryl Levings, the Kansas City Star national editor whose domain includes foreign news: "We've gotten a little more space [for foreign news] and we're clearly more sensitive. If Colombian guerrillas raid Bogotá, we'll be more sensitive to that. We're more educated now to Kashmir and what it means to our security."
Seaton, of the Manhattan Mercury, says that one of the duties of newspapers is to keep readers from being surprised by major developments. By that measure, almost every American paper failed its readers before September 11. The big papers, to be sure, wrote at some length about terrorism and its possible implications for the United States. Jack Kelley of USA Today was a Pulitzer finalist in beat reporting this year for his work on terrorism. But such stories rarely made it into the nation's regional papers.
"I think all of us are asking why didn't we see this coming in greater dimension," says Ron Martin, until recently editor of the Journal-Constitution. "As an industry, we haven't reported effectively enough the forces at work."
Even the Los Angeles Times, says Managing Editor Dean Baquet, didn't write enough about the U.S. government's "failure to grapple with terrorism. We wrote a lot about terrorism, but we didn't look enough at the government's ability to deal with terrorism."
Ivisited the Post-Dispatch on the recommendation of Donald Shanor, a one-time foreign correspondent and a former journalism professor at Columbia University, who is writing a book about foreign coverage called "News from Abroad." Shanor says the Post-Dispatch is a paper that, without its own foreign bureaus, nevertheless presents a well-thought-out report for its 290,000 daily and 472,000 Sunday readers.
Several walls on the first floor of the Post-Dispatch building are filled with quotations from Joseph Pulitzer. Presiding over the Pulitzer Inc.-owned paper now is Ellen Soeteber, 51, who began her career as the second female "copyboy" at the Chicago Daily News. After years at the Chicago Tribune and the Tribune Co.'s Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where she was managing editor, she returned to St. Louis in January 2001 to run her hometown paper.
When I reviewed the pre-September 11 Post-Dispatch, it had a relatively mundane six or seven foreign stories a day, stuff like a half-column from the AP on the Japanese prime minister promising to resign or a half-column on the latest back-and-forth between Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat. The essentials were there, but not much else.
One exception was consistent attention to the conflict in the Balkans, a reflection, Soeteber explains, of St. Louis' large Bosnian population.
Soeteber is seen in the newsroom as a proponent of broader coverage, but she seems of two minds about foreign stories. "You give me a choice between a local story and a foreign story, and I'll take a local story," she says. "News is most important when it has an impact on people's lives. Local is most important, but more foreign stories have the possibility to have impact." That, she says, makes them local stories.
So the Post-Dispatch makes its mark in foreign news by looking for opportunities to link international stories to local interests. When John Danforth, the former U.S. senator from Missouri, was dispatched by President Bush to the Sudan last January to try to negotiate an end to a vicious 19-year civil war, the Post-Dispatch sent Washington Bureau Chief Jon Sawyer with him. Sawyer was also in Iraq in May, traveling with a group of peace activists, some from Missouri. Sawyer, who has reported from abroad for years, says most of his assignments have had a Missouri connection, but not all.
When Dr. Sharon Frey, an infectious disease specialist at Saint Louis University who volunteers her medical talents every Christmas in some trouble-plagued venue, chose Afghanistan last year, Post-Dispatch reporter Phillip O'Connor went with her. His marching orders beyond covering Frey: Forget the battles, write about the place and the people. O'Connor filed 14 stories in 15 days from Afghanistan, half on Frey. O'Connor then went to Pakistan for more people stories.
He showed me a couple that he was particularly proud of, including a sensitive profile of a Taliban fighter who had returned safely to his village, Dasht-e-Qal'eh, where he was showing off his newly developed skill: writing his name. The layout--featuring a picture of Sardor, the one-named fighter, standing in front of a cracked wall and holding a rifle, along with a map and the start of O'Connor's story--consumed almost half of page one on the day after Christmas.
With stories like that, says Managing Editor Arnie Robbins, "we can bring perspective to readers that they wouldn't get [otherwise]."
