In This Review

Losing the News: The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy
Losing the News: The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy
By Alex S. Jones
234 pp, Oxford University Press, 2009
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Journalism's Roving Eye: A History of American Foreign Reporting
Journalism's Roving Eye: A History of American Foreign Reporting
By John Maxwell Hamilton
655 pp, Louisiana State University Press, 2009
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The twenty-first century has been a traumatic one for journalism. Changes in how people consume news, combined with the great recession of 2007-9 and the business equivalent of reckless driving by some proprietors (such as the real estate mogul Sam Zell's steering the Tribune Company into bankruptcy), have produced an era that in retrospect will seem, at best, severely chastening and, at worst, catastrophic.

In Losing the News, Alex Jones, who won a Pulitzer Prize while at The New York Times and is now director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, addresses how the rise of the Internet and the precipitous decline in advertising have left print journalism, especially big-city newspapers, in desperate straits. Jones' book is a cri de coeur. John Maxwell Hamilton's Journalism's Roving Eye, meanwhile, is a prodigious account of a specific form of newsgathering -- foreign correspondence -- that has long been buffeted by pressures to cut costs and waning public interest in what happens abroad, even before the more recent challenges posed by the Internet. Journalism has a raffish and colorful past, but the annals of foreign reporting are particularly suited to the storytelling that Hamilton provides. His book is an expansive narrative that also underscores serious questions about what is happening now.

Journalism is the craft of newsgathering. Over time, it has evolved to encompass a set of standards and practices that make it -- when it is done well -- a reliable provider of facts and interpretation. Anyone can report what he sees happening around him, but there is a premium on the experienced judgment of professional writers and editors. And this is what is at stake today.

For all its shortcomings and excesses, journalism is an essential -- even indispensable -- element of any functioning democracy. Traditionally, society's other great estates -- government, education, medicine, the arts -- have had a revenue model based on taxes, fees, insurance, or philanthropy. Journalism, however, has been supported overwhelmingly by advertising and circulation -- a model that assures an ongoing tug of war between the need to cultivate the public interest and the duty to antagonize society's most powerful pillars through careful scrutiny. News organizations are civic assets as much as are universities, libraries, museums, and hospitals, but unlike these institutions, the media have never been able to count on guaranteed public support.

Nonprofit media may yet turn out to be a savior. Yet significantly, Jones and Hamilton barely mention National Public Radio or local public radio and television, despite the fact that NPR, in particular, has emerged in recent years as one of the United States' most significant sources of quality news, with more correspondents stationed abroad than all of the broadcast networks put together -- a development without precedent in journalism's history. Listeners pay for most of the cost of public radio; the rest comes largely from underwriters (in effect, corporate sponsors) and, less so, from the government. But the understanding of nonprofit media is still limited in the United States because most Americans continue to expect their news to come from businesses. Even if nonprofit journalism does not get much attention from Jones and Hamilton, this is a model deserving of more focus in the future.

PAPERBOYS

Hamilton, once a foreign correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor and ABC Radio, is the dean of the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University. As such, he feels admiration and affection for fellow practitioners of the correspondent's craft. Hamilton tracks the delivery of news from its origins among Colonial printers, who first incorporated correspondence from abroad, laying the foundation for all the foreign reporting that has followed. Next came the fiercely partisan press of the post-Revolutionary period, when newspapers were more manifestoes than chronicles of events. By the late nineteenth century, newspapers had developed into the recognizable antecedents of the template that dominates today: they published a mix of news and opinion, some from reporters they had sent abroad. Perhaps the most celebrated foreign correspondent of the time was Sir Henry Morton Stanley, who, in 1869, was dispatched by James Gordon Bennett, Jr., the irreverent and innovative publisher of The New York Herald, to find the explorer David Livingstone on the shores of Lake Tanganyika.

The early twentieth century was the age of media moguls such as William Randolph Hearst, Robert McCormick, and Joseph Pulitzer and of newspapers that reflected these men's swashbuckling demeanor, political perspective, and taste in reporters and stories. Hearst, as Hamilton describes in entertaining detail, made the New York Journal into a high-profile cheerleader, if not a catalyst, for the Spanish-American War; McCormick declared his Chicago Tribune the "world's greatest newspaper"; and Pulitzer favored attention-getting stunts, such as the New York World's expedition "to save 24 white slaves from bondage in the Yucatan."

The modern era has been framed by illustrious families -- the Sulzbergers, the Grahams, the Chandlers, and the Luces -- who gave foreign reporting its most sustained period by stationing highly regarded correspondents in permanent bureaus abroad. These reporters were given the time and the means to do more than sweep in for a "scoop," to borrow the title of the iconic 1938 Evelyn Waugh novel that captured the personas of newspaper owners and their intrepid reporters.

