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Retreating from the World: Jon Sawyer Interviewed in American Journalism Review

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Jon Sawyer launched the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting when he saw that foreign coverage was declining at U.S. news organizations. Image by Roy Karten, American Journalism Review, 2010.

Jon Sawyer launched the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting when he saw that foreign coverage was declining at U.S. news organizations. Image by Roy Karten, American Journalism Review, 2010.

Jodi Enda and Kerry Davis of the American Journalism Review interview Pulitzer Center Executive Director Jon Sawyer for "Retreating from the World." The article explores why many U.S. newspapers and television networks have closed their overseas bureaus and are now providing less foreign news coverage. Enda profiles several organizations, including the Pulitzer Center, that are trying to counteract this trend.

Retreating from the World

By Jodi Enda

During more than two decades at the Chicago Tribune, Colin McMahon reported from bureaus in Mexico City, Moscow, Baghdad and Buenos Aires. He served as foreign editor, directing a cadre of correspondents as they covered the invasion of Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, the Palestinian uprising. He was dispatched to Jerusalem for six months. It was a heady life of globe-trotting that not only allowed him to be a witness to history, but to bring stories from the far corners of the globe home to readers in America's third-largest city, readers who live in Chicago's distinctively ethnic neighborhoods, who often have intensely close ties to far-flung places and who might not get such a rich diet of newsbreaking or enterprise were it not for Colin McMahon.

Now McMahon goes by the title of "national content editor." Once again he oversees the Tribune's foreign news operation. This time, however, McMahon does not direct a staff of foreign correspondents.

The paper has none.

The Chicago Tribune, like many other newspapers, eliminated its storied foreign bureaus during the last decade's repeated rounds of belt tightening. Instead of overseeing reporters in the field and helping to shape articles that will form a unique international report, McMahon runs a desk that receives foreign and national stories from the Tribune's largest sister paper, the Los Angeles Times. His staff then picks some of those stories, edits them, trims them if need be and places them alongside wire service reports to create nation/world "modules" for the Chicago Tribune and six other Tribune Co. papers.

"We take the content and we edit it here and add infoboxes, graphics and other material," McMahon explains. "So we are the central editing and design house for seven Tribune Company newspapers. We send it fully designed. They drop it in.

Each day, McMahon feeds three to five foreign stories in prefab modules to the Tribune, the Baltimore Sun, the Orlando Sentinel and Fort Lauderdale's Sun-Sentinel -- all of which used to have foreign bureaus -- as well as the Hartford Courant, the Morning Call in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and the Daily Press in Newport News, Virginia. Rarely do any of those stories land on a front page. That would complicate the module. If he has big news, McMahon creates a refer, a potentially sizable box that summarizes the story on page one and directs interested readers to the appropriate page inside.

Modules. Content editor. Central editing and design house. Intentionally or not, Tribune Co. has hit upon the perfect words to describe a modern, industrialized, assembly line approach to foreign (and sometimes national) news. And while the chain's particular method of providing identical pages for a variety of papers might not be the national norm, its pared-down vision of foreign reporting is.

Eighteen newspapers and two chains have shuttered every one of their overseas bureaus in the dozen years since AJR first surveyed foreign coverage for the Project on the State of the American Newspaper (see "Goodbye, World," November 1998). All but two of them eliminated their last bureau sometime after 2003, the year the United States invaded Iraq and the last time AJR conducted the survey. Many other papers and chains reduced their coterie of foreign correspondents, meticulously choosing which bureaus to close. What's more, an untold number of regional and local papers have dramatically decreased the amount of foreign news they publish. Television networks, meanwhile, slashed the time they devote to foreign news and narrowed their focus largely to war zones.

Remarkably, NPR is the only mainstream media organization that serves up a heartier foreign report, with more bureaus and correspondents than in the past, to a chiefly American-based audience, according to the survey. While Bloomberg News also has opened more foreign bureaus, a majority of the terminals where their stories appear are overseas. The "big four" national newspapers -- the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times -- all continue to have vibrant foreign reports, though each has closed some foreign bureaus in recent years.

