OUTSOURCING FOREIGN CORRESPONDENCE: SAY IT AIN’T SO, SAM

By Ronald E. Yates

The other day I came across a story that really disturbed me. The headline read: “Newspapers Move to Outsource Foreign Coverage.”

“Outsource foreign coverage?” What does that mean?

As I read further I was horrified to discover that my old employer, the Chicago Tribune, was one of those organizations contemplating this drastic move. And Sam Zell, the paper’s owner, was apparently behind this scheme.

I had spent most of my 25 years at the Tribune as a foreign correspondent, covering stories all over Asia and Latin America—from the fall of Saigon in April 1975 to the guerilla wars in El Salvador and Guatemala.

The Tribune had a long tradition of fielding some of the best foreign correspondents in the history of American journalism. There was Floyd Gibbons who lost an eye covering World War I and Stanley Johnston, who was aboard the U.S.S. Lexington when she was sank by Japanese planes and earned the respect of American sailors by helping to save several who had been blown into the water.

There was William Shirer, who covered the birth of Nazi Germany for the Tribune and who later would write the seminal book: “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” and Sigrid Schultz, one of the finest women correspondents to cover World War II.

These were legendary correspondents who served as an inspiration to a young and eager correspondent like me when I was posted to Tokyo for the Tribune in 1974.

I wonder what it must feel like today to be working for a paper whose leadership is on the verge of shutting down its foreign bureaus and eradicating its international news staff?

While I fully understand the traditional business model of the American newspaper is changing almost daily and that the print version of many of these organizations may have a short horizon, it seems incredibly myopic to jettison a critical area of journalism at a time when the American public needs to know as much as possible about the rest of the world—and how it relates to their communities and lives.

If the Tribune and its 7 sister newspapers outsource their coverage to the Washington Post, which is what it is considering, it will lose a critical connection between the local communities the papers serve and the broader global landscape.

While I have the upmost respect for the Washington Post and its international reporting staff, asking it to make complex international stories understandable and relevant to a local audience in Chicago or Naperville is asking a lot.

Maintaining an informed public during tough economic times is difficult and unrewarding work. No doubt it impacts the bottom line significantly because foreign reporting is the most expensive of all reporting.

When I was based in Tokyo in the 1990s it was costing the Tribune about $300,000 per year to keep me there. Today, I suspect that annual outlay is more like $500,000. If you are the publisher and you have 10 bureaus around the world, you are talking about $5 million per annum—and probably more like $15 million by the time you factor in the cost of travel, hotels, food, editorial assistants, translators, technology costs, etc.

In an era of ever-shrinking bottom lines, that is not chump change. Nevertheless, running a newspaper carries with it more responsibility than fattening the bottom line for stockholders.

In the 21st Century when governments and their leaders are already exercising immense power to justify national interests, thoughtful foreign correspondents with insight and expertise will be needed to help promote critical comprehension between disparate populations by finding and delivering more meaningful news between nations.

Often it is the information gathered and provided by foreign correspondents that makes all the difference between a world at war or a world at peace.

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