Covering the Region

gentile
Bill Gentile is typical of the scores of U.S. journalists who used to cover the Americas for print outlets that have now disappeared or retreated from coverage of the region by eliminating or reducing the number of correspondents. Gentile, who first worked in Nicaragua reporting on the 1979 Sandanista Revolution for United Press International (UPI), is shown here covering the 1980s Contra War for Newsweek in the northern mountains of Nicaragua. Photo by Scott Wallace

Fewer Foreign Correspondents

By Josh Friedman

Jonathan Kandell, a young reporter just a few years out of Columbia Journalism School, won the newspaperman’s lottery in 1972. The New York Times sent him to South America and, for the next five years, he lived in great style as a foreign correspondent based first in Buenos Aires, then Rio de Janeiro.

These were exciting times to cover South America—military coups, CIA intrigue, political turmoil, murderous regimes quick to jail or even kill journalists. And in those days, the Times correspondent was an important, sometimes, singular, source of what was happening. He (most were men) lived almost as well as an ambassador and had almost as much access. Kandell flew first class. He had an enormous expense account and a team of stringers around the continent to help him. In each of his two posts, he belonged to a press community of more than a dozen permanent U.S. newspaper, newsmagazine, wire service and network TV correspondents.

Now that style of life is gone. Yes, there are still three New York Times bureaus in Latin America—but their reporters survive on much thinner budgets. In fact, as of last year, only a handful of U.S. newspaper correspondents were left in Latin America, among the few survivors as American newspapers are outsourcing coverage of the world to others.

But that’s only half the picture. Despite the pullback, a greater variety of news sources and perspectives is available to American readers. Most news of Latin America now reaches the United States by Internet--and much of it is produced by Latin Americans reporting on their home countries. And many aren’t even traditional journalists—but bloggers, financial analysts and scholars.

For some like Kandell, now a successful freelance magazine writer and author who needs reliable information about the region to ply his craft, this is good. He can start his day in New York by reading that morning’s leading Latin American newspapers like Brazil’s Folha do São Paulo, Chile’s Mercurio and Argentina’s La Nación. He receives a constant flow of news about the day’s events over the web from well-sourced analysts and bloggers.

“Frankly, I think the coverage is much better because of the web,” says Kandell, “There’s lot of very good stuff out there—not just the New York Times. And a lot is more trustworthy.”

But if you still want to see the world through U.S. eyes, there is a big problem, says Daniel Butler, whose Washington staff provides intelligence briefings based on open (public) sources.

In a speech at the National Press Club last June, Butler, the assistant deputy director for open source in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said U.S. intelligence analysts are losing “an important source of information” because “the quantity, breadth, depth, content and quality” of news from U.S. journalists posted abroad was declining. He blamed decisions by many traditional news organizations to cut back the number of their correspondents overseas.

The decline is indisputable. In the 1980s and 1990s, nearly a score of American newspapers had foreign bureaus all over Latin America. Among the best:

  • The Miami Herald had four bureaus in Latin America—Managua, Bogotá, Rio, Mexico City.
  • The Boston Globe had bureaus in Bogotá, Colombia, and Mexico City, two of six bureaus around the world.
  • Newsday had a bureau in Mexico City, one of six bureaus around the world.
  • Cox Newspapers had a bureau in Mexico City.
  • The San Jose Mercury had a bureau in Mexico.
  • The Baltimore Sun had a bureau in Rio de Janeiro in the 1970’s, one of eight bureaus around the world.
  • The Chicago Tribune Company had a South American bureau and had opened a Havana bureau in 2001.

Now none of the above newspapers have bureaus in Latin America—or anywhere else in the world. Only a few of the largest U.S. papers still deploy reporters to the region—and minimally at that. As of last year:

  • The Washington Post had only one full-time Latin American bureau—in Mexico City. Its Rio bureau had been vacant for a year with no likelihood it would be reactivated. The Post downgraded its Bogotá bureau from full to half time a few years ago and now shares a Bogotá correspondent with National Public Radio.
  • The Los Angeles Times has only a Mexico City bureau. Its former full-time Bogotá bureau chief has been put on a stringer contract.
  • The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal each have three bureaus—The Times in Caracas, Rio, and Mexico City and the Journal in São Paulo, Mexico City and Rio.

This is a worldwide phenomenon. In very rough numbers, the corps of U.S. newspaper foreign correspondents around the world has dropped by close to a third in less than a decade, according to a count taken primarily last July by the American Journalism Review. That tally counted 234 full-time staff members plus contract writers (including one vacancy) employed by 10 newspapers and one chain, In a 2003 census, the AJR counted 307 full-time correspondents and those pending assignment—and that count did not include contract writers.

Much of this is due to media concentration gone awry—added to a perfect storm of long-term technological change and more recent financial collapse. Huge media companies went into debt in the boom time of the 1990s and early 2000s to buy up newspapers, but then could not borrow more to keep going when the economy collapsed.

Rick Edmunds of the Poynter Institute reported last year that strapped for money, panicked newspapers had spent $1.6 billion less on news annually in the previous three years. And that comes on top of several years of budget pressure caused by falling readership.

Last year, the American Society of News Editors reported that newspapers had cut more than a quarter of their full-time staffers in the past nine years—13,500 staff cuts since 2007, 5,200 jobs cut just in 2009.

Foreign bureaus are the first and easiest candidates for cost-cutting, since maintaining a foreign bureau costs between a quarter and half a million dollars a year. The effect on U.S. foreign coverage is even greater when you recognize that the cuts disproportionately affect higher paid, more experienced journalists with specialized knowledge of regions like Latin America.

