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Newspapers Shrink Away from the AP and International News

By Ben L. Kaufman · October 31st, 2008 · On Second Thought

Spreading cancellations of Associated Press memberships could leave our premier international news service unable to maintain its breadth and quality.

AP is the major source of international news in our daily papers and any diminution will degrade our already dismal understanding of events beyond our borders. As a nation, we don’t know when the White House is lying about other lands and rulers or how to respond intelligently when it’s apparent that the President is telling the truth. Less news won’t make that better.

Ignorance of foreign countries and entanglements isn’t limited to readers of daily papers and TV viewers.

Ask Bush or Palin about the Khyber pass, and they’ll probably recall seeing it attempted during a Super Bowl. Ask them about a Canadian cold air mass, and they’d probably say it’s something to be celebrated.

Similarly, most Americans probably can’t tell one ‘Stan from the other on a map of South and Central Asia. Otherwise, a recent public radio satire from “Dontunnastan” wouldn’t have been funny, especially when the reporter was in its capital, “Veryverybad.”

The retreat from foreign news is not new.

Even before the Smartest Guys in the Room made billions screwing us and waved "au revoir" from their Bugatti Veyrons, our news media were rethinking traditional news judgments that put crises de jour on Page 1.

Papers are shrinking physically — smaller and/or fewer pages — and space once devoted to national or international news increasingly is replaced by local, state and regional news. This trend precedes disillusionment with the latest misadventures abroad and it goes beyond home front combat fatigue. It’s most obvious on Page 1 where foreign news yields to local news and features. Wars, famines and global warming are moving inside above food and auto ads.

If this evolving local emphasis draws and holds readers — to printed and/or online editions — that’s good; papers must deliver desirable and sufficient audiences to advertisers to survive. The problem is the quality and quantity of foreign news in the remaining space.

Among the 100 papers giving two-year cancellation notices to the AP in recent weeks are the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and Columbus Dispatch. Whether cancellations are negotiating ploys in a fee dispute or rethinking of news priorities is unclear.

I know of no substitute for AP foreign coverage. AP’s success derives in large part from its omnipresence and its agnosticism; it doesn’t take sides. I’m an overseas alumnus of AP’s former competition, United Press International. We always saw ourselves as the underdog. Whatever UPI is today, it no longer matters. Forget it.

Most American publications with foreign bureaus are closing them or cutting staff. That includes Iraq, where costs also have gutted the embed system. American broadcasters are reducing foreign bureaus to save money. Even our best broadcast sources of foreign news, National Public Radio and Public Radio International, draw heavily on the British Broadcasting Corp. World Service to complement their correspondents.

Saying that less foreign news can be mitigated by free Internet offerings misses the point: Who is going to report, edit and present that news? And if we must turn to the Internet for foreign news, will we return to local papers and/or their Internet sites after being sent to other sites?

Editors say it’s all about money. Dispatch Editor Ben Marrison says he pays at least $800,000 a year for AP and “Given the choice of maintaining our staff or AP’s service, it’s in the best interests of our operation to maintain our local reporting staff.” Nancy Barnes, editor of the financially troubled Star-Tribune, told The New York Times, “We pay in excess of $1 million a year to the AP, which is equal to 10 to 12 reporters in the newsroom.”

So far, The Enquirer is maintaining its AP membership while responding to economic realities and corporate demands by cutting its local staff. “We have not given a (cancellation) notice,” Editor Tom Callinan told CityBeat. “We're watching what is happening, and if alternatives to AP emerge that would change things.”

AP is a 162-year-old cooperative owned by more than 1,400 U.S. dailies. They pay membership dues and and share stories, whether from member-papers or by AP reporters. It also serves thousands of broadcasters, magazines, Internet sites and weeklies here and abroad.

The Times reports that the nonprofit AP made $24 million on revenue of $710 million last year, an 81% increase over the previous year. AP members provide about 25 percent of that income.

Last week, AP said there would be a broad reconsideration of its membership and pricing structures.

Still, financial problems are real among AP clients and members. Ads are fleeing dailies to other media or, as the economy responds to the credit crunch, advertisers are spending less. In the past two years, newspapers in general lost 25 percent of their ad revenue.

This is never clearer than with the ups and downs in the housing market.

Think beyond real estate ads. Think appliances. Think new carpet, drapes, lighting, lawn mowers, landscaping, etc. If people are not moving, neither are those products and services, and that is reflected in ad budgets.