The characters in Hamilton's book -- including Richard Harding Davis, famous for his travel writing and war dispatches in the early years of the twentieth century; Nellie Bly, who set out to beat the record set in Jules Verne's novel Around the World in Eighty Days (she did, making the trip in 72 days); and Edward R. Murrow, the legendary pioneer of broadcast journalism -- were celebrities whose outsized lives matched their adventurous calling. Most of these figures came in what Hamilton calls "the golden age" of American journalism, "the period between the two world wars when outlets for foreign news swelled and a large number of experienced, independent journalists circled the globe. Radio, which emerged during that golden age, and later television made news more immediate, more dramatic and more personal." Hamilton's stars all had personalities suited to the task of conveying the excitement of the places from where they were reporting. Davis, for example, combined hard work with a zeal for self-promotion. "Mindful of how he looked to his audience," Hamilton writes, "Davis complemented his square-jawed manliness with specially tailored uniforms and was never shy about being photographed or handing photos out."

If there is a hero in Hamilton's pantheon, it is Victor Fremont Lawson, the now largely forgotten owner of the Chicago Daily News. Lawson, whose family made a fortune in Chicago real estate and other businesses in the nineteenth century, took control of the News in 1888, when it was still a small paper. He decided to invest in international coverage, and by the turn of the century, according to Hamilton, he had "virtually invented the ideal of a high-quality American newspaper foreign service."

The ambitions of Lawson's correspondents were formidable: "Our men," said Edward Price Bell, Lawson's first major envoy, who went to London, "are journalistic intellectuals, with definite personalities, with considerable personal reputations and charged with duties in the highest realm of newspaper work." Over time, a number of other newspapers subscribed to the Chicago Daily News' foreign report.

The problems Lawson faced in maintaining a foreign staff suggest that today's difficulties are not all that new. In 1924, Hopewell Rogers, in charge of increasing efficiency in the paper's business office, decided to involve himself in expense accounts. According to Hamilton, "among Rogers' ideas for improvement was elimination of the category 'incidental.'" Bell, then back in Chicago working as an editor, told Lawson that "there should be no detailed scrutiny as to how our men spend their money." There is no doubt about who would win that debate if it took place today; Lawson, however, promised the newsroom that such a discussion would never happen again. But he died the next year, and although the Chicago Daily News maintained a foreign staff through a succession of owners almost until the paper closed, in 1978, its glory days largely ended after World War II. Other major newspapers once regarded as leaders in foreign reporting, especially the New York Herald Tribune, were forced to cut back as their overall financial resources dwindled in the early 1960s.

THE LAST BUREAU

The number of U.S. correspondents abroad reached its peak in the 1980s, when -- by my count, using Hamilton's statistics -- a couple hundred journalists were reporting from around the world for newspapers, magazines, and television. Recent cutbacks have been deep. Hamilton cites a 2008 study of 250 U.S. newspapers that concluded that foreign news was "rapidly losing ground at rates greater than any other topic area."

The underlying question raised in Journalism's Roving Eye, then, is whether the kind of foreign reporting that Hamilton chronicles is in inexorable decline. And if so, how much does this matter to the broader craft of journalism and to the greater public good?

In recent years, newspapers and magazines that once enjoyed substantial and well-funded bureaus abroad have been forced to cut back, if not shutter entirely, their overseas operations. In the glory days, a bureau chief stationed abroad for a major U.S. publication had perquisites and accommodations comparable to those afforded high-level diplomats. Most news bureaus nowadays consist of a reporter; a local "fixer," who handles logistics and interpretation; a laptop; a cell phone; and a modest apartment that doubles as an office. U.S. television correspondents based abroad are few in number, except for those who work for CNN, which serves an extensive international audience, and the cadre of young network reporters and stringers who carry their own webcams.

News organizations have sharply scaled back their coverage in Iraq. Some correspondents who were stationed there have been redeployed to Afghanistan as the violence and the U.S. troop presence there have increased. Given the substantial stakes of these conflicts for the United States, the consistency and depth of reporting from both places seem too low -- especially compared to what they would have been a couple decades ago.

But there is a flip side to this admittedly glum assessment: the English-language wire services -- the Associated Press, Reuters, and, for financial and economic news, Bloomberg -- have large on-the-ground presences nearly everywhere in the world, with reporters and editors capable of providing more than just the spot news that is the wires' traditional purview. The best of these reporters produce interpretive features that match the work traditionally produced by newspaper correspondents. The BBC, meanwhile, has scores of reporters around the globe, particularly in Africa and Asia, where other broadcasters are sparse. The Economist, a much-praised -- and, from all indications, financially successful -- magazine, uses stringers, relatively few staff reporters, and expert editors to deliver an impressive weekly survey of the world that justifies the publication's relatively high price.

