CAIRO, Egypt — A few years ago, I was told by the OpEd editor of The Baltimore Sun that his newspaper would no longer publish guest columns addressing international topics.
The paper was, and still is, hemorraghing readers, and the editor was told by the paper’s bosses to publish political and social commentaries relating only to matters facing the Baltimore community or other parts of Maryland. By focusing on hyperlocal topics in the community, this strategy goes, anemic news organizations can provide local citizens news they can’t get anywhere else, leaving international news coverage to thousands of online sites.
The editor meant what he said. While I’d previously written OpEd pieces for the Sun from Jordan, Egypt and the U.S. covering Arab-U.S. politics, the Sun hasn’t run one of my columns since.
I summon this anecdote not because of bitterness toward the Sun — which was doing what it thought best to postpone its closure — but because such actions by news organizations are perpetuating a misconception that American interest in and, therefore, the marketability of, international news is dying.
Quite the opposite. A number of indicators suggest consumption of international news is rising in the U.S. and, accordingly, the 21st-century journalist needs to become fond of studying global markets, geopolitics and foreign languages.
Watch the NBC Nightly News in a vacuum and you may be blissfully unalerted to oppression in Tibet, genocide in the Eastern Congo or growing anti-Islamic fervor in Western Europe. But NBC’s resistance to covering such important topics is because doing so is expensive, not because Americans reject global news.
The reality is that many increasingly popular news outlets in the United States are global information powerhouses, and successful modern reporters will be those able to best deconstruct our globalized world.
Circulation of The Economist, one of the most globally comprehensive publications on earth, is up 152 percent in North America over the last 10 years. The website of Foreign Policy magazine draws between 6 million and 7 million hits every month, of which millions are delivered by Americans at home and abroad. GlobalPost exceeded an inaugural-year goal of 600,000 unique visitors in a period of one month by attracting 750,000 unique visitors in November and again in February, which was noted in profiles by The Washington Post and World Editors Forum weblog.
The list goes on. The BBC is the 64th most-visited website in the United States, according to the web movement tracking site Alexa. The BBC isn’t America’s 64th most popular news site. Website. The world’s newspaper, The New York Times, is America’s newspaper, too. NPR, a determined international news provider, drew audiences of 33.7 million listeners a week in the fall of 2008 according to Arbitron, a new record for the public radio juggernaut.
(Read another perspective about how The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, two industry holdouts, are falling victim to the stock strategy of denuding foreign coverage in favor of profit margins.)
And popularity of global news outlets is only expected to increase. “The emergence of global media [is] expected to grow tremendously over the next several decades,” writes First Amendment scholar and Columbia University President Lee Bollinger in his thoughtful book “Uninhibited, Robust, and Wide-Open.”
Journalists, therefore, had better go global or go nowhere.
In 1991, in the third publication of his acclaimed book “Precision Journalism,” eventual professor emeritus of journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill Philip Meyer noticed that “they’re raising the ante on what it takes to become a journalist.”
Meyer was referring to rising journalistic standards and foreshadowed the technological demands that would be heaped on newsmakers that decade. Standard journalistic training became inadequate; all young newsmakers needed to also study web design, photo-editing, even video production. The ante was upped. (Disclosure: Meyer was a mentor of mine in graduate school.)
We’ve known about these elevated technological stakes in journalism now for more than 10 years, but it has recently become clear that the expectations for young newsmakers have grown still. Successful young journalists must be not only well-trained digital multi-taskers, but also multi-cultural, multi-lingual and well-traveled reporters.
Choose whatever bookshelf cliche you like — The World is Flat, ours is a Post-American World, etc. — American industries are increasingly reliant on global connectivity, and journalism is no different.
“Given the rapid changes in the world due to globalization, where we have far less understanding than we need, and given the insufficiency of both political and academic institutions to deal well with what is happening,” Bollinger writes, “the press and journalism should take on a greater-than-usual role in helping us to figure out what issues we need to address.”
I’m aware of journalists’ critical need to go global not only because I teach international journalism, but also because I’ve felt this pressure. I began studying Arabic seven years ago while a graduate student in journalism, because I knew I had to develop global skills to survive in the ultra-competitive digital age. My point here is not to pat my back, but to highlight this truth: The modest success I’ve had in journalism has been due to just 10 percent talent and 90 percent global embrace.
An increasingly borderless 21st-century journalism requires greater understanding of macroeconomics, foreign affairs and in-demand languages. Young reporters don’t need to necessarily spend years in Beijing and Mumbai and be fluent in Mandarin and Hindi in order to succeed (although that wouldn’t hurt), but neither is it enough anymore to spend four years in Syracuse or Berkeley studying what’s become a global craft in domestic isolation. Journalism isn’t dying, it’s just going global like everything else.
The ante has been elevated. The pen and the passport are now necessary companions.
Justin D. Martin is a journalism professor at The American University in Cairo. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.