The shrinking process resembled a feeding frenzy.

The Tribune Company, now in bankruptcy, swallowed up the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Baltimore Sun and, with its own Tribune foreign staff, cut foreign bureaus mercilessly.

The McClatchy Company swallowed up the Knight Ridder newspaper chain, then had to cut back, eliminating its Rio bureau two years ago and its Caracas bureau the year before, leaving only one bureau in Mexico City. The former jewel in Knight-Ridder’s Latin American coverage, the Miami Herald, is left only with a Miami-based parachuting reporter to cover all of South America.

The St. Petersburg Times, one of the South’s highest quality newspapers, eliminated its Latin American correspondent position two years ago.

Of course Associated Press and Bloomberg News still have extensive coverage around the world, including Latin America. Bloomberg alone now has 11 Latin American bureaus.

U.S. TV networks are mostly gone from Latin America with only occasional representation in Havana and Mexico City, although NBC claims to have one Latin American bureau and ABC three.

The only serious U.S. cable TV attempt to cover Latin America is CNN, with six bureaus in Latin America, five just in South America—Bogotá, Buenos Aires. Caracas, Mexico City, Havana, Santiago and São Paulo.

Ironically the most extensive English-language broadcast news about Latin America is coming from foreign countries. Al Jazeera has bureaus in Bogotá, Buenos Aires, Caracas, Mexico City and São Paulo. And BBC has full-time foreign correspondents in São Paulo, Buenos Aires, Mexico City and Havana. In fact, according to a recent survey by Nielsen Media Research, many viewers in Washington who want international coverage in English often turn to BBC, Russia Today, Al Jazeera, Deutsche Welle, France 24, Euronews, and China Central Television.

For years, technological change has been cutting into newspaper readership and ad revenue. Short-term, the assault has been economic. Lower consumption has eaten into ads for real estate, autos, jobs appliances and department stores.

The picture is very bleak, according to “2010 State of the Media” a comprehensive report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism. According to data in the report:

  • Classified income fell 70 percent from $19.6 billion to $6 billion in the last three years. Ad revenue in general fell by 23 percent in 2007 and 2008, fell another 26 percent in 2009
  • Display ad rates started falling in mid-2007 because fewer people are buying and reading newspapers.
  • Newspaper circulation has been dropping for years and the downward curve is getting steeper. It fell 10.6 daily and 7.1 percent Sunday from 2008 to 2009. The only major paper not to lose circulation was the Wall Street Journal, which had a tiny 0.6 percent rise.
  • Readership is going down for all age groups, although readers 18 to 34 had the lowest levels. Just a little more than one-quarter of them said they had read a daily paper the day before, according to Scarborough Research. The decline is on all education levels.
  • You may think that this decline is ameliorated because younger people are replacing daily newspaper reading with reading newspaper sites on the web. Yes, unique visitors of newspaper sites were up 14 percent from the third quarter of 2008 to the third quarter of 2009—to 74 million readers, according to Nielsen Online. But the average visitor spent only about a half hour a month looking at a newspaper site.

On the supply side, however, all is not negative. Technology is neither good nor bad. It is what it is and many good new sources are springing up to fill the vacuum left as traditional U.S. newspaper correspondents vanish from Latin America.

Young U.S. journalists, who would have had to spend years working their way up to a foreign posting, can become instant free-lance foreign correspondents. With a few thousand dollars worth of lightweight video and audio equipment and a laptop, they can function quite cheaply on their own.

New digital media like GlobalPost offer the prospect of a more secure freelance role. Just two years old, GlobalPost employs more than 70 correspondents in more than 50 countries—including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Bolivia, Canada, Costa Rica and Venezuela. Major U.S. media like CBS have recently signed up to buy some of their coverage.

Then there is the model of non-profit organizations sponsoring journalists for one-time reporting projects in Latin America. Once a way for newspaper reporters with a domestic beat to spend a few months overseas, the organizations are becoming a good resource for free-lancers abroad.

The International Reporting Project, for example, gives out 32 reporting fellowships each year. It has sent 300 journalists to report in more than 85 countries. The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting has a similar model.

Blogs are increasing throughout Latin America. American readers who know Spanish or Portuguese can follow them and read daily newspapers from throughout the continent. And much is in English. Here is just a taste:

  • Non-profits like the Americas Society and the Council of the Americas aggregate news of the Americas at http://www.as-coa.org. The Inter-American Dialogue publishes a daily newsletter called the Latin American Advisor. Press can get a free subscription through thedialogue.org
  • Many journalists turn to Colombia’s Semana.com at http://www.semana.com/Home.aspx and El Tiempo at http://www.eltiempo.com/, Spain’s El País at http://www.elpais.com/global/, Nicaragua’s Confidencial at http://www.confidencial.com.ni/, and http://www.bbc.co.uk/mundo, to name just a few. During the Haiti earthquake, the Haitian diaspora was glued to http://www.signalfmhaiti.com/.
  • And if there is any doubt about the quality of these sources, please check out El Salvador’s El Faro http://elfaro.net/ (see p. 41 of print version). Last year, its young editor, Carlos Dada, published a beautifully written long-form investigation that revealed the likely assassin of Msgr. Oscar Romero on the 30th anniversary of his murder. This was journalism of the highest order.

Josh Friedman is the director of the Maria Moors Cabot Prizes at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. He is the recipient of numerous journalism awards including the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting. He did most of his newspaper reporting at Newsday and the Philadelphia Inquirer and was editor of the Soho News. Longtime board member and former chair of the Committee to Protect Journalists, he served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Costa Rica from 1964 to 1966.

See also: Journalism