University of Pennsylvania graduate student David Conrad criticizes the state of America’s foreign media coverage in a new feature published by the Columbia Journalism Review. In “Underwritten or undercut?” Conrad, a doctoral student of the Annenberg School for Communication, says that the way foreign news coverage is funded today perpetuates the low wages paid to reporters, skews the notion of what is newsworthy and disconnects coverage from the public it is meant to serve.
“Not long ago, some 20 news organizations decided which foreign news stories should be covered for the American audiences,” Conrad writes. “Today, two nonprofits are brokering many of these decisions.”
Conrad points to examples of media mainstays such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal, all of which have significantly slashed their number of foreign correspondents. What has taken their place, he notes, is a scattering of freelancers with varying degrees of journalistic seasoning and little or no institutional support.
These freelancers receive funding from the International Reporting Project (IRP) and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting – two nonprofits created to support foreign coverage by regional dailies, under the assumption that big national outlets would continue to have the resources to do their own foreign reporting. This has not been the case, however, as regional papers have shown little interest in generating original international coverage. Instead, these nonprofit-funded freelancers are producing stories for the same national outlets that have eliminated many of their own correspondents.
In the article, Conrad expresses concerns that, while these two nonprofit groups employ only a dozen people, they have considerable authority over the changing field of U.S. foreign correspondence. He points to the fact that the topical interests of their funders are reflected in many of the grants they award – a charge that the Pulitzer Center says is a little misleading, given that half of the organization’s annual revenue is “totally unrestricted.”
“Still, the staffs at IRP and the Pulitzer Center don’t play the same role as independent news editors,” writes Conrad. “They aren’t governed by the interests of a general readership and they can’t provide the vetting of stories that occurs in a major newsroom.”
Conrad argues that a news agenda driven by journalists on the foreign beat, developing expertise over time, is preferable to one in which freelancers parachute in with the clock ticking. Moreover, he argues that these freelancers, whose logistical expenses are covered by their grantees, are often paid for their stories with the same paltry fees that have plagued the profession for decades, with most major U.S. outlets paying only about $250 per foreign story.
“This does not help foster a system that can sustain quality foreign correspondence over time,” he says, conceding that some freelancers working through the nonprofits have produced some exemplary work. “Most young reporters can’t support themselves with this model, and they aren’t getting the mentoring that can help them develop as correspondents.”
In the article, Conrad admits that the answer of how to ensure the future of high-quality foreign coverage is not easy or obvious.
“The concern is not the loss of foreign news, but the loss of U.S. foreign correspondence as a profession,” he concludes. “The subsidy model, for all the good it is doing in the short term, may make it harder to rebuild a system that supports that kind of commitment to foreign news.”
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