International coverage in '08 hit a 21-year low

With the twin engines of a tanking economy and an electoral phenomenon that had the nation chanting “Yes, we can” along with now-President Obama, 2008 was one of the most domestically obsessed years in the history of American journalism. According to year-end review by the Tyndall Report, which monitors network news, coverage of foreign policy on the Big Three’s nightly newscasts in 2008 hit a 21-year low, while Iraq coverage totaled 434 minutes, down from 1,888 in 2007 and a high of 4,162 in 2003, the year of the U.S. invasion.

That dearth in coverage has happened as networks have drawn down staffing at international bureaus. (On the print side, according to a 2008 Pew Research Center Study, nearly two thirds of American newspapers have cut back on foreign coverage.)

“Television is missing in action around the world,” says Sherri Ricciardi, professor at the Indiana U. School of Journalism. Citing one headline-worthy event from last June, she recalls that when Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was kidnapped by the Palestine Army of Islam, only a couple of reporters were in position to file copy.

As for the nets, she recalls: “They brought some people in from India and China and Africa, and they dropped them in and pulled them back out in 48 hours. Well, that’s not reporting.”

CBS News senior news veep Paul Friedman, however, says, “This is clearly the new model.”

Last year the Eye cut staff in its Moscow, Tokyo and Tel Aviv offices, the latter just days before December’s eruption of hostilities in Gaza.

But, says Friedman, “We parachuted people in from London, and we covered the story as well as we ever have.”

That streamlined model of international reporting has been a work in progress for decades, dating back to the 1980s when, increasingly, network news divisions were mandated by their corporate chiefs to become profit centers. In the process, foreign bureaus were gutted and consolidated, and hundreds of overseas staffers were jettisoned.

“You spend $4 million a year to maintain a bureau that does no work, and then works like hell for three weeks,” Friedman says in defense.

That whack-a-mole approach, says Ricciardi, wherein journos are hustled from a large hub bureau, typically London, and plunked down to cover a global hot spot, doesn’t take into account the “institutional memory” that’s acquired by reporters in a foreign locale.

“It’s about building a network of sources, having relationships,” she says.

Friedman disagrees. “The only important thing that’s a potential loss is when you haven’t got somebody in a place who you can trust to say, ‘Hey, come pay attention to this story. Something’s happening here that’s different. I have a friend in the foreign office who says that such-and-such story is important, and I trust him.'”

With ad revenue in the doldrums, there’s likely to be more collaboration among newsies and hiring syndicators. For one, says Friedman, “You’re going to see more ad hoc relationships among the networks to share costs.”

Friedman expects the nets will continue to pool operations as they have in Baghdad for years, hunkering down in a single office and sharing everything from satellite-feed facilities and fax machines to security staff, while keeping just a correspondent, producer and cameraman on site.

“That kind of arrangement over the course of a year saves millions of dollars,” he says.

Recent years have also seen each of the nets strike pacts with international news organizations — CBS with Rupert Murdoch’s Sky News, NBC with Blighty’s ITN and ABC with the BBC. On the print side, the Tribune Co. (which recently filed for bankruptcy protection) has discussed outsourcing its foreign coverage to the Washington Post, which could allow Tribune to close a number of bureaus.

Also coming into play are one-man bands; independent videographer and freelance journalists who serve as de facto correspondents for American news orgs, notably CNN and ABC.

Perhaps most crucial going forward are news syndicators, whom Friedman calls indispensable.

With its 243 bureaus in 97 countries serving 15,000 news outlets, the Associated Press, for one, stands to become ever more important in a belt-tightening age.

“While other organizations’ business models are changing, we can be helpful to them in providing material that is expensive for them to gather on their own,” says AP executive editor Kathleen Carroll.

On Jan. 12, Boston-based syndicator GlobalPost, jumped into the fray. Founded by veteran newsmen Paul Balboni and Charles Sennot, the Web-based startup fields 65 journos in 45 countries, many of them victims of the very downsizing that is helping to make their new employer’s mission possible.

“I fear that 2009 can see further erosion among the few remaining American news organizations that have a presence overseas, so I think our timing is very good; (we’re) badly needed,” Balboni says.

GlobalPost is focusing less on breaking stories and more on in-depth features. Thus far it has signed up two newspapers, New York’s Daily News and the Newark Star-Ledger, and is aiming to get 30 to 40 papers onboard by the end of the year. The video side is less developed, though it has struck a deal with PBS outlet WNET for its “World Focus” newsmag.

Despite the glum numbers in his eponymous report, Andrew Tyndall is not necessarily pessimistic. He cites speed of intercontinental travel and advances in video technology that allow newsgatherers to do more with less.

“Those two factors — how much easier it is to get video from many, many sources, and how much technology has cut costs — may mean that budget-cutting and scaling back on foreign coverage do not necessarily go hand in hand.”

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