The Ebbing of Foreign News

By Colorito, Rita | The World and I, May 2000 | Go to article overview

The Ebbing of Foreign News


Colorito, Rita, The World and I


In an era of profit-driven, cost-cutting news organizations, Edward Seaton is one of the few executives who doesn't consider foreign news expendable. As publisher and editor of the daily regional newspaper the Manhattan (Kansas) Mercury, Seaton intends to keep foreign news on his agenda and to make it a priority among the nation's 1,500 other regional and community newspapers, which have significantly reduced their foreign coverage.

In 1998, a national survey by the University of California at San Diego found that only 2 percent of newspaper coverage focused on international affairs, down from 10 percent 15 years earlier.

As president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE), Seaton spearheaded the development of a 1998 handbook, Bringing the World Home, and workshops to assist editors with foreign news coverage. A year later, Seaton says he believes foreign news coverage has hit rock bottom and is making a comeback.

But not everyone shares Seaton's optimism.

"It's not getting better yet," says David Anable, president of the International Center for Journalists in Washington, D.C. "I'm hoping at some point those who make the financial decisions see that the long term matters."

In the business of news, foreign news is considered bad for business. "The emphasis is on giving back to shareholders. Many times, the first thing to go is overseas coverage," says Loren Jenkins, international editor for National Public Radio. Now that less than a dozen large corporations own most news organizations--from television networks to newsmagazines to radio broadcasts--foreign news has been pushed out by audience-grabbing, moneymaking tidbits.

Giving the public what it wants

To defend their reduction in foreign news, many news executives cite surveys that say Americans could care less about what goes on internationally. "Their research told them think local, local, local," says Seaton.

Newspapers were the first media segment to react to these surveys. The concept for USA Today was based on a 1978 focus group survey by Ruth Clark, where participants said they wanted soft news, "more attention paid to their personal needs ... news about their neighborhood ... and advice on what to buy, where to play, how to cope." But even USA Today recognizes it took the public's supposed wants too far and is now beefing up its international coverage based on current research that shows readers are more loyal to newspapers that offer foreign news. Indeed, many other surveys show that Americans want more foreign news, not less. Exactly what type of foreign news is not clear, says Seaton.

Michael Elliott, editor of Newsweek International, says the definition of foreign news has changed. "The old foreign news was war and politics. New foreign news, which is increasingly what magazines and others are focusing on, is business and economics, science and technology and lifestyle and culture."

In that vein, Newsweek recently opened a bureau in Frankfurt, Germany, the financial capital of western Europe. "It's very much a recognition that foreign news is driven by business and economic concerns," says Elliott.

Although many newspapers continue to localize their coverage, many recognize a good foreign story when they see it, says Tom Kent, deputy managing editor of the Associated Press, the world's largest news- gathering organization. "If it tells them about science or culture or health in a interesting way, they'll print it," Kent says.

James Hoge, editor of Foreign Affairs magazine, says traditional foreign news doesn't sell well. "Every time [newsmagazines] place a foreign issue on the cover, their newsstand sales go down 25 percent," he says. Newsmagazines like Time and Newsweek with circulations of several million, Hoge says, must satisfy a larger readership than specialized publications like Foreign Affairs.

Missing from broadcasts

With an even larger audience to keep tuned in, television networks are increasingly cutting back on foreign news in quantity and quality. …

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