The New York Times recently said that it would bring in a dozen international op-ed writers as it reintroduces the International Herald Tribune as The International New York Times next week. This is undoubtedly good news. But while hiring op-ed writers is an excellent way to start a dialogue on international issues, it is a poor substitute to having international bureaus.
Recently, I heard Ethan Zuckerman, the director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT speak at the Columbia Journalism School on New Civics, New News.
“What we are basically finding is that there is no public dialogue, online or offline,” he said, discussing his research on Trayvon Martin. He ridiculed the idea of unbiased journalism said that opinions were necessary in news and civics, which are passive instead of participatory.
Zuckerman must be happy with the New York Times decision, and so am I.
But while the internet may have a plethora of voices today, from journalists and non-journalists, let's not forget that we are still lacking in foreign reporting, and companies including the New York Times have cut back on foreign bureaus, which causes a major setback for op-ed writers and news devourers.
A 2011 report by the American Journalism Review found that the number of foreign correspondents employed by U.S. newspapers has decreased drastically since 2003. The New York Times Company was one of the companies to trim foreign bureaus to save costs. According to the report, the they had 24 bureaus in 2011, a cutback from 27 in 2003. Other outlets, like the LA Times cut bureaus from 24 in 2003 to 13 in 2011.
Two questions I have are:
1. How am I to understand an op-ed written by a international writer, when I don’t have don’t have enough news online to understand the subject?
2. Is an international op-ed writer expected to write only about highly publicized news that is viral in some means? In the case of Pakistan, should an op-ed writer talk only about Malala or the Taliban?
If you look at the list of new foreign op-ed writers compiled by the NY Times, most of them are scholars, novelists, academics, and column writers. Very few of them are reporters on ground that deliver local news.
One could make the argument that the locals of international countries who are reading the NY Times op-ed pieces already know of what's happening on the ground, but only 10% of the NY Times audience is outside the U.S., which means the op-eds will be mostly read by English-speaking Americans, although NY Times editorial Page Editor Andrew Rosenthal does hope that an increase in international op-ed writers means an increase in an international audience.
To make sense of news, we need news. Yes, all countries have local news outlets that give an extensive coverage, but not everyone has made the move to the world of digital journalism. Different nations also publish in different languages, which makes access in English more difficult.
Look at the op-ed pages in the NY Times right now. There is a lot about Obamacare, the government shutdown, and internet security — all topics that have been extensively covered by western mainstream media outlets, online and print.
When was the last time you heard about the rising food prices in Nepal because of a national festival, money transfer and banking restrictions in Somalia because of al-Shaaab, or the many problems in the Maldives presidential elections?
Perhaps the NY Times needs to also focus on opening more international bureaus, and if that does not make good business sense, find another way to cover local international news extensively — through more freelancers, partnerships with local news companies, more translators ... whatever it takes.
Hiring op-ed writers has many positives, but it should not be a substitute to having more international bureaus.