Last week, I played in Peoria. I got an inkling there of what it will mean for Americans if (I still have trouble saying when) mainstream newspapers die.
I was speaking at a conference on Pakistan held by the Peoria Area World Affairs Council. The invitation was appealing because my column runs in the Peoria Journal Star, and because the Illinois town has been seen as synonymous with the views of mainstream America.
After making a case that Pakistan, with jihadis and nukes, presents our most dangerous foreign-affairs problem, I took a question from a high school student. “If Pakistan is so dangerous,” he asked plaintively, “why don’t we read anything about it?”
This young man was asking the kind of question that grown-ups — at least those who want to understand an increasingly dangerous world — will be asking frequently in the coming years.
At this point in time, I could tell the student to check out the New York Times or Washington Post Web sites. (He told me he didn’t read newspapers.) Those papers still have bureaus in South Asia, and they have run important stories from Pakistan and Afghanistan in recent weeks.
But I wonder how long we have before such systematic, in-depth coverage ends. Roughly two-thirds of U.S. newspapers have reduced the space they devote to foreign news over the past three years, according to the Pew Research Center. The number of newspapers with fully staffed foreign bureaus, which was already declining steeply, is shrinking even more rapidly now.
Most regional papers, such as The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun and Boston Globe, shut all of their foreign bureaus in the last couple of years. News magazines such as Time and Newsweek also have sharply cut their number of foreign correspondents.
Now Tribune Co., which owns two leaders in foreign coverage, the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune, is trying to outsource its overseas reporting. That means the company, which is in bankruptcy proceedings, may close numerous foreign bureaus.
Tribune Co. is exploring the possibility of paying someone else — possibly the Washington Post — to provide its foreign coverage. So far, the Post, whose owners depend on other business investments for their profit margin, is maintaining its foreign coverage. But the New York Times — the bible for many readers who want detailed foreign news — is in serious financial trouble.
Indeed, the very future of foreign correspondence is in question. I won’t get into the issue here of whether newspapers in general have a future, after a week that saw the Rocky Mountain News of Denver fold, Hearst threaten to close the San Francisco Chronicle, and, of course, the company that owns my paper enter bankruptcy proceedings.
We know that television won’t make up the gap in foreign coverage. The three major TV networks have practically eliminated foreign bureaus. Their international coverage dropped to a 21-year low in 2008, when they devoted only 13 percent of their air time to world news. And you won’t find serious foreign coverage on CNN, which is best at covering immediate crises.
Which brings us to the Web. I know there’s plenty of information there about the world, or fascinating video snippets on YouTube. But, even if you have hours to spend, you can’t get the depth of analysis that experienced foreign correspondents offer.
GlobalPost, a promising experiment in online foreign news, has hired an extensive network of stringers around the world. But it can afford to pay them only a pittance. We will see whether that model can produce systematic, high-quality coverage.
There’s lots of talk in media circles about nonprofit journalism, in which certain kinds of coverage — say, foreign or investigative — might be paid for by philanthropists or foundations. Outfits such as the Center for Investigative Reporting in Berkeley, Calif., fund some reporters who are researching specific projects abroad. Some foundations offer money for covering particular policy areas, such as health care or the environment.
But nonprofits — hurting economically themselves — aren’t ready to subsidize foreign coverage wholesale.
Bottom line: We don’t know who will provide the rich foreign coverage we need at a time when the world is entering more dangerous times than most of us have ever known. The question I was asked in Peoria is one many Americans may be asking in the near future: Why can’t we find out what’s happening in countries whose turmoil affects our lives?