As the mainstream media steadily retrench, a mix of startups has stepped in to help fill the news vacuum. With fellowships, grants and freelance contracts, new entries into the foreign-news business are providing alternatives for journalists intent on reporting from overseas, for editors who need to augment their reports and for readers looking to supplement the now-limited offerings of newspapers and television stations.

There is no pretending they can completely make up for the formerly dynamic coverage in many national and regional outlets.

In closing all their outposts abroad, a number of newspapers -- most notably the Boston Globe, Newsday, the Philadelphia Inquirer and some Tribune Co. papers -- put an end to long, much heralded traditions of delivering foreign news in their own way to their own readers, of covering patches of the globe that their audiences had a particular, sometimes singular, interest in. They covered breaking news and big stories, to be sure. But, perhaps more often, correspondents from these papers were ahead of the news or off it completely, telling stories about interesting people, places and customs that you just couldn't read anywhere else.

They had passports. They wandered. And they took their readers with them.

Many editors say that kind of reporting was a luxury. Now, with some noteworthy exceptions, it is a relic, gone the way of paper tape and the pica pole. Unlike those artifacts of days past, foreign bureaus were not replaced by new technology. They were not replaced at all.

Colin McMahon and his counterparts across the country have learned to make do. Rarely do they contend they are doing more with less, the can-do mantra of the early years of budget cuts. They merely do the best they can.

McMahon is one of the lucky ones. He has his pick of stories produced by L.A. Times foreign correspondents and relies less on wire services than his counterparts at many midsize papers. He might not have his own staff of reporters, but most readers are unlikely to know the difference. It could be worse.

"I'm happy with a lot of the things that we do," McMahon says. "I'm happy with this approach. It's easy for the reader and it makes a lot of sense for the new reality.

"I'm not happy with the new reality, though. I think this is the best solution, but I wish it were 2004 again, when I was a foreign correspondent. I don't think there's anybody at this newspaper, including the editor, who wouldn't want 13 foreign correspondents."

Jon Sawyer was less accepting of the "new reality."

Sawyer had long been the Washington bureau chief for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, but he made his name reporting and writing major projects from distant shores. By his count, he traveled to five dozen countries, many more than once and for weeks at a time, during three decades as a newspaper reporter.

"There were a number of big, regional papers that were determined to have their own voice and report on global issues," Sawyer recalls now. "That was changing, and changing quite rapidly, in the early 2000s."

The swift decline and, in some cases, wholesale disappearance of original foreign reporting at some of the nation's premier papers created a yawning journalistic void. Increasingly, big-city newspapers relied solely on wire services to provide foreign news. Space tightened again and again. Local, local, local became louder, louder, louder. No longer did papers have the space to run fascinating yarns about how people lived in remote, little-known villages thousands of miles away. They barely had the staff necessary to cover their own backyards. Neither did they have the resources to develop foreign stories that were not only interesting but also important stories that might explain a culture or a country in ways that either foretold or underscored key global developments in places like Pakistan, China or Congo.

So when the Pulitzer family sold the Post-Dispatch and 13 other newspapers to Lee Enterprises in 2005 (see "Lee Who?" June/July 2005), Sawyer, fresh from reporting in the Middle East decided to chart a new course. He asked Emily Rauh Pulitzer, the wealthy widow of newspaper magnate Joseph Pulitzer Jr., for seed money to allow him to build a program that would support the kind of international stories the Post-Dispatch and other papers seldom would produce.

The idea, Sawyer says, was to help finance reporters, young Jon Sawyers, if you will, who would go overseas for weeks at a time and produce in-depth projects for regional newspapers and broadcast outlets. His hope, Sawyer says, was that once reporters produced one or two such stories with help from outside, they would be able to make the case that their employers should pay for future projects themselves. In that way, the money would have a ripple effect.

Enter the nonprofit Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting...

Continue reading the full article at the American Journalism Review. Or download the PDF file below.

Watch American Journalism Review's interview with Jon Sawyer. Video by Kerry Davis:

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