Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Will Anyone Care If The New York Times Never Files A Foreign Affairs Story?

There's been a lot of noise in the last few months about the impact of the internet on the future of journalism. The basic point that has been made is that in this new-age digital environment, newspapers and "old" media can't survive, because their content is distributed for free. They pay a lot for the production of information (i.e. journalists' salaries, expenses and so on) and get nothing for it. Ergo, they're going out of business, so much so that there is a website that chronicles these stories at the convenient location of www.newspaperdeathwatch.com. Seriously.

One issue that comes up is a complaint by journalists that blogs and the wider internet world are helping put newspapers out of business, but are going to regret the day when newspapers aren't around to do their work for them. And to an extent, that's true. Newspapers do fulfill an incredibly important role -- especially national newspapers. But I think journalists overstate the extent to which this will matter.

Consider that self-serving hand-wringing from establishment media outlets usually centers on the high cost of gathering news abroad. We are told it is not cheap to send correspondents to Sarajevo or Baghdad or Shanghai or whatever. Ok, I accept that. But I don't think I care. In particular, as someone who reads a lot of news from various sources, I can't say I will especially miss their foreign news coverage were it to disappear tomorrow. On the issue of Pakistan, which I know best but I'm sure there are other cases, I usually end up shaking my head at how wrong and ill-informed these reports really are.

Why do I know they're wrong and ill-informed? Because I read the Pakistani press, which if you think about it, might be a better source of information on Pakistan than the NYT. Do you see where I'm getting here? Why should I have the NYT or CNN tell me what's going on in Bosnia or Pakistan or India or Singapore or Iceland or wherever? I can just read newspapers and blogs from Bosnia, Pakistan, India, Singapore, Iceland or wherever.

Look, I love journalists. I think they play an important role in having a well-informed public. But to be honest, it's not as if we're never treated to serious dereliction of duties from them. And it's not as if they're not wrong an awful lot. And they really tend to inflate their self-worth; they're not really as important as they think they are. As long as the countries I care about have a viable national press (and no one seems to be suggesting the death of journalism to that great an extent), I think I'll be ok.

What do you guys think? Am I being too flippant about the demise of foreign-based journalism?

19 comments:

sabaimtiaz said...

Inasmuch as I often find myself praying and hoping that NYT never files a story on Pakistan again - I wouldn't necessarily agree with you.

Foreign news organizations have often been leaps ahead of their Pakistani counterparts in terms of investigative stories and coverage. Plus this is a two-way road: as you pointed out earlier, the ISI gave an exclusive briefing to the NYT, knowing that the impact it would have being carried in the paper would far outmatch Pakistani papers. Sad but true.

And as far as countries having a viable national press go...is that really the case in Iran (hence the importance of foreign newspapers there) or even in Pakistan?

Ahsan said...

Saba:

Let me deal with each objection in step.

"Foreign news organizations have often been leaps ahead of their Pakistani counterparts in terms of investigative stories and coverage."
-->Not really. Their "investigative" stories involve people from the ISI talking off the record. That's not investigative journalism. That's being a mouthpiece for a certain agenda without accountability. Trust me, if the NYT wasn't around, the ISI would find someone else to leak stuff to. Maybe even Dawn.

"Plus this is a two-way road: as you pointed out earlier, the ISI gave an exclusive briefing to the NYT, knowing that the impact it would have being carried in the paper would far outmatch Pakistani papers."
-->Exactly. It was a briefing. It involved no journalism on the NYT's part. It was a political ruse from the ISI. Is that what journalism now is? To be a message-carrying medium for intelligence organizations for coded messages to foreign governments? I think I'd live without it just fine, thanks.

"And as far as countries having a viable national press go...is that really the case in Iran (hence the importance of foreign newspapers there) or even in Pakistan?
-->Yes, I think so. Pakistan's national press, for all the fun we make of it, is pretty good. They get us info, and they criticize their government more than the American press has ever criticized theirs. As for Iran, all the info in the last 2 months on their election and the aftermath has come from Iranian sources (tweets and the like). Has the NYT or Washington Post or CNN broken anything of consequence in Iran? I don't think so, though I'd be happy to be proved wrong.

By the way, as an aside, let me clarify that I think the NYT is a great newspaper. It's just that I think I could live happily without their international coverage. And that goes double for all other establishment media outlets.

bubs said...

