Good News About Foreign News

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A day or so after the Paula Jones case was thrown out of court, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was speaking to several hundred newspaper editors, assembled in Washington for their annual convention.

What, she was asked, should we do about declining coverage of international affairs?

Well, she replied with a sly smile, you're going to have a lot more space in your newspapers now, aren't you?

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The editors roared at the clever riposte, but Secretary Albright had made a fair point: It's the newspaper editors and TV news directors who decide how much international news should be carried in their pages and on their programs. It is they, on a given day, who decide whether to put the Clinton-Lewinsky story on Page 1, and the firing of the Russian cabinet and economic crisis in Indonesia on Page 36. In the case of at least one TV network, it was the editors who over an 18-month period gave more time to the O.J. Simpson trial than to the entire rest of the world.

Media executives have pleaded declining reader and viewer interest in international affairs over the past decade. Understandably, if they don't produce newspapers and television programs that interest the readers and viewers, they go out of business. But I've always believed good editors provide a mix of what the readers and viewers say they want, and what the editors believe readers and viewers need to know. In the case of the latter, editors have an obligation to make such news stories relevant and compelling.

An inward turning

However, many American editors have been calculating that with the end of the cold war, their readers have turned inward and are eschewing news from far-flung corners of the world. Thus space in newspapers for international news has been cut. Expensive foreign bureaus have been eliminated, with seasoned foreign correspondents being replaced by stringers, or sometimes by nobody at all. In the case of the TV networks, new corporate owners have slashed budgets for foreign coverage. The Tyndall Report finds that in the past decade news from the foreign bureaus of ABC, CBS, and NBC has declined by 50 percent.

With some notable exceptions, there has been a similar decline of foreign reportage in newspapers.

But at last there is a glimmer of hope for those editors and readers who believe that international news is important.

A survey by USA Today finds increasing interest in international news and the paper plans to run more of it. A Knight-Ridder poll discerns a similar trend. National Public Radio, with a heavy concentration on international news, has found a comfortable audience niche of 12 to 14 million listeners. The London Economist, which packs its pages with some of the best magazine coverage in the world of international affairs, is doing just nicely in the US. And Britain's Financial Times has launched a major campaign to boost its American circulation, citing increased demand among US investors and corporate executives for overseas news.

Now the wealthy newspaper foundation Freedom Forum has teamed up with the American Society of Newspaper Editors to improve international news coverage. The two organizations sense an opportunity. Says Patricia Ellis, executive director of the Women's Foreign Policy Group: "There are more links today between domestic and international issues than ever before. They include trade and jobs, refugees, immigration, drugs, terrorism, US troops overseas, American students abroad, global warming, the Asian financial crisis, and US policy toward Cuba."

Localizing foreign news

Ironically, one of the spark plugs for this new initiative on international coverage is Edward Seaton, the new president of American Society of Newspaper EditorSNE. He comes not from a big newspaper like The New York Times or the Los Angeles Times, with huge resources for operating abroad, but from an 11,000-circulation daily in Manhattan, Kan. Mr. Seaton, however, has long had a commitment to international coverage and he has learned, as many more editors of small newspapers should, how to localize international news and tailor it to the needs of his readers. Do such readers invest in mutual funds? Then they have a stake in the outcome of the Asian economic crisis. Do they have a military base nearby? Then they have an interest in Bosnia and the Persian Gulf, where American soldiers serve. Are there companies in their state that operate overseas? Then they have a concern about the jobs and prosperity that flow from them.

As the Brookings Institution's media expert Stephen Hess says, the 80 percent of US dailies that do not have their own foreign correspondents receive (from wire services and syndicates) a great deal of very good reportage. But "they use very little of it and often don't use stories that would be of interest to their readers."

If the public is to be best served in this era of globalization, that's something that must be changed.

* John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor.

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