Friday, August 10, 2007

shrink-wrapped coverage cuts foreign bureaus, bilks readers

A democracy needs reporters, writes Rosa Brooks in the Los Angeles Times. True, journalism hasn't entirely covered itself with glory lately (think the New York Times' Judith Miller and her misleading prewar reports on WMD in Iraq). But for every Judith Miller, there have been reporters such as the Los Angeles Times' Kenneth R. Weiss and Usha Lee McFarling, who, with photographer Rick Loomis, won a 2007 Pulitzer Prize for a series on the world's distressed oceans, or the Washington Post's Barton Gellman, whose recent reporting brought out previously unknown details on how Vice President Dick Cheney acquired unprecedented power within the Bush administration.

That's old-fashioned reporting, the kind that independent bloggers mostly lack the funds and training to do. If newspapers shrink their budgets and stop funding that kind of journalism, the blogs and television outlets that feed off newspaper reporting will have little hard news to sink their teeth into.

In this age of globalization, terrorism and war, we particularly need good reporting on the rest of the world. But as newspapers shed column inches and reporters, it's foreign news reporting that has suffered most. Budget cuts have forced many once proud newspapers, including the Boston Globe and the Baltimore Sun, to close their foreign bureaus. Only America's largest dailies -- the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times -- still maintain overseas bureaus, but even they have had to cut back.

You might argue that the decline of foreign reporting doesn't matter because, thanks to the Internet, you could go directly to the websites of many excellent foreign newspapers. But few of us have the time (or linguistic skills) to scour the world's newspapers.

Whether we read them in print or online, good newspapers do the work for us. But when the shrinkage of print editions is accompanied by shrinking coverage of world news, the world around us gets smaller and smaller until it contains little more than local scandals and the latest celebrity gossip.

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