International stories on the nightly newscasts dropped precipitously over the past decade, as the major US television networks closed foreign news bureaus and cut the number of their overseas correspondents.
But now these same networks are renewing their commitment to international news - in cyberspace.
Web sites operated by the networks are becoming rich repositories of breaking stories and international reports that never make it on the evening news.
If foreign news is finding its niche on the net, it may be because the medium matches the message. By definition, the Internet is international. Its vast communications grid allows massive amounts of data to be conveyed to multiple users at minimal cost. And unlike most mediums, cyberspace offers journalists a bottomless "news hole" and a growing global audience estimated to be 30 million to 50 million people.
This year, international news in cyberspace is poised for even more growth. Redesigns of network Web sites are under way at ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC. Some sites will offer more personalized news; others, bolder graphics. The one feature they'll all share is a major expansion of international news.
In March, CNN Interactive will more than triple its foreign coverage as it expands its "World" news section into five subsections covering Europe, Africa, Asia and the Pacific, Latin America, and the Middle East. As part of its redesign of its Web site in June, MSNBC will launch a series of culturally customized news pages aimed at citizens in countries such as Germany, France, and Japan. Web surfers clicking on MSNBC's site from Munich, for example, will get national news in German and international news from a European perspective.
"There's a real thirst on the Internet for international news, something you don't see among television audiences," says Andy Beers, executive producer for news at MSNBC On the Internet.
Scott Ehrlich, director of Fox News Internet, agrees, noting that foreign news on Fox's Internet site is one of its most popular features. "The appetite for international news is definitely there, especially among recent immigrants and those who are strongly attached to their ethnic heritage."
Efforts to expand the international news beat are driven largely by network news executives who believe in filling a niche they see left abandoned by newspapers and network newscasts.
Reuters, one of the first international news providers on the Web, draws an average of 3.5 million "hits" a day from Internet users logging on to the 35 Web sites and on-line services that subscribe to Reuters' wire services, says Wendy Zajack, Reuters' manager of media relations. "News on a Web site keeps bringing people back to it," says Ms. Zajack.
At CNN Interactive, the "World" section for international news is one of the top three destinations for the CNN site, says Scott Woelfel, vice president and editor in chief of CNN Interactive. Drawing on CNN's 30 news bureaus around the world, the network's Web site offers between 50 to 100 pages of new content daily, and the site's content is divided equally between domestic and international news. About 30 percent of those who visit the site come from outside the US, says Mr. Woelfel.
Whether an international story breaks from the United States or abroad, the audience for foreign news in cyberspace remains US-centric. Last December, MSNBC held a live, one-hour chat session with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss the Middle East peace accords. The chat drew about 3,000 visitors: 75 percent from the US, 10 percent from the Middle East, 10 percent from Europe, and 5 percent from Asia. Research shows that those who draw their news from the Web fit the profile of typical cyberspace users: overwhelmingly male and college-educated, between 25 and 45 years old, married, and making more than $50,000 per year.
For now, the economic model for news on the Web emphasizes prestige, not profits. None of the networks' Web sites are reported to be making any money.
In competing for international news audiences, the networks' Web sites face more than just competition among themselves. Besides global news giants like the Associated Press, Dow Jones, Reuters, and the BBC, virtually every nation with Web access delivers international news in cyberspace.
The Web is rapidly becoming a media melting pot of globally available information, where one can locate more than 50 Italian on-line newspapers and magazines just a click away from Iraq's four-language "Kurdistan Web." In addition, hundreds of government information ministries and on-line parliamentary publications feed their own brand of news to the Web daily. More than 1,000 daily newspapers outside the US are on-line, with more launching every day.
The Christian Science Monitor itself has a site that has recently seen dramatic growth in its audience. The Monitor, which won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting, now draws nearly 30,000 visitors a week to its Web site.
Stories that resonate across national boundaries often involve celebrities, political scandals, or the health of heads of state. When the verdict was announced in the O.J. Simpson civil trial, the decision appeared among top stories on newspaper Web sites around the world.
As the bandwidth of international news flow continues to broaden, new technologies will also play a role in how news is delivered on the Web. Merrill Brown, editor in chief of MSNBC On the Internet, says that his site's emphasis on international news will also be an opportunity to "reinvent our own storytelling techniques."
In the future, says Mr. Brown, "We're going to illustrate stories with multimedia - photos, video, audio clips - which is going to be very alluring to people who may be turned off by the generally straightforward nature of international coverage."
New ways to report the news are what make the medium of cyberspace so exciting, says Ronni Bennett, managing editor of CBS News on the Web.
"It's like being in television in 1947," says Ms. Bennett. "Anyone who's working on the Web these days is literally inventing it. We're making it up as we go along."
NETWORKS' WEB SITES
Planned dates of major Web-site redesigns are given in parentheses.
CBS News On the Web (fall)
CNN Interactive (summer)
Fox News Internet (March)
MSNBC On the Internet (June)
ABC News Online is scheduled to launch in April.