At the morning news meeting the day I was in St. Louis, Soeteber, tall and soft-spoken, suggested that the paper needed a story explaining President Bush's policy in the Middle East. This was during the period when analysts were calling attention daily to apparent inconsistencies in his policy--saying one day that Israel had a right to defend itself and the next that suicide bombings did not necessarily meet his definition of terrorism.
At the afternoon news meeting, National Editor Poor said that Washington correspondent Philip Dine would file a story about the balancing act the administration was trying to pull off between its support for Israel and its other interests in the Middle East. The piece ran at the top of page one the next day, April 2, along with an Associated Press story about Israeli forces moving into Bethlehem.
Does Soeteber think her paper will ever return to the foreign news desert of the late '90s? "If we go back to pre-9/11, if we had world peace, there would be less interest in foreign news. But I don't think that will happen."
Ron Norton, an assistant wire editor on the national desk, says he has his own mission for foreign stories: trying to get Zimbabwe in the paper. "I think there is a potential for a bloodbath, and I like to periodically let the readers know what's going on, even if it's just three graphs," he says.
Such dedicated subversion helps the foreign report of any paper.
But on the day I was in St. Louis, Zimbabwe wasn't exciting people. The biggest chunk of page one was turned over to pictures from opening day in St. Louis, where the Cardinals defeated the Colorado Rockies, 10-2.
"Today," said Night News Editor Laszlo Domjan, "everything is subservient to the Cardinals."
Across Missouri, in Kansas City, the Star is located in an elegant, century-old red brick building. Mark Zieman, the 41-year-old editor, sits without a tie in his newsroom office. Zieman says he was struck by a recent call he had from his publisher, who wanted to know more about a rumor that an Egyptian airliner had been hijacked. "He asked me about it," says Zieman, a little incredulously. "How likely before September 11 would the publisher call about that?"
Managing Editor/News Steve Shirk explains the interest this way: "We are in the middle of the country, and people felt isolated and secure. No more. There was even a drop of anthrax here."
The Knight Ridder-owned Star, with a circulation of 266,000 daily and 380,000 Sunday, is neatly organized. Page two has a title, Nation Watch, and everything after that is national until the next title, which in early April was War on Terror. After that came the page-one jumps, on pages called From The Cover. And finally, there is a page labeled World Watch that is at least half ad-free, and all the stories from there to the end of the A section are foreign.
This, Zieman says, gives the foreign report prominence and makes it easy to find. And there was more foreign news in the Star six months after September 11 than six months before. For the week of March 11-17, 2001, I counted 36 columns of foreign news. For the week of March 3-9, 2002, I counted 43, an increase of 20 percent.
As in papers elsewhere, much of the foreign news dealt with Afghanistan or the Middle East, leaving little space for the rest of the planet.
But I was struck by some of the staff-produced copy. On Monday, March 4, for instance, Rick Montgomery had a carefully researched page-one piece on the decades-long antagonism between Sharon and Arafat. "Nobody alive better embodies the history of the Middle East than the two leaders locked today in a bloody battle of wills: the no-nonsense general and the enigmatic revolutionary." So started the story that ran more than two columns.
Montgomery is one of two national reporters based in Kansas City who try to write stories that provide context to developing events. Until September 11, the vast majority of his stories were national, often with a Missouri or Kansas angle. Since September 11, it's all been foreign.
One story, on the long-running rebellion in the Philippines, cowritten with Grace Hobson, was of particular interest to the Kansas City region. A Kansas couple, missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham, were taken hostage in May 2001 by the Abu Sayyaf rebels. Martin Burnham was killed in a shoot-out on June 7.
"There's certainly nothing like a local angle to focus people's attention," says Wire Editor Clayton Keller, in a tone that suggests he wishes it wasn't always so. "We never wrote about the Philippines until a Kansas couple got kidnapped."