Ahsan: The Pakistan correspondents for foreign papers are usually the best local journalists. They can often file investigate stories for these foreign papers that local papers refuse to carry. Zahid Hussain broke the Qayyum wiretapping story in The London Times because local papers wouldn't print them. Journalists are also far more likely to get sources willing to speak to them and high-level interviews if they are representing foreign papers.

And its really convenient to have one place where you can get comprehensive foreign news. I find The Economist hopelessly glib and uninformed on subjects I actually know something about but, despite the shallowness of their stories, the breadth of their coverage is still really impressive.

Ahsan said...

Bubs:

Fine, fair point on the "best local journalists having a voice" point. But I think those stories are few and far between.

The Economist and BBC are exceptions to my point above -- I really like both of them and wish for them to continue. I don't know about the financial picture of BBC, but I do know that the Economist is doing just fine, as journalism collapses around them. Some might say this is fair, given they produce a product no one else comes close to replicating. So maybe there's a lesson there for the journalistic world: don't produce crap and people will value you (though this is slightly unfair, given top-notch publications like the New Yorker are in trouble).

Anonymous said...

stop hating on bubs alright?

sabaimtiaz said...

Ahsan, the briefing was just an example to prove the weight foreign news organizations still carry in Pakistan. Most of the major interviews of Pakistani politicians/leaders that have anything 'new' to offer are usually carried by foreign news orgs. They just have more credence for the interviewees, and it often makes you think why can't the same politicians give the same interviews to Pakistani media organizations? And as far as I know the ISI does give briefings to Pakistani news organizations as well: how often are they reported?

Unfortunately what has steeped into most news coverage of Pakistan at least is this extreme bias - as you said, the ISI perspective, or a complete lack of knowledge of things on the ground, which is what NYT has specialized in.

That said, coverage of Pakistan by the Guardian or Al Jazeera has been far better than a lot of Pakistani news outlets, where reporting on so many issues is still coated in a bunch of agendas and self-censorship.

FZ said...

I think you need to make a distinction between US papers and the rest of the world. The model in the US is dead and was never really reliant on good journalism, least of all good foreign coverage (Exhibit A - USA Today).

I would say that the news aspect was killed by both the internet and 24 hour news. However, what really killed them from a business standpoint was the migration of advertising to new media (classifieds in your local paper are now almost thing of the past).

I know this is not the point of your post, but I think there is a very good chance that a majority of newspapers (perhaps even the vast majority) in the US will cease to exist over the next 10 years - so you better used to it. The few that remain may well further reduce international coverage. It is a secular change and may well not be fixable.

Saba,

True Pakistani media has a bunch of agendas, but I'd hope you wouldn't point that out after praising the Guardian & Al Jazeera!!- they both have very pointed agendas that are evident in there reporting (more so the Guardian).

sabaimtiaz said...

FZ, Pakistani agendas get me more riled up than any Guardian and Al Jazeera have.

And there are some interesting articles on Foreign Policy today that you should read about the Al Jazeera director general's visit to Washington DC this week. Interesting perspective on how Al Jazeera works.

karachi khatmal said...

hmmm

for local stories, like for example water in karachi, no one can beat a local guy.

but this national level stuff, i haven't heard of many investigative things coming out in the recent past (discounting of course the brilliant farah dogar expose)... almost every major journalist seems to rely on his 'contacts' in one big place or another...

perhaps the focus of news in the new media would become increasingly localized, while foreign stuff would be fed off the major wires, where most papers get their international stories (and agendas) from anyways.

karachi khatmal said...

also FZ has perhaps the most valid point here, that it is the business model which will eventually decide where journalism goes from here...

even broadcast doesn't have it quite figured out, and neither does the new media it seems.

Danish said...

I get my news on Pakistan from a variety of sources and shake my head at it too.

However, if it was not for the BBC and NYT, who would misinform me about events in Brazil, Zimbabwe, or China?

Raza said...

Not so much the content, but the gora angle on local events is still important. Us (the non-gora audience) needs to know what goras think about us.

Plus, some of the best reporting on Paksitan has come from foreign media outlets i.e. Nick Scmidle's Salon piece on the Radio Mullah, Gretchen Peters ABC report on Taliban's drug money.

