Tribune is closing the foreign bureaus of two of its papers: in Johannesburg and Moscow for the Baltimore Sun and Islamabad and Beirut for Newsday.
Whenever this happens, American journalists wring their hands and use such retrenchment as exhibit A in the decline of American journalism.
Pardon my blasphemy, but I disagree. I say that for these local newspapers, closing their foreign bureaus makes sense. Local newspapers are shrinking and have to find efficiencies. But more important, they need to focus on their key value, and that is serving their local communities and put their resources there.
The harsh truth is that for many local newspapers, foreign bureaus and assignments are merely ego deployments, just like devoting considerable staff to tracking heroin or meth or the root causes of poverty in 87 overlong parts to try to impress a Pulitzer jury. It’s about being the big shot at industry gatherings. It’s not really about serving readers, local readers.
The news industry is wasting a tremendous share of its ever-sparser resources on bylines: They have their own movie critics, though there’s nothing local about movies; they send their golf writers to the latest televised tournaments, though it is covered better and quicker on TV; they send their own team to the political conventions along with 15,000 more, in full knowledge that nothing would happen there and that they likely would not report anything that wasn’t reported elsewhere. Now I’m not saying that these aren’t talented people doing fine work. The Sun’s man in Johannesburg turned out good features and stories, a few a month — all that could fit. But that doesn’t matter. The point is that they’re doing what lots of other people already do.
Of course, I’m not saying that all foreign bureaus should close. But how many dispatches from Moscow bureaus uncover more important news and how many repeat what the others are all repeating from the local media? And these days, there are new ways to cover the far-flung places for your readers. One way is to syndicate the coverage of other, bigger papers, thereby supporting their journalism (though in a world of free links, the syndication model is questionable). Another way, then, is simply to link to other coverage from those bigger papers (sending them traffic and, indirectly, support for their journalism). Or why not read, summarize, and translate the local coverage you can now find online? Wouldn’t it be useful for the Miami Herald to assign an editor/blogger to find and point to the best coverage from Latin American media? Take a page from Global Voices and get bridge editors to find, organize, and share the best coverage not just from bloggers — my second blasphemy of this post — but also from local journalists?
Journalism is essentially local.
But thanks to the internet and the age of networked journalism, you can connect those local reporters and witnesses to the world and end up with something much richer than a few features a month.
“We’re competing in a different environment than we were five, 10 years ago. International news is more of a commodity than ever because of the internet.
Greenslade starts a discussion about whether it is, indeed, a commodity. He says:
Surely it’s not so much that news itself is a commodity as the fact that news-gathering is becoming too costly for news-gatherers at a time of rapidly falling revenues. The transformation of news into a commodity was achieved long ago – due entirely to the nature of the capitalist economy – and the internet has made it more available.
In Greenslade’s comments, Simonh says this talk of commodification is “rubbish” and the real issue is:
What [the Sun editor] is really complaining about, did he but realise it is that the internet is removing the cross-subsidy that news (expensive, not always well read, often hard to sell advertising against) has long received from features (cheap to produce, easy to advertise against). So business managers realise what news costs and start to close bureaux etc. In doing so, they destroy newspapers’ raison d’etre. If they get all their news from wire services, what’s to distinguish them from the likes of Yahoo! and AOL?