One of the drawbacks in using reporters this way, as Montgomery readily acknowledges, is that it takes a few days to "figure out the landscape." For reporters who parachute into foreign countries, the problems are only compounded. Graham, world editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, says only half jokingly that "I always figure your IQ drops 100 points by the time you hit the ground and start coping with logistical problems."
Two Star reporters also covered the war in Afghanistan, but they were augmenting the foreign staff of parent Knight Ridder, which footed the bill. One of the two, Malcolm Garcia, had traveled previously to Sierra Leone with photographer Joe Ledford, following local medical teams who had gone to treat victims of the civil war there. "It was of interest to local readers," Zieman says.
National Editor Levings also contributes a distinct touch to the Star's foreign coverage by designing "primers," elaborate full-page color graphics that break down the history of complex world events. One in March, called the "The Mideast: Two Paths or Just One," included a huge, detailed color map delineating where each violent incident had occurred that month, along with other information allowing a newly interested reader to catch up with the story.
The Star has a rule that at least three page-one stories every day must have staff bylines. The rule, of course, means that much of the first section is occupied by local jumps. Even with that limitation, foreign stories are finding their way to the front more readily than in the past.
But in Kansas City, as elsewhere, where the orthodoxy for so long had been local, local, local, it's impossible to say whether this interest will endure. The overall foreign report "is not that different between pre-September 11 and now, except in the hot spots like the Middle East and Afghanistan," says Keller. "And I believe it will be the same in two years."
Zieman says he's not so sure, and he cites studies by Minnesota Opinion Research Inc. that show a broad interest in foreign news.
Even before September 11, before a shaken country suddenly began studying atlases like they were box scores, there was evidence in Kansas City and elsewhere that foreign news engaged more people than editors generally acknowledged. After all, 10 percent of the nation's 280 million people were born elsewhere, and who knows how many have traveled abroad.
"What is the research that says you don't do foreign news?" asks Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Project for Excellence in Journalism. "My strong suspicion is that the focus is to cut costs; foreign bureaus are expensive. It's a matter of cost, not demand."
Zieman in Kansas City and John Carroll, editor of the Los Angeles Times, asked their research directors to share the results of readership surveys with me. The responses in those disparate cities seem to back up Rosenstiel's assertion. Foreign news in both locales is of more interest to more readers than most other subjects in the newspaper. And the interest of those who want it is as intense as those who want sports, often cited as a subject with relatively low readership but extremely high loyalty.
In Kansas City, for instance, a mid-American city that prides itself on mid-American values, the survey asked readers which of 47 topics interested them most. Before September 11, international news came in ninth, eight places ahead of sports. In the post-September 11 period, it moved up to third, behind only local and national.
Mark Whitaker, research and database manager for the Star, speculates that foreign news will probably fade to fifth or sixth place in subsequent surveys, but he believes it will remain higher than ninth for quite some time. And he believes from his research that Kansas City is typical. The Los Angeles Times, published in a sprawling, ethnic and distinctly non-middle-American market, has seen similar survey results. Instead of the traditional annual or semi-annual surveys, the Times, like a presidential candidate, does daily tracking, interviewing 50 people a day, 250 a week. At the Times, says Ed Batson, director of marketing research, readers are categorized not so much by demographics as by mind-set, attitude and interest. It turns out that more than 50 percent of frequent Times readers are categorized as either "cosmopolitan enthusiast" or "dedicated hard news and business," and for those people national news, politics and government, and foreign news are always at the top of the interest list, says Batson. "It's what makes their heart go pitter-patter."
After September 11, says Batson, "Everything changed in terms of topic interest." Foreign news catapulted from around eighth or ninth to No. 2 among all readers. Sports was in 20th place before September 11 and remained there.
Overall, Batson concludes, "attention to national and international news is not only good journalism. It is in our enlightened self-interest."
Everything was running a little late the day I visited the Los Angeles Times. It was Pulitzer day, and the Times had won two of the coveted prizes, one for editorial writing and one for feature writing. First there was a celebration in the newsroom, followed by a cocktail party. Then Times correspondent Richard Boudreaux's satellite phone ran out of power. He had filed 11 inches of a 25-inch story from Nablus on the West Bank when the phone went silent. When he finally called back, he said he had borrowed a battery, which was also almost out of power, but he would soon file the rest of his piece.