Most of us don’t subscribe to a daily paper. If we rely on broadcast TV for foreign news, we know even less than Enquirer readers. Other than CNN at its best, cable TV is hardly a reliable source for foreign news.

Turning to foreign sources promises potentially valuable perspectives. On the other hand, BBC, Reuters, Agence France-Presse, Itar-Tass, Deutsche Presse Agentur, Xinhua, Middle East News Agency and other news agencies bring their biases and agendas to their work. At the risk of chauvinism, it matters whether our primary source of foreign news is reported and edited by and for American audiences. For that, I know of no substitute for AP.

Curmudgeon notes:

• The department of journalism at Ole Miss is giving its 50th annual Silver Elm to Enquirer alumnus Ronnie Agnew, executive editor of the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger. The Silver Em goes to a Mississippi native who excels outside the state or a Mississippi-based journalist who has contributed to journalism within its borders. Agnew, also an Ole Miss alumnus, is both. I know, because he was my editor. The Clarion-Ledger is the state’s largest paper. Other Silver Elm recipients include the late Turner Catledge, who became managing editor of The New York Times; Jack Nelson, former Washington bureau chief of The Los Angeles Times, and William Raspberry, former columnist for The Washington Post.

• Cincinnatibeacon.com links to a fascinating federal court libel judgment involving a story in the alternative weekly Cleveland Scene and Edward Patrick, a physician who claims to be co-developer of the Heimlich Maneuver.

• Publishers increasingly betray their class: More and more, they’re endorsing Obama. Do they know he’s a Democrat? That he’s blacker than almost all of their reporters? This tsunami even carried away The Chicago Tribune, infamous for its “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline. The Enquirer, however, did not join the rush to the Left. It endorsed McCain, as expected, with virtually no mention of Palin. Recalls the Nixon era with Spiro Agnew as veep. Americans earnestly prayed for the health of the president.

The Enquirer says PNC money lenders are using most of our $7.7 billion bailout to buy National City. I guess that makes PNC too big to fail ... but if National City stockholders get that taxpayer money, how does it ease the credit crunch and shore up troubled mortgages?

• Polls might be useful to candidates, but news stories about those snapshots do nothing to advance the public’s knowledge and understanding of issues or candidates’ policies and proposals. Poll results are easy to report and they give the impression of informed coverage. In effect, they’re free filler and they satisfy editors’ need for winners and losers.

• I’m still disappointed by the poverty of local reporting about who, what, when, where of Tristate presidential campaign efforts. Rallies and fund-raisers don’t suffice. What are black Republicans doing here? What are Hillary’s backers doing? Who housed Obama workers from other states? What kinds of bizarre encounters are voter registration volunteers reporting?

• James Pilcher is doing a good job on the Enquirer business pages relating Obama/McCain proposals to reality in the Tristate. His editor, Carolyn Pione, produced smart coverage of a trip to Minneapolis and the possibilities of learning something from its business and public policy decisions.

• We don’t know if the Secret Service questioned anyone for shouting “terrorist” or “off with his head” or “kill him” when Palin or McCain mentioned Obama’s name but we’re getting an insight into why we don’t know more about audience members who voiced those sentiments. National reporters weren’t allowed to talk to them. Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan told the independent, nonprofit ProPublica.org that the Secret Service sometimes separates reporters with credentials to cover the event — known as the pool — from the general public at rallies for all candidates. That is for logistical and security reasons, he said, without explaining what threat the reporters posed for Real ‘Merkans. “Being in a press pool gives them special access, but the other side is that they have to stay together. They keep national press away from the local press for the same reason.” Uh, yeah. What reason?

• Kathleen Parker is the smartest syndicated op-ed columnist in The Enquirer. Recently, she called on Sarah Palin to withdraw from the ticket, saying Palin’s unprepared to be vice president or president. More recently, she defended columnist/author Christopher Buckley’s endorsement of Obama and Buckley’s resignation from the National Review, the lynchpin in the modern conservative movement founded by Buckley’s late father. Parker applauded the younger Buckley’s willingness to follow his father: think for himself and act according to his principles. Parker’s argument ran Oct. 18. She honors principled conservatives but scorches others who shelter under that banner.

• Dan Horn’s latest Enquirer stories on partisan and sometimes personal infighting on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati are a keen reminder of a president’s lasting legacy. Every federal judge is a partisan lifetime presidential appointee who has been confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Today, the 6th Circuit has a majority of judges appointed by Republican presidents. Because so few cases are accepted by the U.S. Supreme Court, the 6th Circuit effectively is our supreme court when it comes to interpreting the law, its earlier decisions and Supreme Court opinions.

