John Hughes

Despite media yammer, there’s hope for real news

Though we live in a world of anonymous blogs, tweets, and declining newsroom budgets, tried-and-true sources of international reporting remain available.

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The news group ASNE just held its annual convention, and its very name now reflects the changing news business. It used to be the American Society of Newspaper Editors. But so many papers have fallen victim to the Web and other electronic means of delivery that its name has been changed to the American Society of News Editors.

The Society still deals with journalistic ethics and freedom of information challenges, but now there are seminars for editors on how to make money from “electronic formats,” and speakers coaching editors on how to move into the “digital era.”

The digital era is already responsible for the closure or shrinking of many newspapers, with thousands of veteran journalists laid off. The newspaper business has been so bad in recent years that ASNE canceled its 2009 convention.

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We’re all learning that social media can start a climactic revolution in the Arab world. But can social media, which often means 140 characters on a shrunken screen, really help us understand the nature of the revolt? Whatever happened to depth and context?

Fortunately, as TV anchor Peter Jennings used to argue, the breadth of American media is such that seriously questing readers can be soundly informed. They have a choice from the National Enquirer at one extreme to the “quality” newspapers, like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Christian Science Monitor, at the other. Mr. Jennings’s point about breadth holds, but since he passed, a combination of factors – plunging ad revenue, erosion of classified ad income, rising paper costs, and proliferation of free content online – has brought sharp pressure even on flagship outlets, forcing them to seek revenue in new electronic formats.

Foreign news coverage is expensive. In hard budgetary times, it is the first to take a hit. Some newspapers, like The Boston Globe, The Baltimore Sun, and The Philadelphia Inquirer, have folded all of their foreign bureaus in the past decade.

But all is not lost. Other news organizations, like the Times and the Monitor, have courageously kept many of their bureaus. The London-based Economist, with a substantial US readership, continues to provide exemplary international news analysis. GlobalPost, an all-electronic newcomer to international news coverage, is thriving and expanding. For those seeking depth and analysis, for instance, of the “Arab Spring” or the Japanese earthquake and nuclear-
reactor crisis, such news organizations offered complete and reliable coverage. (Confession of conflicts: I have spent almost my entire career with the Monitor and am on the editorial advisory board of GlobalPost.)

The mainstream TV networks – CBS, ABC, and NBC – have largely withdrawn their resident foreign correspondents and now cover international news by “parachuting” correspondents from their home base into flash point regions. CBS veteran Mike Wallace deplores the opinion, gossip, and scandal on cable TV, dismissing it as “yammer, yammer, yammer ... infotainment.” But CNN has substantially increased its audience during the upheaval in the Middle East and deserves credit for retaining a team of respected foreign correspondents.

In the field of US radio, NPR remains credible in foreign coverage, and its listenership rose 3 percent last year. Despite unfortunate front-office gaffes and congres­sional moves to cut its federal funding, NPR has been the beneficiary of substantial private bequests and will survive. From Britain, despite savage government cuts, the BBC World Service also continues prestigious international coverage.

Although amateur bloggers and citizen informers can be useful, much of their material reflects unknown reliability and motivation, and subpar skills.

A legendary New Yorker cartoon from 1993 captured the problem well. Says a dog at his computer to his chum: “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

The happy fact is that though the news business is changing and we live in a world of anonymous blogs, tweets, and declining newsroom budgets, tried-and-true sources of international reporting remain available to the thoughtful explorer.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, writes a biweekly column.

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