The foreign desk hardly missed a beat. A lot can happen when you have 23 foreign bureaus and 30 correspondent positions and spend about $10 million a year to cover international news.
I visited Los Angeles because I wanted to talk to the editors at one of the few papers--the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal are the others--that, along with the Associated Press, set the agenda for foreign news coverage. The Los Angeles Times foreign report isn't just seen by the paper's 986,000 daily and 1.4 million Sunday readers. The Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service's subscribers include 379 papers in the U.S. and another 227 abroad. So the reach of the Times' foreign coverage is enormous. (It would be even greater if stories moved on the wire earlier, making it easier for East Coast and Midwest papers to publish them.) Even before September 11, Editor John Carroll had beefed up space for foreign as well as national and metro stories by reducing the regional editions, he says, from "a ton-and-a-half of space to a ton."
The paper now has a section called The World that starts with a clear page three and continues until the foreign report is exhausted. The section can grow or shrink as news warrants. In the week I reviewed--March 3-9, 2002--the paper had 12 to 15 columns daily for foreign news, up from about 10 or 12 a year earlier.
Some of those 2001 columns contained brilliant work, such as a two-part series by Richard C. Paddock describing how Christians of both sexes in Ambon, Indonesia, were forced to become Muslim and then undergo brutal genital surgery with kitchen knives and razor blades.
Carroll, 60, was named editor in April 2000 after the Tribune Co. purchased a Times that had been demoralized under the leadership of parent Times Mirror Chairman and CEO Mark H. Willes. (See "Down and Out in L.A.," January/February 2000, and "Tribune's Big Deal," May 2000.) Carroll, who always appears misleadingly laid-back, says one reason he increased the space for foreign news was because he thought it important to demonstrate early on that "we would still be a first-class operation in covering the world. It was a question I asked when I was interviewing."
His goal now: "To cover everything of consequence that happens and give it a lot of space. We want to do it with depth and sophistication. Not just headlines."
To put an exclamation point on that interest, Carroll and Publisher John Puerner flew to Japan a few months after they took over to meet with the Times' Asia correspondents. The trip lasted less than 36 hours, but it sent a powerful message. Several months later, Carroll and Puerner flew to Rome to meet the paper's European reporters.
Simon K.C. Li, 55, London-born and Oxford-educated, is the urbane foreign editor of the Times, a job he's held since 1995. Before that, he was an assistant editor and deputy editor on the foreign desk for nine years. (Full disclosure: Li and I worked together at the Philadelphia Inquirer. Carroll and I also overlapped there.) Normally, Li says, the Times keeps two reporters in Jerusalem. When I visited the paper in early April, with the Mideast at full boil, it had four in Jerusalem, plus two photographers. Among them was Carolyn Cole, who later managed to get into Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity during the five-week siege there in April and May. At the peak of the fighting in Afghanistan, the Times had eight reporters and two photographers in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Given the size of the reporting staff, Li does not work with a particularly large editing corps: one deputy and three assistants. One assistant concentrates on daily news, a job that is so intense he is scheduled for 10 hours a day, four days a week. The others handle features and projects. Li sets standards and priorities, and hires for the foreign staff, a job, say others, that he performs with almost reverential care. That the reporter needs talent and experience is a given. After that, "You need someone who can play well with others," Li says. "You can't referee quarrels from thousands of miles away, and you can't let a colleague get into trouble."
Li says he talks philosophy with reporters before they leave. "I want stories to be readable. That's the answer to people who aren't interested in foreign news. And that means interesting topics. I'm not that big on incremental."
Most important, he says, are stories that "illustrate different cultures. There are more ways of living, thinking than the American way. And there are different values. They exist and need to be taken into account."