Every president and presidential candidate promises to appoint judges who will be true to the Constitution and will eschew activism or legislating from the bench. However, liberals and conservatives often view the essential nature of the Constitution differently and this becomes clear when they are asked to interpret legislation and apply precedents. As Dan noted, in some decisions, the 6th Circuit divides in ways that reflect the party of the president who appointed them. Similarly, “activism” and “legislating from the bench” usually mean something with which a speaker disagrees rather than anything intrinsic to Democrats or Republicans. On the personal level, it should be no surprise that conflicts arise in the intimacy of the court among strong, bright and opinionated judges trying to cope with sometimes life and death issues.

• It’s time to explain to writers and editors at UC’s student paper, The News Record, that UC is not in Clifton. A bannered opinion piece last Thursday (“Advantages to living in Clifton”) asks whether Clifton “is capable of housing one of the biggest universities in the country.” No problem. UC is not in Clifton. Clifton is north of Dixmyth Avenue. There is no hospital or university in Clifton.

Further proof of the writer’s confusion was this line, "On your way back to Clifton, you’ll see the Esquire Theater on Ludlow Avenue..." Wrong again. Esquire is in Clifton. All of Ludlow Avenue is in Clifton. You can’t be on Ludlow Avenue "on your way back to Clifton." Finally, the opinion writer suggests that there are 37,000 students on the main campus. Not so. That number includes all of the campuses, including colleges distant from the main campus. UC says its “uptown” campuses have 29,000-plus students. It’s not a new problem. Nor is it unique to the News Record journalists. Still, it might be time for a News Record initiation rite in which new staff members walk hand-in-hand around the campus, checking the signs that define where neighborhoods start.

• What explains reporters’ fascination with former Weatherman bomber Bill Ayers and the failure to pay the same attention to G. Gordon Liddy, a central figure in the Watergate scandal that threatened far greater damage to the Republic than a few scary bombers? Both men are unrepentant. Each tried to undermine our democracy. Each has found productive work since leaving prison. So what’s the big deal? How does McCain elude sustained attention to his ties to Liddy and Cincinnati’s Charlie Keating while Obama can't shake news media fascination with Ayers. And why did it take David Letterman to confront McCain about Liddy while the national news media danced away from the subject?

• Thank Palin’s GOP handlers for their shopping sense and her makeup artist’s bill: They probably buried continuing, sneering reference to Democrat John Edwards’ $400 haircut. Now, pray, may we talk about the country’s problems and candidates’ plans for helping the rest of us cope?

• News media haven't so much cast Barack Obama in a favorable light as they have portrayed John McCain in a substantially negative way, according to the nonpartisan Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. Other findings: Treatment of Obama has been somewhat more positive than negative but not markedly so, and coverage of McCain has been heavily unfavorable and has become more so over time. In the six weeks following the conventions through the final debate, unfavorable stories about McCain outweighed favorable ones by a factor of more than three to one — the most unfavorable of all four candidates.

• Speaking of willful ignorance among national news media, Harvard’s Nieman Watchdog journalism web site gives Sydney Schanberg a chance to ask why reporters ignore McCain’s public, active, continuing role in suppressing interest in missing POWs in Vietnam. Schanberg details the coverup in The Nation and its Web site.

• “Joe the Plumber” did not deserve the intrusive media scrutiny after the presidential debate. It was his bad luck to be caught on camera when he asked Obama a legitimate hypothetical question about the Senator’s tax plan. Now we know that he has no plumber’s license and owes back taxes.

• AP Senior Managing Editor Mike Silverman lauds reporter Adam Goldman for tracking down and interviewing elusive Levi Johnston, the 18-year-old who describes himself as the “fuckin’ redneck” father of Bristol Palin's baby. Goldman was enterprising, but who cares?

• Denver-based MediaNews is considering eliminating copy editors at its 54 dailies and combining their functions into one overseas center (read India). Maybe it’s too late to argue for more and better copy editing, given the growing pressure for copy editors to add headlines to unread stories and shovel them into pages. Imagine an editor in Bangalore changing a reporter’s reference to the “field” at Mile High Stadium to “pitch” (as in cricket) or high school soccer to “football.” I won’t even go into the scatological/sexual misunderstandings common among American-speakers and British/Indian English-speakers. Let’s just say that “felicitate” might provide pleasure to the giver and receiver but, like President Clinton’s encounter with “that woman, Miss Lewinski,” it does not involve sex.

CONTACT BEN KAUFMAN: letters@citybeat.com



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