All this suggests that as some opportunities and outlets for international reporting have narrowed, others have widened -- any young reporter with modest cash reserves and a willingness to live simply still has a fair shot of becoming a stringer in remote but roiling places. GlobalPost, for example, is a new Boston-based Web site that employs both young reporters and more seasoned correspondents. Much like the old Chicago Daily News, it hopes to syndicate its foreign reportage to news organizations that cannot afford their own.

The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times produce excellent foreign reports, but the epitome of global coverage comes from The New York Times, which has around 35 foreign correspondents, supported by local employees and stringers. Although the financial constraints at the Times have been intense -- resulting from debt and the industry-wide advertising depression -- the Sulzberger family is pursuing a strategy that aims to expand the paper's readership among elites, charge more for the print newspaper, attract more advertising when the economy recovers, and cultivate a Web site that can become a major source of profit when, as seems likely, ways are found to start charging for access to it. The descendents of Vincent Sheean and John Gunther -- two writers and travelers from the early and mid-twentieth century -- are such columnists as Thomas Friedman and Nicholas Kristof at the Times (as well as Fareed Zakaria at Newsweek). Their articles and books deliver facts and context with flair and serve as proof that the combination of reporting and punditry can still be an influential force in shaping how international issues are perceived.

Today, anyone with enough interest to make the effort can be well informed about the world. But is the situation better or worse than it was in Hamilton's golden age, 75 years ago? In 1969, as he neared the end of his career, C. L. Sulzberger, the Times' chief foreign correspondent, wrote, "When young men ask me for advice on how to become a foreign correspondent, I tell them: 'Don't.' It is like becoming a blacksmith in 1919 -- still an honorable and skilled profession; but the horse is doomed."

Nonetheless, the long view offered in Hamilton's book suggests that today's culture of foreign reporting is shaped by both historical techniques and the capabilities of the Internet age. Although no one is required to file in "cablese" -- the often indecipherable shorthand long used to save money and transmission time -- there are blogs and Twitter feeds that amount to the same thing: they sketch the news in real time, although on mobile devices instead of ticker tape.

The rigor and rewards of being a foreign correspondent remain, as do the dangers. The videotaped murder of The Wall Street Journal's Daniel Pearl and the kidnapping, jailing, and harassment of other reporters in crisis zones are modern versions of what has always happened when reporters are caught in the crossfire or ignore caution. But, as Hamilton shows, the lure of correspondence is stronger than the vicissitudes of funding or even public interest. There will always be young men and women eager to go abroad and make their names as reporters, and the best of them will make an impact whatever the technology of the time. For all its turmoil, journalism's current chapter is not its last. Appropriately, the last line of Hamilton's book is "Not the end . . ."

JOURNALISM'S CORE MUSCLES

The decline in the fortunes of print newspapers does suggest the end of an era, however. Jones' book presents what is at risk of being lost: what he calls "the iron core" of journalism, which comes from shoe-leather reporting, experience, and, often, courage. Jones calls this particular brand of journalism "accountability news" because, as he writes, "it is the form of news whose purpose is to hold government and those with power accountable." Democracy in the United States has been strengthened by the oversight provided by watchdogs covering everything from the smallest municipality to the White House.

This genre of reporting stands apart from flip, glib, and entertaining opinion-driven commentary -- the fast food that nourishes much of the blog culture, which is relatively cheap to produce compared to in-depth investigations and systematic coverage of local and national beats.

And yet the future of such news is in danger. Jones argues that Americans must recognize and respond to this growing crisis. Entrenched business and political leaders, for whom journalism has often been an infuriating nuisance, cannot be counted on to save it, especially not in large cities, which is where newspapers are in the most trouble.

To replace what is being lost, resources must be found from the private sector, philanthropists, and even the government. On this point, Jones' book, as well as Hamilton's, offers another, more hopeful message: innovation and entrepreneurship never end, and in the future, journalists will gather the news using methods not yet created.

It is a human impulse to collect and disseminate information. The means of delivering news will change but not the need for gathering it. And so journalism will always exist in one form or another. Yet those who see journalism as a calling are right to worry about the pressures imposed by those who see it only as a moneymaker and by those determined to limit its intrusive qualities. Some battles are never over.

  • PETER OSNOS is Founder and Editor-at-Large of PublicAffairs Books, Vice Chair of the Columbia Journalism Review, and Senior Fellow for Media at the Century Foundation.
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