An example of the type of story the Times encourages: To illustrate the Japanese distaste for confrontation, the paper described a developing trend of hiring people to do the confronting--like delivering the message to your significant other that you want out. On the day I was there, in the midst of the Mideast chaos, the Times still found room for a column-and-a-half story on an environmental group in Mexico City that makes purses and satchels by recycling inner tubes and garbage.
Those are exactly the stories that most other papers seldom, if ever, find room for.
It's not that the Times doesn't print its share of "violence spreads in Macedonia" stories. But it prides itself on its enterprise. Managing Editor Dean Baquet was lured by Carroll from the New York Times, where he was national editor. He says the Los Angeles Times, by not being in the New York-Washington axis, "has to call more attention to itself, and the way to do that is enterprise and stuff others aren't doing. We don't have to do every development. We have the freedom to play a little bit. It's liberating not to be regarded as the newspaper of record."
By relying on enterprise, the Times' distinct report tends to have fewer stories than the other Times or the Post, but they are longer and touch more bases.
The paper is also getting ready to change its emphasis a bit. A second reporter was assigned to Mexico City on June 1, and two more are planned. "Mexico is a local story for us," says Carroll. Generally, he says, "we should have more of a West Coast perspective. We intend to put more into Latin America and Asia and perhaps a little less into Europe." But that doesn't mean the paper is pulling out of Europe, he says.
Of course, many Asian and Latin American stories are practically local stories in Los Angeles, given its extraordinary ethnic mix. All of which, says Carroll, makes stories from those parts of the world help sell the Times.
When Peter Arnett wrote about the Cox-owned Atlanta Journal-Constitution in his 1998 piece, he interviewed Keith Graham, who at the time had been world editor for about a year. Graham, Arnett wrote, was making a "determined bid to strengthen international coverage...[but] he knew the odds."
Today, Graham is still world editor, and he says the odds are better for foreign news generally. For big stories, like the Middle East, "it's easy to get stuff in."
When I reviewed the Journal-Constitution for the week of March 11-17, 2001, I found that while it tended to run about the same five or six columns of foreign copy as the other regional papers, it also tended to run stories with more length and detail. It used a lot of copy from the six-member Cox Newspapers foreign staff, which is run out of Washington.
Most noteworthy, though, was the effort it made to tie Atlanta to the world. On Monday it ran Global Atlanta, stories in the metro section that ranged from families getting ready for local National Guard members to go to Bosnia to a crime patrol in a local Korean neighborhood.
On Thursday there was International Atlanta, with stories about Atlantans abroad or about to go. One story focused on representatives of Atlanta's Carter Center who were going to Guyana to monitor an election.
A year later, the paper was devoting eight to 11 columns a day to foreign, counting what was usually a clear page for the war on terrorism. There was one day when two local jumps consumed much of the A section and foreign was reduced to about five columns, but on another day there was room for a prescient staff piece from Venezuela, explaining why President Hugo Chavez was in trouble with business, labor and the Catholic Church. Weeks later he was briefly ousted in an attempted coup.
"We try to brief a lot of things so we have room to do some stories at length," Graham says. "We're not consistent, but we do think we need something of weight."
As at other papers, Afghanistan and the Middle East these days dominate the space for foreign news.
Except on Wednesday. After September 11, the Journal-Constitution combined Global Atlanta and International Atlanta, added some other material and created a weekly stand-alone, eight-page section called Atlanta & the World. It contains about 30 columns of news.
"There were increasing numbers of foreigners moving to Atlanta and a heightened interest of Atlanta business and its outreach to the world," says John Walter, until recently the paper's executive editor. "It was a drip, drip, drip story, not a breaking story, and we wanted to report it and be smart about it."
The section, which debuted on February 20, is edited by Raman Narayanan, recruited from CNN International. He has five full-time reporters. In the issues I read, it was clear Narayanan was publishing stories that used Atlanta as a peg for explaining broader issues elsewhere.
So the fact that a graduate student at the University of Georgia helped establish an opposition political party in Zimbabwe resulted in a hefty piece, with graphics, on the Zimbabwe election last March. A story on the post-September 11 treatment of immigrants hardly even alluded to Atlanta.