Foreign news media also bring a certain professional rigor to reportage that is glaringly absent from Paki media. (I straight up don't trust 90% of the sources cited in Paki papers).

Last, I don't think anything does more to piss off expat Pakistanis about their country than foreign news coverage. And as much as we hate it, we need that once in a while.

Ahsan said...

Danish:

The NYT could still inform you about Brazil, Zimbabwe and China by functioning as a news aggregator website. It could draw upon local sources and blogs from those countries. Analysis could be offered by op-edders and people familiar with those countries, certainly more familiar than the NYT's reporters are.

Raza:

Couple of points. First, we will still get the western angle on things from politicians and leaders. The media generally coalesces around what those in power think anyway, because they're fed leaks and so on.

Second, I agree that some of the best reporting on Pakistan is from foreign sources but some of the worst reporting on Pakistan is also done from foreign sources. Schmidle, by the way, was a freelance journalist, which sort of proves my point -- you don't need the organizational backing of the NYT to do a good job. And people like that will always exist.

For everyone:

I should emphasize that I'm not arguing for the dissolution of foreign news media; I'm not saying I want them to go. But what I am saying is that if budgetary/technological issues force them to go of their own accord, then it's not going to be the end of the world as far as getting information about other countries is concerned.

takhalus said...

you can't discount the role of the foreign media as some of the above posters have said..don't forget the Mukhtaran Mai case and remember the Musharraf "rape for visa story"?

I agree though traditional media is dying..

Anonymous said...

Ahsan,

You are speaking for a news junkie like you who would go great lenghts to find a reliable blog about Brazil or Iran. The vast majority of people (non news junkies) would rather get it from their most trusted source such as Nytimes.

Kalsoom said...

Ahsan,

What's your opinion on the Christian Science Monitor's reporting? I had a friend that was a reporter for them (a local I suppose) but I think Ben Arnoldy has been coming out with some good pieces on Pakistan.

Farooq said...

Interesting post. Im looking forward to a similar one by Bubs.

Oh wait, thats right... cant look forward to Bubs' posts anymore.

Oh well, maybe NB will have an interesting write up in 2011.

saesneg said...

I know what you're saying Ahsan, but I think foreign correspondents do add value to news from the region. While the internet has opened access to a wide variety of English-language news in South Asia, that doesn't necessairly mean that Dave Jones of Bristol is going to understand what Pak or Indian journals may take for granted is assumed knowledge.

For example, and this really isn't a criticism of the Pak press, but Indian TV & press are terrible for using endless amounts of abbreviations which to western eyes will mean nothing. Foreign correspondents have the space to step back and explain what they know their audiences will not understand, and relate it in terms that they do - something that is out of the remit of a national newspaper aimed at Pakistan. They also have a little more room, than beat reporters to analyse a story properly and are under less pressure to rush something out half baked. I think you ignore the output of the NYT, the Guardian, the BBC and others at your peril - this goes for the agencies as well who've written some of the best articles on the IDP situation in the last few months.

Having said all that, it is brilliant that we can now read the local press and there is a lot you do get from Dawn, The News and Express 24/7 that foreign correspondents just don't have the time or inclination to deal with. The Karachi loadshedding/monsoon situation is a good example of a story that wouldn't be of interest to the international press. It sits outside of the commonly held discourse on Pakistan and doesn't tickle editors looking for the next story on the Taliban. The IDP story hasn't even played much of a tune in the world press, which may go some way to explaining why aid revenues were not as forthcoming as they could have been. It's in Dawn and elsewhere that you get the other side of Pakistan away from the militants, and I think its important to keep an eye on both.

Ahsan said...

Takhalus:

Local media broke the Mukhtaran Mai story, as I recall. Kristof (NYT columnist) made it famous, but it was already known to people who care about Pakistan.

Anon817:

You don't have to be a news junkie to read blogs from disparate sources. Places like nytimes.com are doing an excellent job of collating blogs and sources from all over the world. If you go back to the NYT's coverage of the Iran election/revolution thing, their blog aggregator had much better news than their actual reporters. By my reckoning, good blogs and online sources can work hand in hand with traditional outlets like the NYT.

Kalsoom:

To be honest, I haven't read CSM's stuff on Pakistan since leaving college in 06. Just fell off my radar, though I remember they were pretty good.

Saesneg:

Yeah, the forest for the trees thing is a fair point.