On the other hand, tensions between India and Pakistan were used as a peg to report on a group in Atlanta that brings together Indians, Pakistanis and others from South Asia. "I don't use the word 'globalization,' " says Narayanan. "We just tell stories about what is happening."
The Journal-Constitution also assigned six reporters to cover what former Editor Ron Martin called the "new normal," how things have changed since September 11. Reporters concentrate on the military, civil liberties, health (with a heavy focus on the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control), homeland security, bioterrorism and cyberterrorism.
The reporters work for Graham--the world editor.
Look at USA Today," advises the Brookings Institution's Stephen Hess. "It's a bright spot. It was once a paper with a foreign editor and no foreign correspondents. It's not true now."
So I visited the sassy, ultramodern new headquarters in McLean, Virginia, that USA Today shares with parent Gannett to find out why the nation's largest-selling paper--2.1 million a day and 2.6 million for the weekend edition--had upgraded its coverage of foreign news.
David Colton has been with USA Today almost since its first day, 20 years ago in September, when most journalists were saying the colorful, graphic-laden upstart would never make it. He is now the page-one editor, and for a paper with very little home delivery, that is a job in which you had better score every day. Colton, for instance, knows the biggest-selling single-day issue ever was the day after 9/11, but that February 19, 2001, was no slouch either. That was the paper that reported the racing-accident death of legendary NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt. "Dale Earnhardt added hundreds of thousands to the sale," Colton says.
So it is instructive to hear an editor so attuned to what sells and what doesn't proudly note that in the 1990s, when so many papers were cutting back on foreign news and foreign reporters, USA Today opened its first overseas bureaus.
"We did it," he says, "because foreign news isn't foreign anymore. It's domestic news. It's impossible to decouple what happens overseas with domestic.... We finally discovered that content sells. You can't live on just scores and stock prices." Before September 11, the paper was regularly providing at least a half-page of foreign news, including art. Now it has more than a page and sometimes as much as two.
Foreign news and foreign bureaus also added heft and legitimacy to USA Today's international edition. "In trying to improve the quality and foreign recognition of USA Today, a better world report was necessary," says Bill Sternberg, senior Washington and world editor.
The paper's foreign lineup hardly resembles the L.A. Times'. It has just four bureaus: Hong Kong (the first, opened in 1995), London, Berlin and Mexico City. A fifth correspondent, based in Virginia, travels almost full time. Jerusalem is on the drawing board, and Beijing is set to open at the end of July. The paper also has two Washington-based diplomatic correspondents.
USA Today, of course, does not claim to be a paper of record for foreign news. Instead, it has two goals for its international report: cover the most important news of the day, if just in brief, and offer stories not found elsewhere that allow American readers to see the connection between international developments and their own lives. The perfect USA Today story might be about health care for seniors in Europe or child care in Asia, "issues that Americans are interested in for themselves," says World Editor Elisa Tinsley.
"At its heart," says Colton, "foreign reporting should show how events overseas interconnect with the lives and well-being of our readers." Like most papers, its foreign report these days is mainly about the Middle East and Afghanistan. At the end of April, when I visited USA Today, not one foreign reporter was in his or her assigned bureau. Hong Kong Bureau Chief Paul Wiseman was in Jerusalem, reporters based in Berlin and Mexico were in Afghanistan, and the London reporter was in the U.S. writing stories she had covered abroad.
Clearly, the two megastories were overshadowing news from elsewhere. "I keep saying we need to get things in the paper besides the Mideast," says an animated Tinsley. But there's not much space for that, and there isn't likely to be until the Mideast and Afghanistan calm down.
If USA Today's foreign report isn't all it might be, it is also true that businesspeople and tourists who read it in hotels around the country are getting more than they would from the local paper in most cities.
In the future, says Deputy Managing Editor Ed Foster-Simeon, who oversees the world desk, "We'd like to keep a substantial foreign report...our goal is to keep increasing foreign bureaus."
USA Today has, of course, parachuted reporters into foreign stories for a long time. The lead parachuter is Jack Kelley, who is based in Virginia but travels about 10 months a year and has worked in 90 countries (see "Suicide Mission," June 1999). He happened to be at headquarters when I was there because, after covering wars and other mayhem for years, he broke his foot stepping off a curb in Salt Lake City. "If there's a war going on and I'm not there, I feel deprived," Kelley says.
So maybe the morning news meeting shouldn't have been a surprise. It took place in a 21st-century conference room: five televisions in the front wall; six digital clocks showing the time in London, Hong Kong and all four U.S. time zones; a huge glass wall looking out at the Money section.
As far as I can tell, the USA Today morning meeting is the only one in the country attended by a weather editor. And on the day I was there, the longest report was given by Sternberg, the senior Washington/world editor.
I attended one other news meeting, and that was the most important of all. It was in New York City on March 27 at 9:11 a.m., attended by five editors gathered in a claustrophobic, charmless, no-frills room at 50 Rockefeller Plaza, the metaphorically correct opposite of USA Today's. That was the morning meeting of the Associated Press international desk, and there, more than anywhere else, decisions are made that influence how most American newspapers present the world to their readers the next morning.
Despite the supplemental wires, like the New York Times, Los Angeles Times-Washington Post and Knight Ridder/Tribune, the venerable AP still sets the table for wire editors almost everywhere. The AP digest--its budget of top stories--moves to most American newsrooms around 1:30 p.m. Eastern time. It is complete, it is familiar and, crucially, it is early enough to guide wire editors as they report at their afternoon news meeting about the day's potential page-one stories.
The AP, says Poor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "has a lot of influence initially. It comes early in the day, and they are the only ones telling you what's going on."
Even at the Los Angeles Times, with its vast overseas staff, Foreign Editor Li says: "AP will give us the basics. They are a good checklist for what we have to be considering."
The Associated Press has 95 foreign bureaus, with about 500 staff journalists. The Wall of Honor on the fourth floor, covered with photos of the 26 AP reporters and photographers who have died on assignment, attests to their devotion to duty. The men and women who guide those bureaus from the international desk are pros, serious about covering the world and serious, as Senior Vice President Jonathan P. Wolman says, about "telling a comprehensive story about trends and events across the world." By intelligently using just the AP, any newspaper could put out a credible foreign report, if one that sometimes seems a trifle lacking in imagination.
The AP meeting on March 27 was run by Nick Tatro, short, stocky, bearded and, like the AP itself, all-business. Tatro, 55, an AP veteran who spent 20 years in various Middle East posts, is the deputy international editor. His boss, International Editor Sally Jacobsen, was out of the office that day.
In 39 minutes Tatro speed dialed bureaus in eight foreign countries and Washington and talked for two or three minutes with each one, getting a good sense of what was coming, and why. The conversations were crisp and pointed. The editors in New York and the reporters in the field have worked together, and in foreign news, for years. They all know what is important. The question "Who cares?" is never asked.
Later Ellen Nimmons, who has been on this AP desk for 20 years, will carefully write the budget lines. This is not a job taken lightly. The budget line sets the tone for the story that editors across the country expect. On March 27, the big news centered on the Arab League meeting in Beirut, at which Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah formally submitted his peace proposal: Arab recognition of Israel in return for Israel's pulling back to pre-1967 borders and allowing all displaced Palestinians to return.
Nimmons, who reads the most important international spot news stories before they are sent out, cautions that the meeting "is where we put together the fundamentals. But we are responsive. If a good story comes up, it's on the budget."
Not long after the daily digest had been disseminated, she sent out an urgent message: "An explosion went off Wednesday evening in a hotel in the Israeli coastal resort of Netanya, and paramedics said there were dozens of casualties. The blast came at a time when Israelis were marking the start of the weeklong Passover holiday."
Eventually, 29 would die.
And the urgency of foreign news was evident anew.###